Comedy comes in all shapes and sizes, from the erudite to the crude. At the far extreme of the comedy spectrum is slapstick, a form of knockabout humour, often featuring horseplay, exploiting ridiculous situations and carrying the menace of violence. In the hands of masters of the form, like the Marx Brothers, The Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy and more recently Rowan Atkinson in the guise of Mr Bean, as well as that seaside favourite, The Punch and Judy show, it can be an effective and amusing form of comedy, more so than the politically correct, virtue signalling, diatribes that pass as comedy now.
The origin of the word is straightforward. In the period between the 16th and 18th centuries, one of the dramatic forms that flourished, initially in Italy. Possibly in Venice, and then through other European countries was the Commedia dell’Arte. It was known over here as Italian comedy. A mix of scripted dialogue and improvisation, it featured stock characters, each with their distinctinctive costumes. The harlequin, known as Arlecchino, carried a stick with which to assault some of the other players.
When physical assaults on actors were considered to be a breach of even the rudimentary ‘elf and safety standards that prevailed at the time, assaults were mimed, and the accompanying sounds were created backstage. To achieve that satisfying whacking sound, a device was developed, consisting of two flat pieces of wood, joined together at one end. It made a glorious noise and was given a vaguely onomatopoeic name, the slapstick.
As it was normally deployed in pantomimes and other forms of what were termed as “low comedies”, the name of the instrument was attributively given to that type of drama, sometimes used adjectively with the addition of comedy. A rather lukewarm review of a play called The Kindergarten appeared in The Cincinnati Enquirer on April 27, 1885; “as a satire we must in justice pronounce it a failure, but as the vehicle for the introduction of lots of fun of the slap-stick order the “thing” jogs along as merrily as the old one-horse shay”.
The temptation to enhance the sound produced by a slapstick was sometimes too much for enterprising showmen to resist, occasionally with unintended and potentially lethal results. The Chicago Sunday Tribune on May 31, 1908, reported an incident involving a clown, James Balno, at New York’s Hippodrome. “A slapstick with a blank cartridge between the boards”, it noted, “was to be used in the act, and to test it Balno struck it against the edge of a door. The cartridge exploded and a piece of the metal shot into Balno’s shoulder, severing an artery”. Balno lived to tell the tale.
By the start of the 20th century the word was beginning to be used as a noun to describe a farce or a piece of drama that relied on physical humour. The New York Times, on May 1, 1904, reported that “boys have laughed at their slapsticks, literal and linguistic”. The composer, Gustav Mahler, gave the slapstick an air of respectability when he scored an appearance for it in the original version of his Sixth Symphony.
As early as the second decade of the 20th century, the demise of slapstick was being signalled, the Albuquerque Evening Herald, on August 29, 1912, reporting the views of a movie actor, John Bunny, had him opining that “comic cinematograph scenes will hereafter turn from the prevailing style of slapstick humour towards the subtler laugh”. Mercifully, he was wrong.