There are two definitions for “slapstick,” though one derives from the other.

A “slap stick” is a paddle designed to produce a loud whacking sound, formerly used by performers in farces. “Slapstick” is a type of physical comedy characterized by broad humor, absurd situations, chases, collisions, and crude practical jokes.

The name “slapstick” comes from the Italian word batacchio — or “slap stick” in English. It’s made of two wooden slats. When struck against something, it produces a loud smacking noise, but very little force. Actors may thus hit one another repeatedly with great audible effect while causing very little actual physical damage. Along with the inflatable bladder (of which the whoopee cushion is a modern variant), it was among the earliest special effects in theater.

The slapstick comic, more than a mere funnyman or buffoon, must often be an acrobat, a stunt performer, and something of a magician—a master of uninhibited action and perfect timing. The rough-and-tumble of slapstick has been a part of low comedy and farce since ancient times, having been a prominent feature of Greek and Roman mime, in which bald-pated, heavily padded clowns exchanged quips and beatings to the delight of the audience.

The Renaissance produced the athletic zanies of the commedia dell’arte and even rougher clowns, such as the hunchbacked, hook-nosed, wife-beating Pulcinella, who survives today as the Punch of children’s puppet shows.

Shakespeare incorporated many chase scenes and beatings into his comedies, such as in his play The Comedy of Errors. 

Slapstick was popular in English and American music halls and vaudeville theatres of the late 19th century; such English stars as George Formby and Gracie Fields carried its popularity well into the 20th century. In motion pictures, comedians Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Mack Sennett’s Keystone Kops introduced such classic routines as the mad chase scene and pie throwing, often made doubly wild by speeding up the camera action. And let’s not forget Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, and the Three Stooges, whose stage careers predated their films and whose films were frequently revived beginning in the 1960s and were affectionately imitated by modern comedy directors. The best of the slapstick comedians may be said to have turned low humour into high art.

Slapstick continues to maintain a presence in modern comedy: Buster Keaton to Mel Brooks to the television series Jackass, and in live performance from Weber and Fields to Jackie Gleason to Rowan Atkinson. In England, slapstick was a main element of the Monty Python comedy troupe and in television series such as Fawlty Towers and The Benny Hill Show. Slapstick has remained a popular art form to the present day.

It’s not popular with me, but I found it interesting to learn how long it’s been around.

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