When my stand-up doesn’t go well, I tend to get reviews calling it “a nice effort”, “slapstick”, and even “avant-garde”. (If you’ve never heard Yoko Ono sing, I don’t think you know what avant-garde is!) It’s common for “slapstick” to be used to describe poorly executed comedy, which is wrong.
I have great admiration for slapstick comedy. It is a highly choreographed craft that takes practice to execute, as seen in the 1935 film Hoi Polloi where The Three Stooges are taught to dance. This is how the scene plays out:
The teacher sets up the scene. “In order to become good dancers, you must follow me closely and do exactly as I do. Do you understand?” Everyone nods. The teacher twirls and says, “One, two, three, dip. Now can you do it?” The Three Stooges try to mimic her, but crash into each other at “dip”. Moe, caught in the middle, looks angrily at Curly and Larry. The teacher continues counting, and they crash into each other again. Moe slaps Curly. Larry slaps Moe. Not missing a beat, Moe slaps Larry and Curly threatens to quit. Moe holds Curly back, makes fisticuffs, and says, “Put up your hands.” Curly surrenders and Moe slaps him across the face. Curly reacts with a shriek, and Moe slaps Curly again, Larry slaps Moe, and Moe slaps Larry. Curly starts to walk away. Moe stops him, saying, “Put your hand on your ear.” Curly does as he says, and Moe pulls his arm, making Curly pull his own ear back to his first position.
As she resets the scene, a bee flies into the teacher’s dress. She does a silly dance, which The Three Stooges imitate. Suddenly, everyone is doing cartwheels and somersaults. All Three Stooges, led by their teacher, end up crashing through a window and landing in a fountain below. Moe gets up and spits water out of his mouth. Moe pokes Curly in the eyes, Curly spits water on Moe, Moe slaps him, and Curly makes his signature “blublublubu” noise.
The entire sequence lasts only a minute and 33 seconds, but the comedy timing is impeccable. Does this mean that slapstick is only achievable in an ensemble comedy? No. The solo slapstick piece of Mr Bean rushing to the dentist is also amazing. Does this mean that slapstick involves very physical pieces? Wrong again!
Even in dialogue-driven sitcoms, slapstick pieces, when done well, are brilliant. One of my favourite examples happens in Friends. The context is Rachel has just given birth to her baby with then-friend Ross. Ross finds out that Joey has “accidentally” proposed to Rachel, and is now upset with Joey. Rachel asks Ross to get her a muffin after retrieving diapers from the hospital. The following scene ensues.
Ross enters Central Perk with a bag of diapers. The magic starts when Joey enters looking remorseful. Ross ignores Joey. He grabs a bag of muffins. Joey says he didn’t do anything wrong, which upsets Ross.
Ross drops both bags on a table and delivers the line: “Let’s put aside the fact that you ‘accidentally’ picked up my grandmother’s ring and you ‘accidentally’ proposed to Rachel…” He gestures with air quotes. Joey interrupts Ross mid-sentence and says: “Look, let me stop you right there for a second. When people do this [gestures with air quotes], I don’t really know what it means.” Ross looks shocked as Joey crosses his arms. The scene cuts to a medium shot, re-establishing Joey and Ross’ position separated by the table with the two bags on it.
“I’m… ‘Sorry’!” Joey says looking guilty as he gestures with air quotes. Ross retorts, “Not using it right, Joe.” Joey moves his air quotes closer to Ross’ face and whispers, “Sorry!” “I’m gonna go,” Ross sighs as he picks up the bag of diapers, but not before Joey snatches the bag of muffins and says, “Come on. Look Ross, we have to get past this!” Ross demands that he hand over the bag and circles the table. Joey says no and goes in the other direction. Joey suggests Ross hit him as he walks backwards towards a pillar.
“I’m not going to hit you,” Ross replies. “Why not? You know you want to. I can see it in your eyes!” Joey teases. Ross smiles for the first time. “No, I don’t.” Joey prods, “A little bit.” “No.” “A little bit.” “No!” “A little bit more…” Ross finally snaps, “Give me the bag.” The exchange builds to a crescendo where Ross raises a fist to punch Joey who ducks. Ross ends up punching the pillar and drops the bag of diapers while stifling a scream.
Ross yells at Joey, “You ducked!” A remorseful Joey says, “I’m sorry! It was a reflex!” Ross holds his fist. Joey tries to explain, “I couldn’t help it. When a fist comes at your face, you duck! Look!” He punches Ross in the face.
“What’s the matter with you? You were supposed to duck!” Ross says they can talk about it on the way to the hospital, gesturing at his injured fist. Joey picks up the bag of diapers. “Good, maybe they can check your reflexes.” Joey then accidentally slams the door on Ross’ injured fist. Joey, doe-eyed, raises his hands to his face, one bag in each hand, does an air quote, and mouths, “Oops.”
Good slapstick is good comedy, and a good comedian will have many tools in his shed. Some comedians are exceptional impersonators, some have very strong physicality, and some are really good at act outs. But when you watch a comedian resorting to silly physical antics, it is technically slapstick, but bad slapstick, and bad slapstick is bad comedy. Give slapstick artists the respect that they deserve and take it away from the comedians who do bad comedy. Call it as it is. When we start appreciating different forms of comedy, we’ll grow, because the comedy industry isn’t just about the comedians, it’s about you too.