by Ellen Buikema
Three main categories of comedy, often used in combination, are:
Situational comedy involves characters, environment, and events. One, two, or all of these will need to be comedic in order to make the humor work.
Verbal and physical humor build up comical circumstances. Verbal comedy sometimes implies physical comedy without acting out the physical events. Each category offers something different.
Physical comedy is an ancient form of expression. The audience secretly delights in the misfortune or pain of a performer.
Physical comedy often depends on this sense of play which remains popular for all ages, eras, and cultures. Our bodies are vulnerable, and we make strange movements and sounds: pass gas, vomit, gurgle, gesture grandly, laugh in odd ways, and twitch.
It also deals with our interactions with physical objects such as:
We see the humanity of these acts and find them funny. Our interactions with animals and people take on the humor of both bodies and objects.
Physical comedy can be over-used. Bathroom humor is a staple of physical comedy, but too many fart jokes can spoil the story. Physical comedy can also be abused. If a humorous act has an element of bullying, the act is humor no more.
We wince when someone trips over an ottoman. We laugh in relief when the character pops right back up, unharmed. Having one character push another character over that sofa in an act of nastiness, changes the mood entirely. We feel fear and anger for the character who has been abused.
Some of the most well-loved comedians are physical comedy masters.
Some physical comedians worth studying are Jackie Chan, Rowan Atkinson/Mr. Bean, Martin Short, Adam Sandler, Lucille Ball, and Carol Burnett. Actress Mabel Normand, who I learned about while researching historical fiction, was the first woman to throw a pie at Charlie Chaplin, another great physical comedian.
Slapstick is a form of comedy using overdramatized physical activity, far and above the boundaries of typical physical comedy. It may involve both intentional and unintentional violence, often resulting from inept use of items like ladders and kitchen implements.
The word comes from a device developed for use in the physical comedy style known as commedia dell'arte in 16th-century Italy. The slapstick was made of two thin slats of wood, which make a "slap" when hitting another actor, with little impact needed to make a loud sound. The physical slap stick is used in Punch and Judy puppet shows, which are far less popular than they once were due to the violent themes.
A more contemporary example of slapstick humor is an actual slap stick, included in The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy as the planet Vogsphere’s method of punishment for any being on the planet who tries to think. The Vogons’ noses are higher up on their heads as all the slaps forced their noses higher.
Jim Carrey, a master of physical comedy, uses slapstick in the movie Ace Ventura: Pet Detective. Here is the script for your perusal. Per screenwriting norms, the actions are not woven into the narrative as they would be in novel form but instead are included as stage directions in the manuscript.
Not all slapstick humor involves large, exaggerated movements. The following scene from Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker series shows a different type of slapstick.
Arthur Dent, at a party, describes the horrific events he has recently endured to a man who looks interested in listening to him.
“The little man nodded enthusiastically.
"Ah," effervesced the little man, "and did you have a wonderful time?"
Arthur started to choke violently on his drink.
"What a wonderfully exciting cough," said the little man, quite startled by it, "do you mind if I join you?"
And with that he launched into the most extraordinary and spectacular fit of coughing that caused Arthur so much by surprise that he started to choke violently, discovered he was already doing it and got thoroughly confused. Together they performed a lung-busting duet that went on for fully two minutes before Arthur managed to cough and splutter to a halt.
Life the Universe and Everything by Douglass Adams
"So invigorating," said the little man, panting and wiping tears from his eyes, "what an exciting life you must lead. Thank you very much."
He shook Arthur warmly by the hand and walked off into the crowd.”
Two other authors who come to mind are Kurt Vonnegut and Terry Prachett. Both write wonderful comedy. Kurt Vonnegut’s work runs dark, and never disappoints. Breakfast of Champions has great physical comedy. Pratchette’s Color of Magic, first in the Discworld series, has wonderful examples of slapstick humor.
For more information on this topic, Davis Rider Robinson’s The Physical Comedy Handbook breaks down physical comedy in detail, which will be useful for writers, actors, and directors.
Do you enjoy slapstick humor? Who is your favorite physical comedian? What literary physical comedy do you think everyone should read at least once? When is slapstick funny, and when is it not? Why?
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Author, speaker, and former teacher, Ellen L. Buikema has written non-fiction for parents, and The Adventures of Charlie Chameleon chapter book series with stories encouraging the development of empathy—sprinkling humor wherever possible. Her Works in Progress are The Hobo Code, YA historical fiction and The Crystal Key, MG Magical Realism/ Sci-Fi, a glaze of time travel.
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