We tend to think about a slapstick comedy movie as an ancient and inferior form of art. After all, it’s just a bunch of people slipping on banana peels or smashing their faces on a glass door they hadn’t seen. But is it true?
What is slapstick comedy?
Slapstick comedy is a particular genre that revolves around physical humor, exaggerated visual gags and the comedic aspect of violence.
It is considered “inferior” to other types of comedy because this genre doesn’t just include violence and absurdity as an accessory. Slapstick comedy actually prioritizes those things over characterization, dialogue and sometimes even plot.
An example of this is the famous movie Monty Python and the Holy Grail. This movie doesn’t have a real story, the plot moves the characters from one place to another without explanation, and there is almost no
So what does this mean? No plot = Bad movie?
Absolutely not. Holy Grail is a hilarious film, full of absurdity, self-awareness, parody, and British humor. And this is not despite its genre but because of it.
Slapstick comedy Then and Now
Just like Holy Grail, they didn’t have a real “plot” just a generic premise: the coyote has to catch the roadrunner, the cat has to catch the mouse, and they both get slammed into a wall for laughs.
Nowadays cartoons and animated movies have almost completely abandoned this simple formula in favor of a solid storyline.
But there are still traces of this raw form of humor in almost all modern animated movies and occasionally even live action movies (like Deadpool).
Most of them are not officially labeled a slapstick comedy movie, but some of their gags still rely solely on physical humour.
The reason for this is that the old kind of physical humor doesn’t leave much place for storytelling.
If you look at an old episode of Tom and Jerry you’ll see a pattern in the way each gag takes place:
- Introduction (Tom sets a trap or prepares to chase the mouse)
- Execution (Tom gets hit with a bat / crushed by a falling piano / falls for one of his own tricks etc…)
- Aftermath (Tom is turned into a table / covered in bandages etc…)
And after this, the screen fades to black and the story “resets” itself, the injuries have healed, the traps have disappeared and everyone is back to the beginning.
This allows the writer to create a great number of gags, all different and all original; but it doesn’t leave much room for storytelling.
After an hour of BANG, SPLAT, KABOOM,
Even if slapstick still has an influence on today’s animation, it seems to have lost its popularity as a genre. In short, there are many comedies with slapstick inspired gags, but very few movies with the slapstick genre.
The Mask is one of the most famous film starring Jim Carrey, and a perfect example of a modern slapstick comedy movie.
Old American cartoons are the main inspiration for the powers of the titular Mask, and because of that, the action consists entirely of a series of classic slapstick gags typically used in cartoons of the ’30s and ’40s.
What is so special about this movie (and what allowed it to become an instant classic) is the funny gag itself, but the fact that it has a place in the narrative.
Avoiding bullets using Elvis’ dance moves saves Ipkiss’ life, breaking into dance allows him to escape the police, his speed instantly gets him out of trouble.
Basically, it doesn’t matter how goofy and over the top each action is, the story doesn’t reset and everything that happens has a significant impact on the story.
Also, thanks to Jim Carrey’s genius, the slapstick element helps define his character as a clumsy insecure man.
Even before finding the mask, Stanley seems less like a real man and more like a cartoon caricature. He keeps tripping, screaming, and reacting with exaggerated facial expressions.
The camera as well emphasizes the cartoonish nature of the characters with absurd framing angles and zooms.
This is a brilliant trick because it doesn’t simply establish the overblown comedic tone, but it also gives Stanley Ipkiss a memorable style and personality.
The Mask has proven that the slapstick comedy movie could very easily make a comeback and knock modern audiences off their seats. It’s a shame that after 1997 there have been just a few lazy attempts to take this type of comedy seriously.