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11/19/2017 slapstick | Definition, History, & Facts | Britannica.


Slapstick, a type of physical comedy characterized by broad humour, absurd situations, and
vigorous, usually violent action. The slapstick comic, more than a mere funnyman or buffoon, must
often be an acrobat, a stunt performer, and something of a magiciana master of uninhibited
action and perfect timing.

Commedia dellarte characters Harlequin (left) and Pierrot, illustration on paper, c.

Courtesy of the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam; Gift of F.G. Waller, Amsterdam

Outrageous make-believe violence has always been a key attraction of slapstick comedy, and,
fittingly, the form took its name from one of its favourite weapons. A slapstick was originally a
harmless paddle composed of two pieces of wood that slapped together to produce a resounding
whack when the paddle struck someone. The slapstick seems to have first come into use in the
16th century, when Harlequin, one of the principal characters of the Italian commedia dellarte,
used it on the posteriors of his comic victims.

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 dellarte and even rougher clowns,
such as the hunchbacked, hook-nosed, wife-beating Pulcinella, who survives today as
the Punch of childrens puppet shows. 1/2
11/19/2017 slapstick | Definition, History, & Facts |

Slapstick reached another zenith in the English and American music halls and vaudeville theatres
of the late 19th century, and such English stars as George Formby and Gracie Fields carried its
popularity well into the 20th century. Motion pictures provided even greater opportunities for visual
gags, and comedians Charlie Chaplin, Harold Lloyd, and Mack Sennetts Keystone
Kops introduced such classic routines as the mad chase scene and pie throwing, often made
doubly hilarious by speeding up the camera action. Their example was followed in sound films
by 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. 2/2