Thursday, June 2, 2011

The Death of Slapstick

It was a subtle event. So subtle, in fact, that movies still aren't aware of it. One might even imagine that if they were aware of it, they wouldn't really understand it. A simple change in expression was all it took. The substitution of inaction for reaction; and with it went one of the cornerstones of comedy: slapstick.

Since the dawn of stage and street performers, slapstick has been an essential component of the comedy circuit. From little pops upside the head to the outlandish buffoonery that would give birth to the likes of Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, and the Three Stooges. It was a sight gag. Built on the guilty pleasure derived from watching someone else harm themselves through their inability to be aware of their surroundings. And people lapped it up.

So why then did slapstick slowly fade out of the limelight? Is it because we have become more civilized and now only entertain high minded satirical humor? Hardly, one look at the latest batch of comedy releases can tell you that. Is it because we found an alternate form of comedy of equal value? Perhaps, there is no denying that the modern 'dude' and drug laden comedic styles derive most of their setup from old school slapstick.

But you know what really took the wind out of slapstick's sails? Realism. It came with the advent of color. An increasing desire to show real world examples on screen, especially with respect to our actors. Sure, we don't mind there being giant robots, magical wands, or spaceships fully armed with lasers, but if the actors don't react in a manner we would, we lose the taste. Which is a shame, because the great slapstick actors of yesteryear all knew that was the last thing it needed.

There just isn't anything funny about watching someone scream in pain. Like a vacuum it sucks all the humor out of the scenario. It's a cap placed right above the base level of laughter than can be derived. Gone were the flamboyant, harmless, whimsical expressions of the classic greats, in are the grunts, groans, and cries of torment of the new-age humorists.

Sure, I'll grant you a couple rare performers have been able to find the right balance between reactions and laughter (Chris Farley in Tommy Boy comes to mind). But their acts have been replicated to death. Honestly, how many times can someone watch an overweight male fall down the side of a hill full of bushes and trees before they tire of it? Or see a man get hit in the groin by a kid, as people look on and laugh? For me, I was tired before even the first effort, let alone the twentieth.

It's not my intention to demean the comedies of these days too much. They simply weigh in a different audience. Ones less keen on dealing with frolicsome affairs, and more interested in out and out shock value. As if the world of comedies is in a dogmatic duel to discover the uncrossable line so that Hollywood will once and for all know where they cannot journey. I for one, find this a cumbersome exercise in futility. Give me the lackadaisical hero unaware of the world around them over the inebriated crier lamenting their own stupidity any day of the week (twice on Sunday).

However, such is the way of the world. Some things evolve, others mutate, and once in a while something just fails to find a way to adapt. It lacks the necessary components to survive in the ever changing nature of men. We try our best to hold on to that tradition, but sometimes the kinder thing is to let is pass into legend. To leave those maestros there in celluloid print for us to revisit time and time again, untarnished by our vain efforts. For slapstick was their art. It was the intersection of a style centuries old with modern technology. They had all the tools in the world to build their masterpieces of the form, and build them they did in kind. They showed us reality, and sold us fantasy. Exorcised our demons, and exercised our minds.  If only comedies these days knew what that truly meant.

6 better thoughts:

Nikhat said...

I think this is a lovely post.
My dad used to show me a lot of Chaplin and Laurel and Hardy as a kid; Keaton and the Three Stooges aren't that well-known in India... but I think a part of their charm was that they are "old-fashioned". As much as I think that I will be broad-minded, slapstick today will be taken as a pathetic farce. That's just my opinion... others might be into it...I dunno.

Alex C. said...

I think if slapstick a la Chaplin were still in full force today then we wouldn't look back on the great classics with such fondness. I don't want to see somebody rattling off Groucho Marx style one-liners because nobody can quite pull it off like he does.

I think (good) modern comedies are valuable in a different way as they seek a more modern variation of truth and when that is approached with honesty and sincerity (like in "Bridesmaids") the results can be very rewarding.

JapanCinema said...

I'd say Family Guy is the last bt of slapstick comedy we have left that is relevant

Univarn said...

@Nikhat Thanks. They are old-fashioned, but that doesn't mean their comedic sensibilities are time limited.

@AlexC Oh I agree, but I think the efforts by so many of our commedians these days to retain slapstick in some form are so ill fitting, it is more of a detriment to its historical presence. Making my task of trying to sell people on watching these classics that much harder.

@JapanCinema Even that's a bit sketchy. Unfortunately the closest thing on television to old school slapstick humor is Wipeout and that, is heavy on the ugh side of things.

Duke said...

Very interesting post.

I don't enjoy most comedies now-in-days. And you're right on when talking about how modern day comedies have a different way of resonating with us.

Over-the-top slapstick has been used to death. The only thing I'm more tired of ... is ... well 3D - another dying business.

simoncolumb said...

To bring in a contemporary slant - Zach galifinakos in THE HANGOVER has loads of slapstick which comes out of nowhere and for no reason - specifically the car door hitting the baby on the head. What's so funny is that we know that it is not real - shock and then we laugh. That works!

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