Humor 102: Physical Comedy—Humor’s Punching Bag
By Prof. Cornelius P. Stodgington
Physical comedy seeks to produce laughter from highly exaggerated bodily movements. Why that should be funny is difficult to understand. Perhaps it tickles some long-dormant sectors in some brains, or there is some ancient impulse to feel superior to others.
To decent society it is considered the lowest form of humor. Paradoxically, it also seems to be the most inborn: generation after generation of humans make themselves laugh via facial contortions, unplanned pratfalls, bodily noises, and the like. (Immature people also gravitate to insult and scatological humor, as well, which we will cover later.)
But then who of us—as adults—has not found themselves making faces and silly noises in the presence of an adorable infant?
Be warned—if we try to dispassionately study this subject, we are in danger of getting too close to how the sausage is made. It is said to be the lowest of low-brow forms, but someone is usually waggling their eyebrows ironically while saying it. In the words of E.B. White: “Humor can be dissected as a frog can, but the thing dies in the process and the innards are discouraging to any but the pure scientific mind.”
In the unfortunately active field that is physical comedy, it is difficult—nay, impossible—to diagram a complete taxonomy of the domain. Terms which might be distinct classes are often used as synonyms by the inmates in this asylum. Species, orders, and phyla are intermixed to a fare-thee-well, making any systematic study a nightmare.
And yet there are those who argue this form has its moments. The motion picture industry grew to huge international stature long before they even had sound—thanks in no small part to the physical expressions of clown-prince artists like Chaplin and Keaton. Their silent films, considered lowbrow initially, are held in high regard with the passage of time—albeit mostly by pointy-headed academics with an exaggerated sense of nostalgia.
So, a brief overview with these caveats in mind….
Elements of Physical Comedy
So, what do we mean by physical comedy? Just as the Native Americans left no part of game unused, so too have the comedians left no body part or function unexplored for its potential to generate laughs. How it works is a better question. Though studied for generations, only the vaguest of theories have emerged. They include:
- The element of surprise. Unexpected actions (or reactions) seem to be key to much humor. Because something happens “out of the blue,” completely unanticipated—yet is not life-threatening—one reaction is laughter.
- The prospect of injury. Tension is built as an action unfolds. We are concerned for the object’s safety, knowing what that might do to us. When we detect that the imperiled one will suffer no lasting effect, our relief in part is expressed by laughter. (Only later do we reconsider the realistic ramifications of both the actions we witnessed and the results. To wit: the Three Stooges would be in and out of plastic surgeons’ offices constantly.)
- Loss of dignity. Something within most humans revels in another’s embarrassment, if not outright humiliation (“better him than me,” perhaps).
The evolutionists search for evidence that these elements are a survival mechanism. When numbers were fewer, the argument goes, perhaps individual egos needed to remain large so as to motivate selfish behavior vis-à-vis others, ergo insuring survival. As in “I don’t need to run faster than a [insert predator here], just faster than you.”
It is most disquieting to realize that adults find mirth in the indignities others suffer from—literally—head to toe. We’ve all seen them, ad infinitum, be it the “bonk” on the head or the stomp on the foot. Of course on the stage or screen these acts are never lastingly incapacitating, so the object of such abuse is accosted multiple times. (No wonder our country has little idea of the true costs of anything—when we never learn the true consequences of “cartoon” acts.)
In between the anatomical extremes, many have carved out areas of expertise. Like physicians picking specialties, individual acts have zeroed in on particular zones of the body.
Let us start at the end, so to speak. Much has been made of the human hindquarters. The basic form of the specialty move termed a “pratfall” involves falling hard on the buttocks. This act elicits howls of laughter from many audiences. The “whys” of Section 1 are the best explanations we get.
Truth be told, we don’t associate major injury with this “bumper” region thanks to our prolonged exposure to the pratfall. In the real world, however, hard surfaces such as ice and concrete are most unforgiving. A cracked coccyx is no laughing matter.
There have been many excuses invented for sudden comic falls. The proverbial “slip on the banana peel” has become an indelible cliché. Any number of friction-reducing agents have been contrived to induce falls in the unsuspecting, oil and ice being the most common.
Acrobatic artists can occasionally make such foolishness approach entertainment. Buster Keaton, for example, had a memorable gag set in a tavern. Portraying the poor simple soul mopping the floor, he’d raise one foot onto the bar to avoid stepping into muck. Then, “forgetting” he’d done so, he’d raise the other leg to the bar. Somehow, he gave the impression of hanging in the air for longer than gravity should have allowed—like the foils of later animated cartoons—before crashing flat on his back. One must admit that was an artful dodge.
Slips, trips, collisions—a thousand excuses have been invented for falls, all designed to shock us into giggles. Even the feminine “faint”—seemingly anachronistic and politically incorrect at this point—was an excuse to elicit laughs.
The complexity of the human skull has been put to great use by physical comedy—most notably, the subtlety of expression afforded by muscle control. Contorting one’s face to entertain infants appears universal. Making silly faces with one’s childhood peers also seems quite common. Explaining the palsied paroxysms of those such as Charlie Callas (look it up), Jim Carrey, or Jerry Lewis, however, is impossible.
The Three Stooges made a career out of violent pokes to the eyes, slaps to the head, and punches to the nose (among many other abuses of body parts). Soupy Sales immortalized himself amongst Baby Boomers with the old pie-in-the-face bit. Because these acts were surprising, anarchic, and deflating of superiors, they caused a sensation in their day. But by being popular they were repeated ad infinitum, the over-exposure eventually robbing these stunts of their “surprise” element and humorous potential.
Hair-pulling, ear-pulling, leading someone about by the nose—all have played roles in alleged comedy. And yet, we have expressions such as “a kick in the teeth” that are the exact opposite of humorous.
There is a whole vein of activity called “sight gags,” based solely on things that appear funny (as perceived via our vision). One that I must admit is clever: an unsuspecting sort stands in front of a mirror (that no longer exists), and another figure stands opposite aping their every move in reverse—until comically discovered by the least likely error.
There have been multitudes of ways devised to render a blow to the midsection. The cartoon punches are often delivered in a protracted, ridiculous fashion; this both generates suspense by the time taken (yet we can see it coming) and surprise in the unconvincing style of attack. The result—the doubled-over subject—is popular for the same reasons as mentioned earlier. The fact that the realistic consequences of such acts might result in ruptures to the kidneys, bladder, and/or spleen is lost on most audiences.
Interesting sidenote: the “victim” of a midsection blow can extend the skit by moaning and groaning, and perhaps complaining of injury to his gizzard—surprisingly, not a genuine organ of the human body.
The Naughty Bits
We have discussed the posterior. The obverse of this area is a fascination with the immature. Reproductive humor seems to be particularly popular with those who have not used the organs for their intended purpose. Rude comedians and popular singers mimic copulatory behavior ad nauseam. Of course, polite society rejects such foolishness out of hand, and considers this the lowest of low-brow behavior.
Why it still exists is a mystery. One supposes a cavalier reference to things procreative evokes titters of laughter out of some sort of nervous tension. It should be noted that this area is exploited by every form of comedy; the term double entendre was invented to describe word play that could have a smutty meaning—if one were so declined.
Volumes have been written about carnal entertainments, so let us not encourage its behavior here.
Comedy with Legs
Continuing down the body, there have been a myriad of leg-related gags. An ancient bit, of course, is to simulate the medical “patellar reflex” test. Tapping with an instrument below the kneecap is said to be funny if the “patient” overreacts in surprising, unexpected ways (e.g., kicking the other leg instead, punting the physician some distance, etc.).
There have been many silly walks, from John Cleese’s Ministry of same back to Jerry Lewis’ knock-kneed gait and Milton Berle walking on out-turned ankles—and you can be sure they were far from the first of their kind.
Slapping of the Stick
Extra points to those who might have been wondering, “What about slapstick?” It is said this term originated in the commedia dell’arte of 16 th century Italy, an improvisational entertainment based on stock social characters. These actors employed a “slap stick,” two hinged pieces of wood. When used to strike another character, the device would emit a loud, comical noise, but not seriously injure the recipient. This enabled repeat performances, and thereby more profit.
Typical activities within this genre include:
- the comical trip or slip (where someone falls in an exaggerated, highly-unlikely-but-perilous way);
- the double take (where one exaggerates one’s incredulity by looking back-and-forth rapidly);
- the collide (people or things running into one another in odd ways);
- and of course the fall (be it a swooning faint or ridiculous pratfall).
Over time the slapstick term came to represent any larger-than-life physical activities done for comic effect. 20th century spectators came to equate this with any early silent film comedian. Current audiences have grown weary of the limited repertoire of slapstick, as it has been diluted and reduced to the point of ridiculousness by endless repetition and poor parody. The first time a pie was thrown in a face was undoubtedly hilarious, because of the sheer surprise and the harmless humiliation of the victim. Once every ten years—in the hands of a skilled, subtle practitioner—sure, fine, maybe it works. But most have come to dismiss any physical humor as “just” slapstick. This is yet another example of modern lazy thinking, however, as within the physical comedy world there are other—dare we say—“disciplines,” including clowning (a psychiatric minefield unto itself), mime, stunts, and other families.
As we’ve said, it can be difficult to rigorously categorize the many mutants within the physical comedy domain. For instance, the act of “52 card pick-up,” wherein an individual is so startled that a whole deck of playing cards shoots out of hand in every direction—this is definitely physical comedy, but is it sight gag, slapstick, or something else?
The Sounds of Comedy
So the human body, from stem to stern, has been the subject of countless attempts at humor. One could reasonably assume this has been the case for most of humankind, despite a dearth of hieroglyphs depicting pratfalls. The impetus for physical comedy seems innate in every generation of physical or emotional juveniles. Observe behavior in the corridor of any high school in the land any year you choose if you don’t believe me.
However, it is not only movements that elicit laughter. Noises are also a ripe subject for inquiry—particularly exaggerated sounds a human body might reasonably make, but issued at inopportune times. Again, schools and locker rooms provide legions of examples. Sneezes, coughs, even unusual laughs and voices are made fun of, and elicit laughter.
But fans of this genre particularly obsess on the sounds of air emitting from the lower portal. We shouldn’t give them the satisfaction of dwelling on this topic, as it is literally rude, crude, and obnoxious. Suffice to say that the depths of this obsession are evidenced by the sheer number of euphemisms for flatulence, just a few of which include: breaking wind, buttock bassoon, cutting cheese, stepping on a duck, the vicar tuning the church organ, HUMrrhoids, inverting a burp, trouser trumpeting—the list is endless, if gross and not particularly clever.
Amazing as it seems to us, laughter has also been produced by the odd sounds of even odder props. Slide whistles, mouth organs, kazoos, and other sound effects are harmless enough and modestly amusing. The acme of this dubious pursuit, however, is the artificial air bladder, invented by some madman to simulate the emission noises of human exhaust gases. The name of this scourge? The “whoopee cushion.”
This concludes our overview of the world of physical comedy. We’ve seen how the human body’s foibles have been exploited in myriad ways for the amusement of others. To those of us not infected with the humor bug, this is the most off-putting of the comedy techniques.
A cautionary note, however. Even the most right-thinking of us can be surprised into a brief guffaw by physical comedy on the odd occasion—a few highly skilled practitioners still exist. If this happens, we mustn’t panic, but rather say a silent prayer for strength, and put the blame where it properly belongs: the weakness of our forebears.