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A slap stick
A slap stick

Slapstick is a style of humor involving exaggerated physical activity which exceeds the boundaries of normal physical comedy.[1][2][3] The term arises from a device developed during the broad, physical comedy style known as Commedia dell'arte in 16th Century Italy. The "slap stick" consists of two thin slats of wood, which make a 'slap' when striking another actor, with little force needed to make a loud—and comical—sound. The physical slap stick remains a key component of the plot in the traditional and popular Punch and Judy puppet show.

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  • Buster Keaton - The Art of the Gag
  • Jackie Chan - How to Do Action Comedy
  • Slapstick Comedy: The Art of Falling


Hi my name is Tony and this is Every Frame a Painting. There are some filmmakers who are so influential that no matter where you look, you see traces of them everywhere. I see this filmmaker's framing in the works of Wes Anderson. His acrobatics and stunts in Jackie Chan. And his deadpan posture in Bill Murray. He, of course, is Buster Keaton, one of the three great silent comedians "He was, as we’re now beginning to realize... ...the greatest of all the clowns in the history of the cinema." And nearly a hundred years later I think he still has plenty to teach us about visual comedy. So today, let’s take a look at how the master builds a gag. Ready? Let's go. The first thing you need to know about visual comedy is that you have to tell your story through action. Keaton was a visual storyteller and he never liked it when other directors told their story through the title cards. -"The average picture used 240 titles... "...that was about the average." -"240 was the average?" -"Yes. And the most I ever used was 56" He avoided title cards by focusing on gesture and pantomime. In this shot, you never find out what these two are talking about. Everything you need to know is conveyed through the table & their body language "But what you had to say... "You had to communicate to the audience in only one way..." -"Through action" -"Right. We eliminated subtitles..." "...just as fast as we could if we could possibly tell it in action" Keaton believed that each gesture you did should be unique. Never do the same thing twice. Every single fall... is an opportunity… for creativity. But once you know the action we come to the second problem: Where do you put the camera? Visual gags generally work best from one particular angle. And if you change the angle... then you’re changing the gag and it might not work as well. Finding the right angle is a matter of trial and error. So let’s take a look at two possible camera placements for the same joke. Here’s the first one. And here’s the second. You’ll notice in first angle, the car takes up most of the frame and we don’t get a clear look at Buster until he turns around. But in the second angle, the car’s placed in the background and we always have a clear view of his face. This split second, where he doesn’t know what’s happening but we do... ...that’s much better from over here. And in the first angle, the framing splits our attention. Our eyes want to look at his face and the sign at the same time. But after reframing the scene... Our eyes naturally look at him... then the sign then back to him. Much better. Now we come to the third question... What are the rules of this particular world? Buster’s world is flat and governed by one law. If the camera can’t see it, then the characters can’t see it either. In Buster’s world, the characters are limited by the sides of the frame and by what’s visible to us, the audience. And this allows him to do jokes that make sense visually but not logically. A lot of his gags are about human movement in the flat world. He can go to the right... to the left... up... down... away from the lens... or towards it. Look familiar? -"She’s been murdered. And you think I did it." -"Hey!" Like Wes Anderson, Buster Keaton found humor in geometry. He often placed the camera further back so you could see the shape of a joke. There are circles... triangles... parallel lines... and of course, the shape of the frame itself: the rectangle. I think staging like this is great because it encourages the audience to look around the frame and see the humor for themselves. In this shot, think about where your eyes are looking. Now where’s he? Some of these gags have their roots in vaudeville and are designed to play like magic tricks. And like all great magic tricks part of the fun is trying to guess how it was done. Keaton had a name for gags like these. He called them “impossible gags.” They're some of his most inventive and surreal jokes. But as a storyteller, he found them tricky because they broke the rules of his world. -"We had to stop doing impossible gags, what we call cartoon gags." -"We lost all of that when we started making feature pictures." -"They had to be believable or your story wouldn’t hold up." So instead, he focused on what he called the natural gag. The joke that emerges organically from the character and the situation. Consider what he does with this door. Keaton claimed that for visual comedy... you had to keep yourself open to improvisation. -"How much of it was planned and how much came out in the actual doing?" -"How much was improvised, you know?" -"Well as a rule, about 50 percent…" -" have in your mind before you start the picture..." -"...and the rest you develop as you’re making it." Sometimes he would find a joke he liked so much that he would do a callback to it later. But other times, jokes that he’d planned beforehand wouldn’t work on the day. So he would just get rid of them... -"...because they don’t stand up and they don’t work well." -"And then the accidental ones come." He was supposed to make this jump. But since he missed... He decided to keep the mistake and build on it. -"So you seldom got a scene like that good the second time." -"You generally got em that first one." -"Maybe that’s one of the reasons..." -"...there was so much laughter in the house the other night." -"I mean, the younger people and I had this feeling..." -"...that what we were seeing was happening now." -"That it had happened only once..." -"...It was not something that was pre-done and done and done." And that brings us to the last thing about Buster Keaton and his most famous rule. Never fake a gag. For Keaton, there was only one way to convince the audience... ...that what they were seeing was real. He had to actually do it… ...without cutting. He was so strict about this that he once said... “Either we get this in one shot… ...or we throw out the gag." And it’s why he remains vital nearly 100 years later. Not just for his skill but for his integrity. That’s really him. And no advancement in technology can mimic this. Even now, we’re amazed when filmmakers actually do it for real. But I think he did it better 95 years ago. So no matter how many times... you’ve seen someone else pay homage to him… Nothing beats the real thing.



The name "slapstick" originates from the Italian batacchio or bataccio — called the "slap stick" in English — a club-like object composed of two wooden slats used in commedia dell'arte. When struck, the batacchio produces a loud smacking noise, though little force transfers from the object to the person being struck. Actors may thus hit one another repeatedly with great audible effect while causing no damage and only very minor, if any, pain. Along with the inflatable bladder (of which the whoopee cushion is a modern variant), it was among the earliest special effects.

Early uses

Advertisement for Punch and Judy showing Punch with his slapstick (1910)
Advertisement for Punch and Judy showing Punch with his slapstick (1910)

Slapstick comedy's history is measured in centuries. Shakespeare incorporated many chase scenes and beatings into his comedies, such as in his play The Comedy of Errors. In early 19th century England, pantomime acquired its present form which includes slapstick comedy, while comedy routines also featured heavily in British music hall theatre which became popular in the 1850s.[4][5]

In Punch and Judy shows, which first appeared in England on 9 May 1662, a large slapstick is wielded by Punch against the other characters.[6]

Fred Karno

Fred Karno, music hall impresario and pioneer of slapstick comedy
Fred Karno, music hall impresario and pioneer of slapstick comedy

British comedians who honed their skills at pantomime and music hall sketches include Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel, George Formby and Dan Leno.[7][8] The influential English music hall comedian and theatre impresario Fred Karno developed a form of sketch comedy without dialogue in the 1890s, and Chaplin and Laurel were among the young comedians who worked for him as part of "Fred Karno's Army".[7] Chaplin's fifteen year music hall career inspired the comedy in all his later film work, especially as pantomimicry.[9] In his biography Laurel stated, "Fred Karno didn't teach Charlie [Chaplin] and me all we know about comedy. He just taught us most of it".[10] American film producer Hal Roach described Fred Karno as "not only a genius, he is the man who originated slapstick comedy. We in Hollywood owe much to him."[11]

In film and television

A slapstick scene from the 1915 Charlie Chaplin film His New Job. Chaplin started his film career as a physical comedian, and his later work continued to contain elements of slapstick.
A slapstick scene from the 1915 Charlie Chaplin film His New Job. Chaplin started his film career as a physical comedian, and his later work continued to contain elements of slapstick.

Building on its later popularity in the 19th and early 20th-century ethnic routines of the American vaudeville house, the style was explored extensively during the "golden era" of black and white, silent movies directed by figures Mack Sennett and Hal Roach and featuring such notables as Charlie Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, the Keystone Cops, The Three Stooges, and Chespirito. Silent slapstick comedy was also popular in early French films and included films by Max Linder, Charles Prince, and Sarah Duhamel.[12]

Slapstick also became a common element in animated features starting in the 1930; examples include Disney's Goofy shorts, Walter Lantz's Woody Woodpecker, MGM's Tom and Jerry, the unrelated Tom and Jerry cartoons of Van Beuren Studios, Warner Bros. Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies, MGM's Barney Bear, and Tex Avery's Screwy Squirrel. In some cases, such as MGM's Tom and Jerry, the slapstick elements mostly came from violence by the characters, while in others it was mostly due to mishaps.

Slapstick was later used in Japanese Tokusatsu TV Kamen Rider Drive as there several comedic episode scene is shown.

Contemporary presence

Slapstick continues to maintain a presence in modern comedy that draws upon its lineage, running in film from Buster Keaton and Louis de Funès to Jerry Lewis and Mel Brooks to the television series Jackass and comedy movies by the Farrelly Brothers, and in live performance from Weber and Fields to Jackie Gleason to Rowan Atkinson. In England, slapstick was a main element of the Monty Python comedy troupe and in television series such as Fawlty Towers and The Benny Hill Show. Slapstick has remained a popular art form to the present day.

See also


  1. ^ "slapstick - definition of slapstick by the Free Online Dictionary, Thesaurus and Encyclopedia". Retrieved 2013-04-29.
  2. ^ "Slapstick Comedy - film, cinema". Retrieved 2013-04-29.
  3. ^ "Slapstick comedy definition of Slapstick comedy in the Free Online Encyclopedia". Retrieved 2013-04-29.
  4. ^ David Christopher (2002). "British Culture: An Introduction". p. 74. Routledge,
  5. ^ Jeffrey Richards (2014). "The Golden Age of Pantomime: Slapstick, Spectacle and Subversion in Victorian England". I.B.Tauris,
  6. ^ Miller, Judith (2017). Miller's Antiques Handbook & Price Guide 2018-2019. Hachette UK. p. 351.
  7. ^ a b McCabe, John. "Comedy World of Stan Laurel". p. 143. London: Robson Books, 2005, First edition 1975
  8. ^ "Enjoy Cumbria - Stan Laurel". BBC. Retrieved 2 January 2015
  9. ^ St. Pierre, Paul (2009). Music Hall Mimesis in British Film, 1895-1960: On the Halls on the Screen. Associated University Press. p. 38.
  10. ^ Burton, Alan (2000). Pimple, pranks & pratfalls: British film comedy before 1930. Flicks Books. p. 51.
  11. ^ J. P. Gallagher (1971). "Fred Karno: master of mirth and tears". p. 165. Hale.
  12. ^ Maggie Hennefeld "Specters of Slapstick and Silent Film Comediennes", Columbia UP, 2018.
This page was last edited on 1 September 2018, at 13:20
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