“The Colbert Report.” Uncyclopedia. CollegeHumor. Both late-night television and the Internet are filled to the brim with the sweet sounds of satire, caricature and parody. The business of comedy in the up-and-coming age of new media seems set on coupling laughter with social commentary — and son, business is booming.
But does their rise herald an end to a simpler comedic era? Are the antiquated antics of physical humor obsolete? A slapstick routine from the Three Stooges may have cut it with our parents, but is it still enough to entertain the socially savvy children of Generation Z?
Superficially, things look grim. Nowadays, the word “slapstick” tends to invoke a mental image of the latest B-movie disaster. Physical comedy is traditionally easier and cheaper to film than a fantasy epic or crime thriller, though extravagant amounts of money and effort are by no means a guarantee of quality (I’m looking at you, “Avatar: The Last Airbender”).
But even though physical comedy seems to attract more attention when it’s done poorly than when it’s done correctly, a true fan knows that slapstick is by no means headed for the Graveyard of Genres Past. There’s something about seeing another person land on their ass at exactly the right moment that triggers an instinctive chuckle from even the most serious satirist.
So do audiences of the 21st century still enjoy watching slapstick? Ask the cast members of the School of Music, Theatre & Dance’s “Noises Off,” who, as of this moment, are tearing down their lovely two-story set and reminiscing about what was probably a kickass cast party. A description of the show’s premise could never do it justice, but its flawless exploitation of physical chaos under mental pressure means it’s no surprise that the show tends to be an awards magnet whenever a talented group gets its hands on it.
And though Hollywood does manage to pump out and screw up physical comedies with effortlessness, a genuinely funny script does manage to sneak its way into production sometimes. If you had the good fortune of seeing “The Hangover” in a packed theater, that muscle you pulled laughing probably still aches when rain is on the way.
This comedic style may be safe for now, but what keeps the laughter coming? If you’ve seen one slap, kick or pistol-whip, haven’t you seen them all? Slapstick is older than Shakespeare himself, who used it to great effect in plays like “The Comedy of Errors.” But that was 400 years ago — and he was entertaining the masses of pre-modern London. So why do we still laugh when James Franco rams his shoe through the window of a police cruiser in “Pineapple Express” and proceeds to engage in a one-footed car chase?
I think a better question would be, “what makes physical comedy, even violence, funny?”
Part of our proclivity to be entertained by this kind of humor is a subconscious knowledge of our own unfortunate physical limits. If I punch a wall, I will break my fingers and earn a trip to the hospital. If I punch someone in the face, I will break my fingers and earn myself a misdemeanor assault charge. If I affectionately embrace the first raccoon I encounter after traveling to New York City from the North Pole, I am going to catch rabies and die. Compared to what we can make humans appear to do through movie magic and theater technology, it’s actually disappointingly easy for us to hurt ourselves.
Slapstick and other avenues of physical comedy give us a no-strings-attached way to enjoy watching people get what they deserve — or don’t deserve — in a world where the laws of physics and your local government don’t apply. Your brain is smart enough to know that hitting people with cars is bad, while simultaneously recognizing that the stoner who just tumbled hilariously over the windshield of that sedan will not only be fine, but will probably be genuinely tickled by the experience.
Animation takes the element of guilt-free enjoyment one step further, distancing us through context and medium. Our grandparents may see us as a generation of violence junkies, but did they forget all those times Daffy Duck had his beak blown off with a shotgun?
But our acute awareness of what safely qualifies as “laughable” also explains why the “Jackass” movies are so difficult to watch without wincing — and why they don’t fall within slapstick’s parameters. You know the movie magic is gone — you’re watching a group of shitfaced guys with no sense of self-preservation capitalize on genuine pain and tissue damage. There’s no guarantee you aren’t going to see something you can’t unsee.
There’s a very thin real-world line between something you can laugh at and something that requires a trip to the hospital — and physical comedy capitalizes on the comfortable relief we feel in knowing that we are never accidentally exposed to the latter. Slapstick combines an act we wouldn’t see off the stage or the screen with permission from our brain to view them in context as consequence-free. It’s this timeless pairing that makes slapstick entertainment relevant amid the age of satire — and keeps us laughing harder than ever.