What is Slapstick Comedy?

Low-Humor, Farce, and a Touch of Violence

The Three Stooges clowning with a football on a football field
The Three Stooges, 1938. Hulton Archive / Getty Images

Slapstick comedy. That may bring to mind the Three Stooges or Charlie Chaplin, but do you know what it really means?

Slapstick is often thought of as a low humor style of comedy filled with farce and a touch of animated violence. And yet, that doesn't tell the whole story and slapstick is much older than you might think.

What is Slapstick Comedy?

Slapstick comedy is primarily a physical kind of comedy based around pratfalls and mild comic violence—smacks in the head, pokes in the eyes, people falling down, etc. While it is often thought of as low comedy, some of the best at slapstick have made it into what some critics call 'high art.'

Also known as 'physical comedy,' slapstick is more action than words and for the longest time, many slapstick comedians didn't talk. This style of comedy requires great timing, animated facial expressions, and quite a bit of acrobatics to pull off.

With comedy routines based almost entirely around hitting one another and falling down, The Three Stooges are considered the masters of slapstick. However, they are just one example and they certainly were not the first.

Slapstick Through Time

You may not realize it, but slapstick is a traditional form of comedy. Its roots go back to Ancient Greece and Rome and it was a popular form of mime in the theaters of the day.

By the time of the Rennaissance, the Italian commedia dell'arte ('comedy of the profession') was center stage and it quickly spread through Europe. The character of Punch from the Punch and Judy puppet show is one of the best-known slapstickers of this time.

It was also around this time that the actual, physical 'slapstick' was employed. The 'slapstick' was a two-piece paddle that actors would use to accentuate the impact of a hit (often on another actor's backside). When the two boards hit, they produced a 'slap' and that is where the modern name for this comedic form came from.

By the late 1800s, slapstick was essential to English and American vaudeville shows. Audiences were treated to these hilarious actors performing acrobatics and intentionally harming themselves. The physical blows were not damaging, though. The comedians had an almost magician's flair because they were masters of timing and comedic illusion.

When movies became popular in the early 20th-century, slapstick followed onto the big screen. Memorable characters like the Keystone Cops and the one-man slapstick master Charlie Chaplin became stars before talkies took over.

There was yet another slapstick revival mid-century with legends like The Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers, and Laurel and Hardy taking center stage. It is this era of slapstick that we can truly relate to because the images are so vivid and the movies played over and over again.

If we were to look for a more contemporary example of slapstick, MTV's Jackass would be one of the most popular acts. And, in this case, they do take low humor and violence to a new level. One must wonder what the father's of slapstick would think of that. Truth is, they'd probably laugh.