Herald Scotland: Slap of the Gods

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Bruce Calvert
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Herald Scotland: Slap of the Gods

Postby Bruce Calvert » Tue Dec 22, 2009 10:10 am

http://www.heraldscotland.com/arts-ents ... s-1.993676

Slap of the gods

Laurel and Hardy: the classic slapstick pair
Brian Beacom

Published on 21 Dec 2009

Slapstick comedy: well, it’s just silly, isn’t it?

After all, how much creative ­talent does it take to smack someone in the face with a plank, slip on an obviously placed banana skin or fall fully clothed into a river?

Quite a lot, it seems, according to Breid McLoone, producer of a new BBC Scotland documentary called The Story Of Slapstick, who argues that you have to be very clever to be silly – and get big laughs.

“There’s the notion that some people think it’s quite childish,” says McLoone. “Graeme Garden of The Goodies makes the point that for people who like slapstick it’s childlike – and for those who don’t like it, it’s childish. Personally, I think slapstick is one the highest forms of comedy. The beauty of slapstick is that you don’t need language. It can cut across cultures. It doesn’t require a sophisticated understanding. It’s a very primal form of comedy.”

Can “highest” and “primal” be used to describe the same genre? How can high comedy revolve around lowest-common-­denominator gags ­featuring pratfalls, mud slipping, pie faces, dunkings and crashes? McLoone argues that the terms aren’t mutually exclusive and that slapstick, which first appeared in 16th-century Italian theatre, requires immense intricacy.

“It’s about set-up and gag – and the recovery,” she says. “But it’s hard to get it right. Just watch Laurel and Hardy deliver a piano to the top of a very long set of stairs. That was the beauty of a lot of what they did – a simple premise, but with incredible detail and technique.”

Indeed, who can forget Laurel and Hardy’s plank routine, the acrobatics of Chaplin’s pratfalls, Buster Keaton’s staggering house collapse or Harold Lloyd swinging on the hands of a giant clock?

But the upcoming documentary isn’t simply about reminding us how funny slapstick can be. It also explains why gags about people tripping up have had the legs to survive; why slapstick isn’t a comedy format that’s remained trapped in silent movie time.

First, the documentary explains why some of the slapstick stars of the silent era didn’t make it in talkies alongside vaudevillians such as Abbott and Costello, the Three Stooges and the Marx Brothers.

“Vic Reeves points out that Buster Keaton had this persona of being stone-faced and so people didn’t expect him to speak. Chaplin was English, which wasn’t what people expected to hear. But Laurel and Hardy sounded like people expected them to: the baritone of Oliver and the squeaky voice of Stan.”

British comedy films incorporated their own slapstick, evident in comedies such as St Trinian’s. And one of the best pieces of slapstick ever filmed featured Peter Sellers as the hapless Inspector Clouseau, who, faced with a ­menacing Herbert Lom, spins a large globe, leans on it – and ignominiously falls on his axis.

Slapstick also featured on the radio in the 1960s, particularly with the Goons. “For example, there’s a scene where one of the Goons tries to join the river police, and the sketch ends with someone being thrown into the river with a mighty splash,” says McLoone.

Television didn’t ignore the possibilities presented by slapstick either. Cartoons such as Tom And Jerry depended upon it, while American sitcoms such as I Love Lucy and The Dick Van Dyke Show were beholden to its workings. British TV also quickly tuned in to the possibility, with the likes of The Army Game. In the 1970s,

The Goodies deployed physical comedy, and even nicked – sorry, paid homage to – Keaton’s ­collapsing house gag.

Monty Python were also consistent exponents of slapstick. Who can forget the fish sketch, where John Cleese slaps Michael Palin on the head with a huge wet fish and sends him flying into a canal?

“The Pythons once gave a lecture and a performance of slapstick when they appeared at the Hollywood Bowl. What they did was a variation on the banana skin gag,” explains McLoone.

The slapstick in sitcom didn’t stop. There was Some Mothers Do ’Ave ’Em, with Frank on rollerskates, hanging on to a bus; It Ain’t Half Hot, Mum; Terry And June – and who can forget Del Boy’s classic bar-top mishap in Only Fools

And Horses? The Young Ones featured slapstick aplenty, as did a lot of Rik Mayall and Ade Edmondson’s subsequent work. And worldwide phenomenon Friends often relied on visual gags and tomfoolery, with Joey adopting the Harold Lloyd role, cutting doors in half or being trapped by Chandler in a cage.

Gregor Fisher’s Baldy Man was a home-grown favourite, while Rowan Atkinson’s tight-lipped walking disaster Mr Bean even proved how a British TV slapstick character could make the grade as a huge cinema hit. And there’s no sign the slapstick is about to stop. “Little Britain were more on the side of physical comedy,” says McLoone, “but Armstrong and Miller certainly use slapstick. They have entire sketches featuring build-up and anticipation.”

Vic Reeves and Bob Mortimer use it all the time in Shooting Stars. Jackass was mostly slapstick, and Dom Jolly and Ali G used it too. “And the recent BBC2 series Miranda was as close to complete slapstick as you can get,” points out McLoone, “featuring a character who gets locked in a park at night, tries to squeeze through a fence and gets stuck.”

Outside the worlds of film and television, slapstick has found a new fan base thanks to the internet. Now millions can watch granddads fall face down into their soup, or see thieving youths get their scrawny arms stuck in the post box. “We can’t stop laughing at people’s misfortunes,” says McLoone.

And that’s high comedy? Who knows. But what’s inarguable is that it can be very, very funny.


The Story Of Slapstick is on BBC2, Boxing Day, 10.15pm.

Gary Johnson
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Re: Herald Scotland: Slap of the Gods

Postby Gary Johnson » Wed Dec 23, 2009 12:33 am

The other day I was mulling over the quieter moments of the great clowns that always makes me laugh.

For all of their big slapstick scenes that befell L&H it is always the looks that the pair exchanged to each other both before and after disaster struck that hits me in the guts. Among them is in "Way Out West" as Ollie inexplicitly allows Stan to be in charge of hoisting him up to the second floor of Fin's saloon via a block and tackle. As Stan conscientiously secures his friend with a thick rope Ollie looks directly into the camera and his eyes tell us, "Yes....I know I'm an idiot for trusting him..." It's a great moment.

Probably the biggest laugh I ever heard during a Keaton film occurs in "Steamboat Bill Jr." and it doesn't involve a hurricane or falling buildings. Buster is on the outs with both his dad and his girl and is leaving town in disgrace. Buster's girl passes by him without a word, just as in "The Third Man" - (1949), and Buster continues on his way now trailing his girl. When she steps inside a store Buster loses sight of her because
of his typical distracted mind. The girl now has a change of heart and begins tailing Buster as she works up the nerve to apologize to him. Before she can, however, Buster sees his dad being taken to the pokey and decides this is no time to leave. He pivots to return to town causing the girl to instantly turn also and hurriedly walk away. Buster is now dumbfounded to find the person he was following in one direction to be ahead of him in the other direction. What is she....a matrix?? Does she she wander some 3rd dimensional vortex passing through people? It's a great Keaton moment as he blinks and tries to comprehend where the hell she came from. It is also perfectly executed and plays out smoothly on film - just as the similar gag in "The General" does involving boxcars on side tracks moving ahead and behind Keatons' engine.

But for me the one moment that always makes me howl is from Chaplin's "The Fireman". It is a quiet, throw-away moment in an otherwise rambunctious 2 reeler. Chaplin has just made the aquaintance of Edna. He is instantly smitten and she seems likewise, since she has convienently dropped her hankerchief. Ever the gallant gentleman, Charlie swoops it up and, before handing it back to the young maiden, romantically sniffs it. To add emphasis to the moment Charlie makes out to be a he-man. He accomplishes this by throwing out his chest - which consists of him giving his baggy, oversized workshirt a quick tug causing it to billow out. It's a ridiculous moment but Charlie is so taken with it that he momentarily poses for the audience so they can admire his new found physique. This is the Charlie I love - "playfulness unleashed" to quote Walter Kerr.

Gary J.


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