Sometimes dismissed as a lesser form of comedy, slapstick is actually one of the hardest comic mediums to nail, requiring great timing, physical prowess and a good connection with your co-stars to get even the tiniest chortle from the audience. The Farrelly Brothers’ Three Stooges reboot might not give the genre the kickstart it deserves, but it did get us thinking about the high points in slapstick history. Watch and marvel at the sheer insanity of some of these hijinks – and start petitioning your nearest studio to bring them back.
Performer: Buster Keaton
As seen in: Steamboat Bill Jr. (1928)
Watch the full movie here
No stuntmen. No special effects. This is the real Buster Keaton being blown along in a hospital bed, narrowing avoiding death-by-falling-house-front and leaning Michael Jackson-style into the wind. The king of physical comedy, Keaton was an unparalleled original and truly one of the greatest actor/director/writers in the history of cinema. Orson Welles even called his 1936 masterpiece, The General, “the greatest comedy ever made, the greatest Civil War film ever made, and perhaps the greatest film ever made” – something you can safely say is the exact opposite of faint praise.
Performers: Laurel and Hardy
As seen in: You’re Darn Tootin’ (1928)
Watch the full short here
One of the finest messes Laurel and Hardy ever got themselves into, the infamous pants removal scene at the end of You’re Darn Tootin’ is an early highlight from the pair’s long and illustrious career. Perfectly typifying their miraculous ability to pull everyone around them into their vortex of anarchy, it contains all of the key Laurel and Hardy beats: their dreams crumbling around them, the inventive involvement of innocent bystanders and a sense of indignity tempered by their love/hate for each other. That, and people hitting each other in the name of comedy – but that goes without saying.
Performer: Charlie Chaplin
As seen in: City Lights (1931)
Watch the full film here
Undoubtedly one of Chaplin’s best feature films, City Lights came at the changeover period between silent cinema and the unstoppable onslaught of the talkies familiar to film fans from Singin’ In The Rain and The Artist. But despite the opportunity to festoon his latest tale of The Tramp with speech, Chaplin stuck with silence, delivering a beautiful swansong for the end of an era as well as bucketloads of gags, an exceptionally heartfelt ending and the funniest boxing scene of all time. That’s right, Scary Movie 4, you heard; Chaplin’s got you beat.
Performers: Edgar Kennedy, Chico Marx, Harpo Marx
As seen in: Duck Soup (1930)
The most famous scene from Duck Soup is the mirror gag between Harpo and Groucho, but the best bit of slapstick is the fight between Marco, Chico and the lemonade vendor that sees an innocent man bullied within the inch of his life. Hats are swapped, lemonade is squirted, hats are swapped again, legs are kicked and hats are set on fire. In other words, it’s not a good day to be either a hat or a lemonade vendor in this particular corner of Freedonia. As for that mirror gag, well, that had been done many times before, most notably by Charlie Chaplin in The Floorwalker (1916) and Max Linder in Seven Years Bad Luck (1921). It still worked for you well enough though, Groucho ol’ chap, don’t you worry.
Performers: The Three Stooges
As seen in: You Naszty Spy (1940)
Larry, Curly and Moe weren't all double-fingered eye-pokes, hammers to the noggin and lobsters down the trousers: the definitive slapstick threesome also snuck in some satire from time to time. Case in point is 1940's 18 minute Hitler-spoofing short, You Nazsty Spy!, which shoved two fingers at Mr Hitler's eyeballs a whole nine months before Charlie Chaplin wowed the world with his globe ballet in The Great Dictator. Still, Chaplin didn't fit in so many forced puns and people falling over, so credit where it's due.
Performer: Jerry Lewis
As seen in: Who’s Minding The Store? (1963)
Though not technically slapstick, Jerry Lewis’ pantomime act of playing the typewriter in 1963’s Who’s Minding The Store? to the tune of Leroy Anderson’s The Typewriter – which Radio 4 fans may recognise as the theme to The News Quiz – is the finest of its kind. It follows a similar routine in TV’s Martin And Lewis, as well as 1961’s The Errand Boy, which sees Lewis’ eponymous character pretending to be the big boss to the tune of Blues In Hoss Flat by the Count Basie Orchestra. Family Guy even paid homage to this skit in a 2010 episode, and despite being a cartoon, it somehow still stands up.
Performers: The cast of Blazing Saddles
As seen in: Blazing Saddles (1974)
The end of Mel Brooks’ horse-punching Western sees the entire cast of the film break through the fourth wall and into the Warner Bros. lot, fighting other movies’ actors before making their way to the studio’s canteen. There, a somehow inevitable slapstick pie fight commences, with cream on everyone’s faces almost instantly. The bad guy of the piece, the despicable State Attorney General Hedley Lamarr, is so afraid of any foam-to-fizzog action he applies it himself within the comfortable confines of a restroom. So remember, comedy writers, if you don’t know how to end your movie, look to pie (see also: Bugsy Malone). You can’t go wrong.
Performer: Peter Sellers
As seen in: The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976)
This much-loved interrogation scene from the penultimate Sellers-starring Pink Panther movie features some of the finest physical comedy Clouseau ever committed to celluloid. Calling himself “the Pavlova of the parallels”, the bumbling French detective begins the scene by leaping down a flight of stairs before karate chopping a suit of armour, clubbing a beekeeper and wrecking a priceless Steinway piano. This symphony of slapstick was achieved despite director Blake Edwards and his star actively loathing each other – Edwards once described Sellers as “physically unfit” and “certifiable” – and the fact that script was based on a hastily written TV episode.
Performers: Jackie Chan, James Tien
As seen in: The Fearless Hyena (1979)
Though he’s best known for his stunts, martial arts and willingness to dress up as Chun-Li from Street Fighter II, Jackie Chan is also one of the finest physical comedians the world has ever known and a huge fan of silent comedy slapstick (see his Keaton- and Gene Kelly-riffing routine in Shanghai Knights for details). Most of his comedy gets wrapped up in his stunt work or fight scenes, but occasionally he gets the chance to be straight-out funny. This Kung Fu Panda-inspiring chopstick squabble from The Fearless Hyena is a good example, combining jaw-dropping dexterity with some of the worst trolling in existence. Seriously, don’t get any ideas, internet – it’s not worth it.
Performer: Bruce Campbell
As seen in: Evil Dead II (1987)
As well as reminding us never to judge a book of DEATH by its cover, Evil Dead II is a useful refresher in why one should always keep a chainsaw in the kitchen. As well as helping with exceptionally tough turkeys, it’s also handy – no pun intended – for lopping off any possessed prehensile extremities that might be trying to beat / stab you to death with the other contents of the room. Bruce Campbell earned himself an eternal place among the comedy gods here by the simple expedient of beating himself up, throwing himself around the room and finally taking a power tool to his own limb. Kids, do NOT try this at home.
Performers: Macaulay Culkin, Joe Pesci, Daniel Stern
As seen in: Home Alone (1990)
Like a live-action Itchy & Scratchy, Home Alone doesn’t mess around with the cartoon violence. Hands might not be severed, but heads are set on fire, nails are driven through feet and hot irons are dropped from a great height onto upturned faces. In other words, The Gold Rush it ain’t. Despite its morbid obsession with pain – or, rather, because of it – Macaulay Culkin’s breakout movie was a phenomenon in the early ‘90s, spawning three sequels and proving once again that kids love seeing adults in extreme agony. So much so, in fact, that the sequel was a carbon copy of the original, except by then Culkin’s Kevin McAllister had form, and what’s worse, daddy’s credit card. Gulp.
Performer: Kelsey Grammer
As seen in: Cape Feare (1993)
Though not a feature film, the second episode of The Simpsons’ fifth season, the monumentally good Cape Feare, is worth a mention here for its sterling use of that slapstick staple, standing-on-a-rake. After spoofing Cape Fear (and its 1991 remake), as well as numerous other thrillers, the producers of the 21-minute episode found they needed to fill some time. So they played what became a character-defining gag on Sideshow Bob, who is shown standing on a rake and groaning nine times in a row. Voice actor Kelsey Grammar only recorded one take, which is why each groan is identical – but somehow that just makes it funnier. Does the psychotic clown never look down?
Performers: Bob Barker, Adam Sandler
As seen in: Happy Gilmore (1996)
Though his name has now become a byword for lazy-but-bizarrely-successful comedy disasters (see Jack & Jill – or, preferably, don’t), in 1995 the young Adam Sandler had been freshly fired from Saturday Night Live and had a few points to prove. One these points was that he was willing to tussle with much-loved TV presenter in his 70s – The Price Is Right’s Bob Barker – and the results proved very amusing indeed. With both stars channeling their inner slapstick and throwing themselves fully into the ridiculous situation, the resulting scuffle treads a very fine line between seriously weird and seriously funny, giving both Sandler and Barker kiss-off lines that live long in the memory… bitch.
Performer: Jim Carrey
As seen in: Liar Liar (1997)
Liar Liar is a one-joke movie. Fortunately, it’s a good joke: a sliver-tongued liar lawyer can only speak the truth – and nothing but the truth – for 24 hours. The resulting anarchy sees Carrey insult every single one of his colleagues in a tirade of expletives, describe a blue pen as “R…r…r…r…r…r…r…rrrROYAL BLUE” (he can’t quite call it red) and eventually, in an extreme act of desperation, beat himself up in a courtroom toilet. There, as he angrily thumps a loo seat into his head for the seventh time, the audience finally forgives him for Mr Popper’s Penguins. We’re not sure why the sight of someone beating themselves up makes for such satisfying slapstick, but there you go.
Performer: Rowan Atkinson
As seen in: Bean (1997)
Though its ignominious 2007 follow-up, Mr. Bean’s Holiday, is a one star disaster area, the original Bean feature film defied expectations to deliver a surprisingly entertaining, frequently ludicrous family comedy. Its highlight, aside from a rerun of the turkey-on-the-head gag from the original TV show and a two-way police mirror skit, is this scene wherein Mr. Atkinson gently air humps a hand dryer in a public lavatory. This is why gentlemen should always carry a handkerchief, and why they should not wash their hands like they’re two live salmon trying to mate.
Performer: Kevin Klee
As seen in: Idiocracy (2006)
It turns out that Terry Crews’ finest comic hour, Idiocracy, is also the highlight of one Mr. Kevin Klee’s comic career too. Who’s Kevin Klee, you wonder? Why, he’s the ‘Ow! My Balls! Guy’ from Mike Judge’s 2006 intellectual apocalypse movie, the man seen getting kicked in the nuts (and off a fifth floor balcony) before landing on a fence, then getting bitten by a dog (in the balls) and, and, and… you get the idea. A both-barrels indictment of America’s Funniest Home videos shows, it’s also somehow hilarious in its own right, making it a rare example of comedy having its own cake and eating it… before throwing the leftovers at someone’s nuts.