Slapstick is making something of a comeback, with two film seasons already this year celebrating silent comedy and a BBC series about the genre scheduled for the Spring. So why is no one making new slapstick comedy these days?
At the end of Buster Keaton's short comedy thriller The High Sign, the triumphant Buster (above) walks round the corner of the street and there is a banana skin in his path. With a knowing gesture to the camera, he walks right past it. It gets a big laugh from audiences, and whatever people thought of it 84 years ago it seems to say to the modern viewer, "There's more to slapstick than you thought, you know."
Slapstick does not seem to have a very good name these days. If sarcasm is the lowest form of wit, then slapstick is the lowest form of comedy, all custard pies and banana skins, people hitting each other and falling over.
But Buster Keaton seems to be bouncing back somewhat at the moment, with a two-month season at the NFT and a 28-film DVD The Buster Keaton Chronicles out on Monday. Watching these films is a reminder - or a revelation maybe - that the physical comedy of the inter-war years is vastly more than that. It is inventive, witty, exciting and amazingly skilful.
As an example of the last two, Sherlock Jr. culminates in a one-vehicle chase, Keaton sitting on the handlebars of a motorbike he mistakenly believes someone is driving, as it careers down the road, in an out out of traffic. Finally he comes to a half-built bridge.
Paul Merton will present a new BBC series on slapstick
The gap in the middle of it is momentarily filled by two buses passing through in opposite directions, and then the bridge slowly collapses to let him safely down. As a visual spectacle, it rivals anything in The Lord of the Rings or King Kong, precisely because you know you're seeing a human being in action. It's a kind of intimacy that computer technology can get in the way of.
Visual tricks can play with your expectations just as cleverly as verbal ones. In the wonderful short One Week, Buster and his wife are dragging their new house across a railroad track (it's a long story). It gets stuck and there's a train coming in the distance. They struggle to pull it out of the way, and give up, only for the train to pass by on a parallel track. Just as we're breathing a sigh of relief, a train comes the opposite way and crashes right through it.
So where did all the slapstick go then? Why do the sticks of today's filmmakers remain so pitifully unslapped?
It is said that audiences today are too sophisticated, but that evolutionary assumption holds less water than Stan Laurel's trousers. The success of comedies like American Pie hardly suggests that today's viewers despise the intellectually undemanding, while Keaton's The General is "arguably the greatest screen comedy ever made" according to the London listings magazine Time Out.
What's more, the whole genre of action films, from James Bond to Spider-Man, is based on our love of spectacular stunts.
Slapstick's greatest proponents: Laurel and Hardy
Historically several things did for slapstick. The most obvious was the coming of "talkies" from 1927. Visual comedy ruled silent cinema, being one of the few genres of film that doesn't really need sound at all.
The emergence of cartoons in the 1930s offered all the wild stunts of Keaton and Harold Lloyd, and far wilder. And so slapstick followed the same path as fairytales, both of which were originally for adults but were passed down to children when they became unpopular.
That's not to say slapstick for the over-18s is dead. Chris Daniels, who, with comedian Paul Merton, has staged a silent comedy festival at Bristol Watershed arts centre for the past two years, detects a revival of interest.
"The problem is access. People have not had access to these films because they are not on television," says Mr Daniels.
Yet the programme is almost exclusively dedicated to dusting off classic movies of the 1920s and 30s. Are there no contemporary slapstickers?
"What you get these days is elements of slapstick and silent comedy within spoken routines," he says, citing Vic and Bob as two arch exponents.
Slapstick 1990s-style: The visually visceral Bottom
"The Goodies in the 70s and 80s did a huge amount of it, and Neil Innes in the late 70s. Bottom, with Ade Edmonson and Rik Mayall, was full-on slapstick."
Norman Wisdom, now 91, is perhaps our last truly slapstick comedian, he says.
Mr Daniels admits that while the Bristol festival has been a sell-out for two years running, it is still niche. But that's true of any old film, he argues. "You couldn't put Casablanca on general release and expect it to sell out."
Maybe there is too much money washing around the film world these days. The stars of the 1920s and 1930s did all their own stunts, but no producer would risk having someone as Jim Carrey, or even Rowan Atkinson, diving out of windows or switching between moving cars.
Even the length of films is against slapstick. Though it produced some great feature films, visual comedy thrives in the 30-minute format, much like sitcom and sketch comedy. For whatever reason, shorts are NO longer on the bill in cinemas.
For this reason, visual comedy, while living on as one ever present aspect in all TV and cinema comedy - Del Boy falling over in the bar, the Ministry of Silly Walks - still sometimes heads the bill on TV. The most successful example is Mr Bean, whose 14 silent-ish shorts have been shown in 200 territories worldwide.
In this age of globalisation, perhaps the international language of slapstick is ripe for a comeback.
Add your comments on this story, using the form below.
Never mind all this intellectual claptrap. There is nothing deep and meaningful about it, slapstick is just funny to look at.
Ann Molyneux, Peterborough
Jackie Chan's films have plenty of slapstick in them. He's also famous for performing all his own stunts.
Richard Wood, Swansea
Slapstick is "alive" and certainly well in the Wallace and Gromit films and the Washington Post recently described Gromit as "Perhaps the most expressive silent star since Buster Keaton".
Nick Goodall, Southampton, UK
I can see where you are coming from, and I love Laurel and Hardy, but there is one modern exponent of slapstick that you are missing and that is Jackie Chan.
Stephen Herrett, Burnley Lancashire
The time is ripe for a comeback. Back to basics, rather than this strain of "nasty" comedy we get these days...
Nick Higgins, Leicester
Slapstick didn't die - in fact it's still very much with us. You only have to watch some of the acts of idiocy on home video TV shows to see that!
Craig E Laycock, Preston, UK
It's still very much alive - but fortunately, good modern filmmakers recognise that slapstick is best taken in small doses.
Look at the state of humour today. When did stupidity, idiocy and malicious violence become so funny and so popular? Post-modern humour has nothing left to offer. All we get nowadays are shows that work on a simply principle of being offensive. If it's offensive, it must be funny. Maybe it was, for about a year, but it is easier to be offensive than to be genuinely funny. At least slapstick had its genuinely funny moments at times.
Norman Wisdom the last slapstick comedian? Rubbish. What about Lee Evans?
I watched a DVD of Laurel & Hardy with my three-year-old son the other day which I ended up playing four times. It was such a joy to see someone so young almost crying with laughter at such innocent and non innuendo sketches.
Paul Bunce, West Bromwich
We need more but there are still current comedy programs using it for example the great comedy series Little Britain. But surely only so much can be done with this comedy method, that's why comedy has moved forward.
Sy Cook, Amersham, Bucks
The IT Crowd on Channel 4 tonight has some of the best slapstick I've seen for a while, as well as some excellent build-ups. No IT jokes either, which is probably a good thing.
The best comedy still includes an element of slapstick - the Del Boy scene mentioned is the perfect example. Slapstick will remain central to comedy as long as no one tries to put into a special category. It doesn't need this and 100 years from now comedians will still be falling over to raise a laugh.
Andrew Crick, Oxfordshire, UK
Suspect No.1 is Post-Modernism: you cannot laugh at something funny without the pretext of self-knowing irony. Black and white slapstick didn't stand a chance in the PC 80/90's - which have a lot to answer for!
Whatever happened to slapstick? You can see it most days on the Parliament Channel on TV.
Karl Hutchinson, London
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