Lamenting The Death Of Slapstick

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Wallingford
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Lamenting The Death Of Slapstick

Post by Wallingford » Sun Jul 24, 2005 5:35 pm

There has been SO LITTLE to laugh at in the contemporary world of comedy--indeed, comedy of the last 2 decades. What lies at the root of the problem is the literal extinction of good old SLAPSTICK......for all practical purposes, no one seems to have a grasp of first-rate, non-verbal clowning.

Granted, there've been a few earnest attempts on the big-screen, to their credit; and one should think that,with all the advances in computer-animation techniques, slapstick could be carried off with greater finesse than before.....but uh-uh. Maybe here & there in the Pixar CGI films, or perhaps "Ice Age," it may infrequently hit the heights. But nowhere near what anyone's imagination could REALLY conjure up.

I think much of it has to do with many actors' misunderstanding of the CONCEPT of slapstick--the late Robert Reed (old papa Brady himself, and probably the most frustrated actor on earth) wrote frequent tirades, usually many pages long, to the "Brady Bunch" producers about why the current episode was bad comedy. Reed listed the main different types of comedy, singling out "The Beverly Hillbillies" for his representation of slapstick. This is an erroneous definition, for "Beverly Hillbillies" is really an advanced form of absurdism--a genre which wouldn't reach full perfection until the series' second spin-off, "Green Acres" (now THERE was a genius of a sitcom).

Much of it boils down, though, to the loss of identity of our American comedic heritage; the boob-tube's now LITTERED with sitcoms of an overtly theatrical bent, with hundreds of frustrated Barrymores and Hepburns whining endlessly. THis is due to the increased emulation of what our British cousins have done in THEIR sitcoms, a trend starting 35 years ago when "All In The Family" was adapted from its English inspiration, "Till Death Do Us Part"; with the first spin-off, "Sanford & Son," being an African-American equivalent to "Steptoe & Son."

And when "Cheers" was created by Glen & Les Charles and Jim Burrows, they went on record as being huge fans of Monty Python and (particularly) John Cleese & "Fawlty Towers." And Burrows said that "In 'Cheers,' nobody trips on the banana peel.'" So THAT'S what I always missed in that show......with the Pythons & "Fawlty," at least our English cousins always had their famed "silliness" to see them through; there ALWAYS was some neat dab of physical comedy.

In any case, it's all just another case of the other man's grass being always greener; because now, the Brits are inexplicably envious of OUR comedies, with a subsequent bleeding together of the two styles and resulting in what you see today--on BOTH sides of the Atlantic, with no variety whatsoever. Small wonder I never watched TV on my London trip 3 years back.

Actually, the two countries' differences had been as they SHOULD have been: as a "London Times" TV critic wrote a decade ago, the British comedy heritage was always the theatre, and our true comedic legacy is the MOVIE SLAPSTICK COMEDIES (particularly those of the silent era).

The biggest sin seems to be in TV-Land; ever since the big networks' efforts to up the "quality" and "realism" in TV comedy, we've seen virtually nothing but actors roaming back and forth on the same set, episode after episode, talking their heads off. It bespeaks a total lack of imagination, making one yearn for a nice helping of old 60s-style comedy "escapism." At least THOSE programs had honest-to-God filmmaking craftsmanship, and stayed true to our movie-comedy heritage. They may even have stimulated a kid's desire to read.

Recent American movie comedies haven't been much better. Strangely, the pie-in-the-face, or poke-in-the-eye, have been replaced with the CAR CRASH. Somehow, new autos being wrecked have taken the place of more innocent frivolity and modern films have thrown away huge sums of money with endless collisions. It probably started with "The Blues Brothers" 25 years ago (just about the most wasteful film I've ever seen), and the resultant quality continually surpassed itself in being lowered.

If, through some inexplicable quirk of fate, I ever were made czar of the entire planet, one of the first laws I'd enforce would be to require anyone aspiring to a career as a sitcom actor, to enroll in Clown College. (Yes, there IS such a place.) If anyone would not agree to take a course in tossing a pie at so many dozens of yards, they'd be required to go for an elective, such as RECEIVING a pie from the same distance. (And no eating allowed of the ones that missed.) A student would probably start out with creampuffs.

People have always criticized The Three Stooges, saying they're inferior or that they represented the lowest form of comedy.......hugely debatable now, in view of the plethora of foul-mouthed verbal humor going on now (let's not talk about "virtual reality"). At least the Stooges were top-notch at what they did; they were great CLOWNS. The Stooges never were afraid of taking a spill--or, of course, getting decked with a pie.

Could it really be that, with the deaths of Benny Hill & Red Skelton in the last 13 years, pure sight-gag clowning accompanied them? Come on, let's get our modern-day equivalents out of the woodwork, or wherever they've been hiding. Even the mimes are welcome here--it's practically their stock-in-trade. Good clean comedy should be here to STAY.
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Getting ready for Christmas day
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Post by Ralph » Sun Jul 24, 2005 6:13 pm

Slaptick becomes, too often, boringly old-we've seen it all before and the early greats like Laurel and Hardy and Buster Keaton and, of course, Charlie Chaplin, are still very satisfying.

The current box office hit, "Wedding Crashers," has some amusing slapstick. It's a surprisingly funny movie.
Last edited by Ralph on Mon Jul 25, 2005 6:19 pm, edited 1 time in total.
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Post by Corlyss_D » Sun Jul 24, 2005 8:17 pm

Nice analysis, Wallingford.

I think the last man working in slapstick who made it work is Dick Van Dyke, because he obviously enjoyed it. When he came back to TV with his Diagnosis: Murder 1993-2001, he still let rip with some hilarious slapstick. Perhaps "stars" got to be too big and too cerebral for physical humor. A long time fan of Lucille Ball, another great at physical comedy, he never seemed ill at ease in the genre. It fit him as easily as dancing.
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Post by Ralph » Sun Jul 24, 2005 8:34 pm

Corlyss_D wrote:Nice analysis, Wallingford.

I think the last man working in slapstick who made it work is Dick Van Dyke, because he obviously enjoyed it. When he came back to TV with his Diagnosis: Murder 1993-2001, he still let rip with some hilarious slapstick. Perhaps "stars" got to be too big and too cerebral for physical humor. A long time fan of Lucille Ball, another great at physical comedy, he never seemed ill at ease in the genre. It fit him as easily as dancing.
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And we musn't forget The Great One - Jackie Gleason.
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Post by Brendan » Mon Jul 25, 2005 12:19 am

Jackie Chan is probably the best at the genre who ever lived, IMHO. Jackie idolizes Buster Keaton, but I consider some of his sequences (such as the legendary Umbrella scene) unrivalled slapstick masterpieces. The World of Drunken Master is probably the most famous, but in general he has taken more blows, fallen out of more windows and been splattered with more food in the face than anyone I can think of.

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Post by Ralph » Mon Jul 25, 2005 5:21 am

Brendan wrote:Jackie Chan is probably the best at the genre who ever lived, IMHO. Jackie idolizes Buster Keaton, but I consider some of his sequences (such as the legendary Umbrella scene) unrivalled slapstick masterpieces. The World of Drunken Master is probably the most famous, but in general he has taken more blows, fallen out of more windows and been splattered with more food in the face than anyone I can think of.
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Chan is fun but somehow when I think of slapstick, martial arts types don't come to mind.
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Brendan

Post by Brendan » Mon Jul 25, 2005 3:48 pm

Chan is fun but somehow when I think of slapstick, martial arts types don't come to mind.
And you're probably one of those folk who think horror splatter-fests aren't comedy either. :twisted: Drunken master and its ilk are hilarious, with some of the finest slapstick ever to be seen. Kung Pow is a recent one that springs to mind, although there is a new martial arts self-spoof I can't recall that I wanted to see. Must be off to surf the net.

Ted

Post by Ted » Mon Jul 25, 2005 4:01 pm

Ralph
Thanks for mentioning the “Great One”, though he is way beyond just a mention
I must also include Woody Allen…though used sparingly, his early films show his great sense of slapstick timing fumbling/ believability.

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Post by Wallingford » Mon Jul 25, 2005 5:53 pm

Brendan wrote:
Chan is fun but somehow when I think of slapstick, martial arts types don't come to mind.
And you're probably one of those folk who think horror splatter-fests aren't comedy either. :twisted: Drunken master and its ilk are hilarious, with some of the finest slapstick ever to be seen. Kung Pow is a recent one that springs to mind, although there is a new martial arts self-spoof I can't recall that I wanted to see. Must be off to surf the net.
Interesting, how slapstick's apparently become the exclusive domain of violent action pics......normally, I'd find those a bit of an insult to the intelligence, but maybe Chan IS worth checking out......

Ever wonder, too, how sight-gag clowning's gone out of musical theatre productions that could REALLY USE IT? I remember--30 years ago--going to my first live production of "The Mikado," put on by a small-time group called the Manhattan Savoyards: THEY knew how to sprinkle the libretto & music with hilarious sight-gags, in addition to their occasional ad-libbing on the dialogue (like Ko-Ko's repeated mentionings of the orchestra's second trombonist in his "little list"). Most of the patomime stuff involved the fans carried by the entire cast: once, when Poo-Bah was in a moment of exasperation, he flicked out a fan even taller than HIM! I haven't seen ANYTHING like this in a Gilbert & Sullivan production, live or TV, SINCE. I'm inclined to think Britain's D'Oyly Carte company wouldn't have gone out of business in '83 if they'd used a bit of this.
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Post by Ralph » Mon Jul 25, 2005 6:21 pm

Brendan wrote:
Chan is fun but somehow when I think of slapstick, martial arts types don't come to mind.
And you're probably one of those folk who think horror splatter-fests aren't comedy either. :twisted: Drunken master and its ilk are hilarious, with some of the finest slapstick ever to be seen. Kung Pow is a recent one that springs to mind, although there is a new martial arts self-spoof I can't recall that I wanted to see. Must be off to surf the net.
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Well I don't watch horror films so I can venture no opinion.
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Post by Corlyss_D » Mon Jul 25, 2005 9:04 pm

Brendan wrote:Jackie Chan is probably the best at the genre who ever lived, IMHO. Jackie idolizes Buster Keaton, but I consider some of his sequences (such as the legendary Umbrella scene) unrivalled slapstick masterpieces. The World of Drunken Master is probably the most famous, but in general he has taken more blows, fallen out of more windows and been splattered with more food in the face than anyone I can think of.
Thanks for reminding me of Chan. I really must check out his movies - I've never seen one all the way thru. When I'm standing in front of them in the video store I don't know where to start, so I don't.
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Brendan

Post by Brendan » Mon Jul 25, 2005 9:23 pm

Ralph,

Most of Jackie Chan's movies are not "violent action pics" in the Hollywood style. They are choreographed stunts and sequences, falls and chases with stylized and comical martial arts moves. The sequence in Drunken Master of the two old dudes "fighting" over a bottle of vino without spilling a drop is the kind of inventive visual comedy folk seem to have missed.

As far as horror movies go, I gave up years ago myself when Buffy the Vampire Slayer took the genre out with style all their own.

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Post by Ralph » Mon Jul 25, 2005 9:58 pm

Brendan wrote:Ralph,

Most of Jackie Chan's movies are not "violent action pics" in the Hollywood style. They are choreographed stunts and sequences, falls and chases with stylized and comical martial arts moves. The sequence in Drunken Master of the two old dudes "fighting" over a bottle of vino without spilling a drop is the kind of inventive visual comedy folk seem to have missed.

As far as horror movies go, I gave up years ago myself when Buffy the Vampire Slayer took the genre out with style all their own.
*****

I've seen most of Chan's films from the early ones intended solely for the Chinese market to his more recent Hollywood ones.

I have enjoyed some of the more recent martial arts films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Wonton," "Zatoichi-The Blind Swordsman" (the big production values for-export version), "House of Flying Daggers" and a few others.
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Post by Haydnseek » Tue Jul 26, 2005 8:56 am

I agree that Jackie Chan has performed some really inspired physical comedy. He is clearly working in the silent movie tradition but he creates new gags that have never been seen before. He is past his physical prime now though and I don’t think we can expect much more from him as a performer. I have never seen a really good film by Chan (I’ll take any recommendations) which is a pity because he is very talented. He should have given us a Jackie Chan equivalent of "The General" or "The Gold Rush." His American films seem inferior to some of his Hong Kong productions. The martial arts aspects of the movies make them occasionally too violent for my taste, spoiling some of the comic mood. Still, each one includes some brilliant sequences.

I can’t think of anyone who is doing outstanding slapstick right now. Rowan Atkinson did some very good work in his "Mr. Bean" series a few years ago. Patricia Routledge performed some outstanding physical comedy in "Keeping Up Appearances."

One of my favorite film comedians who followed in the silent tradition was Jacques Tati who worked from the 1950’s into the early 1970’s making just a few finely crafted films. He was a genius.
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Post by Wallingford » Tue Jul 26, 2005 6:35 pm

Actually, I INTENTIONALLY left out Mr. Bean, just to see if you guys would trot him out as an example.......I'm AMAZED at how many, when I voice the lamentations in my posting above, how they'll automatically mention Rowan Atkinson's "Bean" characterization.

Mr. Bean is NOT slapstick.........it's more like "edge-of-screwball." Now, I have my own definition of "screwball comedy," just as everyone else does; which is why, when you look in the google-dictionary, you'll find that there IS no definite definition of the genre. It's just become too vague or abused a term to really have any meaning. MY definition of "screwball" is, simply, an exceedingly wimpy form of slapstick. Rowan Atkinson's the kind of comic who prefers "dishing it out" to "taking it"--he actually doesn't have anything hit him & doesn't take a fall. He never took the risk of getting hurt (to a greater or lesser extent); he's a mean-spirited type, too. I find Mr. Bean to be, really, just a slightly-creepier version of Pee Wee Herman.

Perhaps one big reason I'm indifferent on Atkinson is because of his association with Ben Elton, who took over as head writer for Atkinson after the latter quit writing his own material (a FATAL mistake, in my opinion, explaining why all the "Black Adder" series after the first one don't make me laugh). Elton also wrote for "Mr. Bean."

Writer Ben Elton is, to me, possibly the unfunniest person in the world (apart from, say, Harry Anderson); Elton's name will always live in infamy for his 1986 diatribe against Benny Hill, claiming that Hill's humor encourages raping of women (a well-publicized statement that distressed and angered Hill). Really, Mr. Elton: it's not good form for one comic mind to criticize another; it merely proves how humorless you really are.

I tell you: what reason IS there to laugh, with types like that living today??
If I could tell my mom and dad
That the things we never had
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Post by Auntie Lynn » Tue Jul 26, 2005 8:54 pm

I REALLY miss Laugh In...I see it's now out on DVD...

Dan Rowan was a friend of one of our Senior Vice Pres's in the office...

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Post by Corlyss_D » Tue Jul 26, 2005 11:08 pm

And leave us not forget the inimitable irreplaceable Benny Hill.
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Post by Ralph » Wed Jul 27, 2005 5:24 am

A true master of slapstick was (is) John Cleese. The DVD of the twelve episodes of "Fawlty Towers" is wonderful.
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Post by Haydnseek » Wed Jul 27, 2005 9:00 am

Wallingford wrote:Mr. Bean is NOT slapstick.........it's more like "edge-of-screwball."
I see the distinction you're making but I would think that Bean would still qualify as "sight-gag clowning." I loved the episodes where he dressed for work while driving and when he brought home a new armchair on top of his Mini.

By the way, during the recent centennial remembrances for lyricist Dorothy Fields it was mentioned that her father was Lew Fields of the comedy team of Webber and Fields and that they invented the custard pie in the face gag as well as the joke “Who was that lady I saw you with?” Answer: “That was no lady, that was my wife.”

I don’t think Peter Sellers has been mentioned as someone who carried on the slapstick tradition into more recent times.

I watched the Laurel and Hardy Oscar winner “The Music Box” last evening for the 100th time. It not only comedy, it’s philosophy too.
"The law isn't justice. It's a very imperfect mechanism. If you press exactly the right buttons and are also lucky, justice may show up in the answer. A mechanism is all the law was ever intended to be." - Raymond Chandler

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Post by Wallingford » Wed Jul 27, 2005 12:40 pm

The wonderful thing about "The Music Box" is: that piano is literally a character in ITSELF.

And as long as we're on the subject of Hal Roach Studios comedies: one of the earliest Our Gang/Little Rascals talkies is 1930's "Shivering Shakespeare"--directed by Anthony Mack. Mack's real name was Robert Anthony McGowan, nephew of the series' head director, Robert Francis McGowan. Unc brought in nephew (still in his teens) to help the kid's shyness, & Roach agreed to let him become a second-string director. Now, Anthony Mack's talent didn't evolve into anything above average, but even HE knew how to do a side-splitter of a slapstick comedy: "Shivering Shakespeare" has the Our Gang kids stuttering their way through a school production of "Quo Vadis," with some angry tough kids who were kicked out of the production pelting the players with rotten eggs & tomatoes......prompting the angered parents in the audience to patronize the convenient pie-sale taking place in back of the auditorium, and the final ten minutes are taken up with EVERYONE (except for haughty Teacher) getting pelted. Actually, the teacher herself gets a huge attack of 'em for the film's fading shot.

EVERYONE was an expert at making films like that in those days.
If I could tell my mom and dad
That the things we never had
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Getting ready for Christmas day
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Post by Ralph » Wed Jul 27, 2005 12:50 pm

Right on with "Inspector Clouseau!"
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