BY Brian Dillon in Features | 01 OCT 07
Featured in
Issue 110

Another Fine Mess

Nine theses on slapstick

BY Brian Dillon in Features | 01 OCT 07

1 The essence of slapstick is slowness.

The velocity of certain actions – a swift kick to the seat of the pants, a high-speed Keystone pursuit, the sudden collision of face and patisserie – might almost persuade us otherwise, but slapstick is in truth sedulously devoted to the study of slowness. Where verbal wit is an art of sleight, alacrity and surprise, slapstick essays a dogged, Zeno-like decomposition of human actions into their component gestures, so that they seem to last for ever. It demands infinite patience from actor and audience alike – everything unfolds as though there is all the time in the world. Of the several theorists of slowness to have emerged from silent comedy, Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy were without doubt the most advanced. In their classic talkie Them Thar Hills (1934) the vacationing saps have their caravan upended by an irate Charlie Hall. Stan has already hacked off Hall’s forelock and glued it to his chin, while Ollie has knocked a plate of beans into his trousers. Predictable stuff, perhaps – but what is instructive is Hall’s saintly resignation throughout, the way he just stands there and takes his protracted punishment. Hardy too will wait patiently while Hall sets his arse alight for having covered him, very slowly and very carefully indeed, with molasses and feathers.

2 Slapstick is inherently logical: its subject is reason itself, and its form is but a repeated insistence on the relation of cause to effect.

This is why later avatars of cinematic slapstick – the Crazy Gang in Britain, The Three Stooges in the USA – were so unfunny: they failed to grasp that slapstick has nothing to do with the madcap, zany or antic. It is a matter instead, as Henri Bergson averred of comedy in general, of a machine logic, something mechanical encrusted on the living, or ‘some rigidity or other applied to the mobility of life, in an awkward attempt to follow its lines and counterfeit its suppleness’.1 At its best, slapstick goes further: it stages not only the appearance of rational action taken to its absurd extreme but also the mechanics of thought as such – the (perfectly rational, therefore idiotic) decisions behind the behaviour. This is one reason for the peculiarly reflective nature of Peter Fischli and David Weiss’ Der Lauf der Linge (The Way Things Go, 1987), in which objects, machines and substances, arrayed in an inexorable chain of cause and effect, seem possessed not only of agency but of reason, and doubt, and suspicion: ‘There are moments when instead of acting automatically, and with immediacy, the objects seem to hesitate, as if reflecting upon what it is they are about to do: the tyre resting amongst the burning newspaper before moving on, and resting again before rolling on once more.’2

3 Deliberation and delicacy are essential to slapstick: so much so that its closest aesthetic affinity is with the world of the dandy.

Consider once more the person of Oliver Hardy: a great balletic infant, a Bowery-born Oscar Wilde, whose every precise and prissy little gesture (a twirl of the hat, that thing with his tie) expresses his total concentration on the phenomenal realm. This is precisely his problem, and also what he shares with Stan Laurel. (They are not opposites at all.) They take their pratfalls not because they are stupid, or careless, or distracted, but because they are too attentive to the task at hand. It’s Ollie’s fastidiousness that leads to the loss of his trousers, Stan’s extreme care that means he will inevitably hammer that nail into a water pipe, or massage his friend’s foot instead of his own. This sort of diligence marks the slapstick artist out as a comic dandy, an aesthete with regard to his own body and the objects it touches. (That his assiduity rebounds on him is almost, in the best slapstick performances, beside the point.) In 1925 Edward Steichen photographed Charlie Chaplin, out of character, looking every inch the modern dandy. On the wall behind Chaplin his shadow is still the silhouette of his little tramp.

4 In slapstick the pratfall is more a heroic than a hapless dive: what it stages is not the self as it slips and forgets itself, but the tragic impossibility of escaping oneself.

The funniest pratfall ever filmed is perhaps the astonishingly skilful and economical plunge taken by actor David Jason in the 1989 ‘Yuppy Love’ episode of the British television sitcom Only Fools and Horses. Propping up a bar, eyeing the ‘Euro-birds’, the would-be yuppie Lothario Derek ‘Del Boy’ Trotter spots a pair of likely ‘sorts’ and, straightening up, alerts his drinking pal Trigger before casually leaning back again. But the barman has flipped up the counter, and Trotter goes over, holding his pose (and wine glass) all the way. Best of all, he is still talking as he falls: ‘Play it nice and cool, son; nice and cool, know what I mean ….’ The philosophy of the fall, as distinct from the theology of the Fall, begins with Michel de Montaigne’s essay ‘Of Exercise or Practice’ (1580). Out riding one day, writes Montaigne, he was thrown from his horse and knocked unconscious: ‘Me thought, my self had no other hold of me, but of my lips ends. I closed mine eyes, to helpe (as me seemed) to send it forth.’3 The author, of course, survived but is convinced that for a time he was not himself. Charles Baudelaire, by contrast, in his essay ‘On the Essence of Laughter’ (1855), conceives of the comic fall (the example is a man who slips in the street) as provoking intense self-awareness. The subject is doubled, splits into falling self and observing self, and remains fully aware of his plight. Del Boy, on the way down, is still Del Boy.

5 Slapstick is a masterclass in what it means to be inhuman; it discerns the limit not only of subjectivity but of life, and dangles some poor schmuck over it, just for fun.

In his rambling autobiography My Wonderful World of Slapstick (1960) Buster Keaton recalls his inclusion, from 1899, in his parents’ vaudeville act, and in particular ‘a series of interesting experiments Pop made with me’. His father, recalls the silent movie star, took advantage of the young Buster’s impassive expression to turn him into a useful object that was guaranteed not to cry or ‘corpse’ on stage: a human mop, human dishrag, human football, as well as a handy implement with which to batter hecklers in the front row. In the same year, Bergson was completing his book on laughter, in which he declares that we laugh, precisely, at the moment when a human being begins to act like a thing. Of course, what slapstick gives us most often is a human being forced to act like a thing, which is not quite the same. The mechanized individual acts in accordance with some clumsy logic, but the slapped or battered stooge is – if only for a moment – reduced to rag-doll simplicity, like the art professionals slapped in the face, then photographed by Phil Collins for his series ‘you’ll never work in this town again’ (2004–5). Their cinematic precursors are the recipients of the pie in the face – the significance of which convention lies not in the thrilling moment when flan hits flesh but in the immediate aftermath, when the victim, having slowly scooped two eye-holes from the goo, looks out at the audience with the face of an automaton or a mistreated animal.

6 Just as humans are rendered thing-like, so by the logic of slapstick things themselves start to rebel, to take on a life of their own.

Early in August 1763 the poet and essayist Samuel Johnson and his future biographer James Boswell arrived at the Essex port of Harwich, where Boswell was to embark for the Netherlands. Wandering the streets, they argued about the idealist philosophy of George Berkeley, whose thesis regarding the dependence of substance on perception by the senses was, said Boswell, incontestable. Nonsense, countered Johnson: ‘I refute it thus’, he roared, while kicking a large stone, ‘till he rebounded from it.’4 Like Johnson, the characters in slapstick are confirmed empiricists; like him, they discover that things have a habit of kicking back. Hapless hotel owner Basil Fawlty from the 1970s television sitcom Fawlty Towers, for example, may have the upper hand when it comes to treating his long-suffering waiter Manuel as a mere object, but he is less certain of victory in his struggle against the aristocracy of things: a stalled car, a badly hung painting, a moth-eaten moose head, a vagrant corpse. Fawlty Towers is set in something akin to the world of Freud’s The Psychopathology of Everyday Life (1901), where one’s most inexpressible desires and frustrations are externalized in countless lapses, gaffes and broken ornaments. At times, however – and this is no less uncanny – slapstick actually pictures a world in which people and objects act in amazing consort. In a sketch from their television show of 1976, Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise dance around a kitchen in which eggs, grapefruit and toast are exquisitely choreographed, and breakfast has become a musical burlesque, spot-lit by an open fridge.

7 If slapstick seems to demand double acts, in fact the two are always one.

In slapstick there is no straight man: the joke is on both parties. Having borrowed a bit of hat and boot business from Laurel and Hardy for Waiting for Godot (1953), Samuel Beckett goes on to demonstrate that the slapstick duo is indivisible: the verbal parries of Vladimir and Estragon confirm that they are essentially the same character, talking to himself. This is the circular logic that Bruce Nauman elaborates in his Beckett-inspired works, almost replicating the crippled, recursive gait of the author’s Watt for his Slow Angle Walk (Beckett Walk) (1968): the ‘headlong tardigrade’ by which the unfortunate character advances painfully along a road. It is the structure too that Paul McCarthy exploits in his video Rocky (1976), smearing himself with tomato ketchup and pummelling himself with boxing gloves.

8 The politics of slapstick are utterly anomic, and unamenable to reformist or liberationist programmes.

Slapstick, in other words, is not to be confused with the category of the carnivalesque, by which hierarchies are overthrown and all is dissolved in a celebration of transgressive fun. No: slapstick gives us instead the image of total class war, of unrestrained violence on both sides. It conjures the world of Jonathan Swift’s Directions to Servants (1731), in which the domestic betrayals of the servant class are laid bare: the author sarcastically suggests a butler use his sweaty palm to give an even surface to the salt cellar and urges footmen to sneeze on a plate rather than spray the master’s table. It’s a good idea, he counsels the cook, to throw three or four pounds of butter at the kitchen wall and simply scoop bits off as required. Similarly, in The Psychopathology of Everyday Life, the domestic help can be relied on to trip, drop, splash and break with comically malign intent. The only difference is that Freud no longer feels he can beat his servants. There is, then, no such thing as a historical dialectic in slapstick. Conventionally conceived, comedy is basically dialectical: opposing forces (order and chaos) are in the end resolved; authority is restored, but this time with a kindly, liberal nod to the need for tolerance and occasional (controlled) misrule. The interior logic of slapstick – which may well be a component in this larger dialectic – is rather one of endless revolution and reaction: its model of history is that of Tom & Jerry (or its magnificent apotheosis in The SimpsonsItchy & Scratchy). Slapstick has the endlessly escalating structure of an arms race; there is no Hegelian synthesis, merely thesis-antithesis-thesis-antithesis-thesis-antithesis-thesis …

9 Given its obsession with inert objects, its circularity, its violence, its nihilism, it seems that the ultimate slapstick act would involve beating oneself to within an inch of one’s life.

In fact, on 15 April 1984 the great British comedian Tommy Cooper, renowned for his self-sabotaging magic act and deftly poor jokes – ‘Take an Aspirin for a headache, they say. Who wants a headache?’ – surpassed that ambition and died live on stage during a televised performance at Her Majesty’s Theatre, London. You won’t find this moment on YouTube: ‘His legs fall out from under him and he crumples to the floor, though his face is still seen, propped up by the heavy theatrical drapes. The audience laughs. And now he takes deep rasping breaths. Still laughter. The helping hand of his assistant comically appears from behind the drapes, then changes its mind and withdraws. More laughs.’5 Cut to commercial break. Cooper may not have known (or relished personally) but would surely have appreciated, from a professional point of view, the advice proffered by Tristan Tzara to an audience at the Dada Festival at the Salle Gaveau, Paris, on 22 May 1920: ‘Punch yourself in the face and drop dead.’

Brian Dillon is a writer. His latest book Affinities: On Art and Fascination will be published in spring 2023 by the New York Review of Books and Fitzcarraldo Editions, London. He is working on a book about Kate Bush’s Hounds of Love.