Dear Straight Dope: I was watching a Three Stooges marathon on TV the other night (ah, see what’s important after 22 years of marriage!) and sometime around the 103rd eyepoke, I got to wondering--just what is the origin of the term “slapstick,” as in slapstick comedy? Did it refer to someone who physically abused fallen tree branches? Is it Yiddish, as in someone whose “shtick” was being slapped? What am I missing (other than “get off the couch and get a life!”)? George Matthews
George, I got off the couch and got a life once and it wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. Now I stay where I’m comfortable. And lay off the thinking–you’re not even close to right, although you know the right people to ask.
A slapstick is typically made of two thin boards fastened together at the base to form a handle. When one of the boards is struck against something solid, like a comic actor’s behind, the other strikes the first, making a loud crack that sounds like the guy is getting hit far harder than he is. As the pain of others is the essence of comedy, this is very funny. Though cheap laughs have been popular forever, it wasn’t until the 1890s that the slapstick gave its name to a school of comedy built entirely on people getting beat up. Silent film brought slapstick comedy out of seedy vaudeville houses and into early movie theaters that had been, the week or hour before, seedy vaudeville houses. Slapstick thrived on the silent screen, where the lack of dialogue made subtler forms of comedy difficult, and slapstick’s ability to cross linguistic barriers made early comedies accessible to viewers around the world. It can truthfully be said that modern Hollywood and America’s usurpation of popular culture everywhere were made possible in large part by Buster Keaton’s amazing ability to take a fall.
There are two places where a slapstick can be seen and heard today. You just missed one, the Boston Pops’ annual Christmas concert, where a slapstick made by hinging two boards is used to simulate the cracking of a whip during Leroy Anderson’s “Sleigh Ride.” (You didn’t think they cracked a real bullwhip over the heads of the trumpet section, did you?) Another place is on the Spanish-language network, Univision. Because of slapstick’s universality you don’t need to speak Spanish to enjoy "La Escuelita VIP," in which buxom babes and aging comedians (including one who bears an unsettling resemblance to Saddam Hussein) dress as schoolchildren and make what I assume are off-color jokes in a classroom setting. The teacher keeps the “kids” in line by whacking them with a ruler that is really a slapstick. It makes a sharp crack without hurting the superannuated schoolboys, leaving them able to continue telling jokes even older than they are.
You can buy a beautiful slapstick from Ludwig Drums (see item Q in the reference below) or make one at home. Saw a wooden yardstick in half and bind the pieces together at one end with some duct tape. Test it by whacking the nearest person on the back of the head–but be careful; the difference between comedy and tragedy can come down to how fast you can run.
A Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary, Volume 4 Se-Z, edited by R.W. Burchfield, 1986
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