The Science of Slapstick
I am all about the slapstick humour. Ever since I was first introduced to the Three Stooges in my formative years, it has been an essential part of who I am. There is truly no greater comedy than a subtle, delicate slap to the face with a blunt object. Shows like Earthworm Jim, Freakazoid, and Pinky and the Brain still hold special places in my comically oversized heart. So it should come as no surprise, if you’re familiar with the little fella, that I enjoy the hell out of Marvel Comics' Slapstick.
When slapstick comedy is done well, it’s friggin’ hilarious. But you have to have particularly good timing, and at least as good a wit, to get it right. For instance, superficially, one wouldn’t see too much of a difference between the antics in Animaniacs and those in the earlier Looney Toons shorts – but there’s a huge, glaring gulf between their types of humor. The original Bugs Bunny cartoons just cannot elicit laughter from me. Maybe it’s because there were no network censors back then, or that no one was particularly worried that kids might copy what they saw on the screen, that allowed them to use anvils and dynamite so indiscriminately. But I can sort of articulate why it doesn’t work for me: it’s too obvious. It’s too fantastic. There’s no heart in it. But most importantly? It lacks intelligence.
There are three things that are essential for slapstick to be funny to me: irreverence, wit, and the nature of the violence itself.
Irreverence is an example of incongruity: that is, something that occurs but which is not consistent with what we would expect. For example, we expect people to treat Daredevil with respect, and to be afraid of Ghost Rider: Slapstick does neither.
The key to irreverence, of course, is that the target of your satire, or violence, has to command respect, without actually deserving it. Ayn Rand once wrote on humor (and you can read these and other writings at The Ayn Rand Lexicon):
“Humor is not an unconditional virtue; its moral character depends on its object. To laugh at the contemptible, is a virtue; to laugh at the good, is a hideous vice. Too often, humor is used as the camouflage of moral cowardice.”
She later added on a separate occasion :
Humor is the denial of metaphysical importance to that which you laugh at. The classic example: you see a very snooty, very well dressed dowager walking down the street, and then she slips on a banana peel … What's funny about it? It's the contrast of the woman's pretensions to reality. She acted very grand, but reality undercut it with a plain banana peel. That's the denial of the metaphysical validity or importance of the pretensions of that woman. Therefore, humor is a destructive element—which is quite all right, but its value and its morality depend on what it is that you are laughing at. If what you are laughing at is the evil in the world (provided that you take it seriously, but occasionally you permit yourself to laugh at it), that's fine. [To] laugh at that which is good, at heroes, at values, and above all at yourself [is] monstrous … The worst evil that you can do, psychologically, is to laugh at yourself. That means spitting in your own face.
In this way, the pretensions of Ghost Rider are undercut in Slapstick#4 by the fact that he’s simply a character in a comic book, and deserves no more respect than Slapstick himself does. If Ghost Rider were to exist in the "real world," he would be quite a terrifying figure indeed - but he would also be a man with a perpetually flaming skull:
This irreverence is also seen in Slapstick #2, featuring the Punisher caricature, “The Overkiller:” a comic book character who never smiles is taken down a few pegs by a comic book character who seems to never stop smiling. Slapstick mocks the overly-serious nature of the anti-hero, and his illogical dedication to becoming a criminal in order to wipe out crime.
The original Looney Tunes used wit, but it was – well, very good, really. I can recall a scene where Wile E. Coyote has been blown up, and then knocks on Bugs Bunny’s door, announcing “My name is mud.” Bugs turns to the audience in an aside before the clip irises out, and says, “Mud spelled backwards is dum[b].” That has to be the least funniest Looney Tunes gag that I have ever seen, because the irreverence was not specific to Wile E. Coyote, did not play off of his pretensions, and forced Wile to say something that he had no reason to say. Irreverence has to point out the subject’s failings or fallacies to be successful.
But, like Northrop Frye explained in his paper, “The Nature of Satire,” (published in the University of Toronto Quarterly, Vol.14, Oct. 1949) irreverence is not enough to make something funny, because irreverence can also include vitriolic invective:
...it is the tone that makes a work of art a satire...To have too much hatred and too little gaiety will upset the balance of tone.
This is where wit comes in. Wit can turn something appalling into something hilarious. Take this set of panels:
Now, we’ve all seen the “this means war” bit in Looney Tunes cartoons, but it’s the intertexuality (oh, god! Oh, god! Postmodern theory is creeping in! Let’s get this over with as quickly as possible...) that gives it new life here. First, there’s the acknowledgment that Slapstick is, indeed, inspired by the cartoon characters of the past. Then there’s the even funnier allusion to the modus operandi of the Punisher: his “war on crime,” and his history as a war veteran.
Of course, a big part of the wit is actually in that incongruity I mentioned earlier. Check out this character: the Neutron Bum. A better name for a villain I have yet to see. Villains are usually after revenge, or millions of dollars: the Neutron Bum, however, only wants a cup of coffee:
The final component of successful slapstick, which is evident in Slapstick (naturally), is the violence itself. The violence has to be of a certain type – Sweeney Todd type mayhem will offend more than it will tickle, and the funniest parts of movies like Army of Darkness are the homages to the Three Stooges. Slapstick comedy, above all, cannot hurt or permanently damage their victims. Whether this is achieved through innocuous acts of violence like the Stooges’ face-slaps and nose-tweaks, or by introducing incongruity and turning a horrifically violent act into a harmless annoyance (a la Wile E. Coyote and explosives), doesn't matter. Slapstick straddles this line well, even in the mostly realistic world of the Marvel Universe:
A film or comic can be violent, but without wit, it isn’t funny. Take the original Looney Toons cartoons, for instance. Sure, they’re funny to kids, but why do I enjoy Freakazoid and Pinky and the Brain where I don’t enjoy Looney Toons? Well, Looney Toons lacks intelligence. People get blown up with dynamite, shot in the ass, dropped out of airplanes – but the quips aren’t exactly Oscar Wilde. And the wit can fall flat if it doesn’t include “the denial of metaphysical importance” to an object of attack. Without these, the violence is simply perplexing – something which may have helped provoke the moral crusaders who saw cartoons as nothing but trash for the mind. Slapstick isn’t the funniest stuff around, but it contains all of the elements – in my opinion, whatever that’s worth – that give it staying power.