It’s lowbrow. It’s juvenile. It’s crude; it’s course. It’s impulse, not intellect. It siphons its humor from someone else’s pain. It’s not something you can explain.
(Donald O’Connor hospitalized himself after filming the “Make ’Em Laugh” sequence in Singin’ in the Rain. Buster Keaton fractured his neck filming the water tower scene from Sherlock, Jr.)
There are the pratfalls, the pie fights, the banana peels, the stuck hats, the anvils, the perfectly-timed trips, the lost pants, the wide-eyed camera muggings. There are the falling ladders, the exploding cars, the hairdos on fire, the hidden slippery patches of ice, the hot irons, the spilled marbles. There are the men maniacally throwing themselves in the dirt over and over. There are the women unabashedly bashing their various limbs on every corner.
(In the book Slapstick and Comic Performance: Comedy and Pain, by Louise Peacock, there is a section entitled “Types of Pain Analysed.”)
There is something primal and lasting about the slapstick comedy routines and screwball comedians that we’ve chosen to focus on in this month’s issue of Bright Wall/Dark Room. Once you’ve seen a spoken joke with a punchline, youknow that punchline, and your odds of genuinely laughing out loud at that punchline steadily decrease with the joke’s repetition. The joke becomes familiar—amusing still, sure, but no longer doubled-over hilarious. But no matter how many times you’ve seen Lucille Ball’s Vitameatavegamin episode or watched her and Vivian Vance’s Ethel Mertz frantically stuff candies into their mouths, something uncontrollable and untraceable is guaranteed to bubble up inside you. You can’t watch Cary Grant and Katharine Hepburn fall over their own telephone cords without cracking a smile.
(My son laughed for the first time because he accidentally bashed his head into my husband’s head so hard it made my husband flinch.)
So it’s not like we gave this month’s writers a challenge or anything. I mean, it’s super easy to break down this inexplicably innate response to broad physical comedy in an essay, right?
Since we didn’t want to saddle you with the task of reading a whole lot of essays trying to explain why a man falling down stairs and hitting his head on a wedding cake is funny, many of our pieces this month take a somewhat different approach to the films and performers our writers chose to spotlight. Nick Rallo, for example, interviews a chicken who once shared the screen with Charlie Sheen. Kara Vanderbijl presents us with a very peculiar piece of San Francisco news that may or may not have something to do with Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal. Christopher Cantwell gives us a behind-the-scenes peek into a long-lost Burt Reynolds film. Chad Perman looks at the ways in which admittedly silly comedies can create lasting personal bonds. Though this month’s pieces cover some pretty disparate topics—from the Coen Brothers to Jackie Chan to Seinfeld to Chevy Chase—they all hold one central tenet: if you’re going to do a fart joke, just make sure you commit 100%.
After all, that’s really what we admire in our greatest physical comedians—their unwavering, overwhelming, absolute commitment to getting a laugh. No table is too strong to crash through, no unidentified goop too gross, no expression too unflattering, no scene too tiring to continue running take after take. And we count on that; we depend on it. We need someone who can take the plate glass crashing around her ears time and again. We need someone else to keep scrambling to his feet after we’re exhausted, to absorb the horror of our own embarrassing, stupid mistakes. Yes, there’s a comfort to the clichés, a stability in the familiar sequences. No one makes it through this life without falling down, losing something, embracing sudden pain.
(When the walls of our own houses fall down, we have to believe there’s someone out there standing by—inviting the open window to crash around him—willing to take that risk just for us—devoting himself to bringing a smile to our faces even as the very shelter we’ve always depended on recedes and dissolves.)