A site of satirical musings, commentary and/or rhetorical criticism of the world at large.

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Location: Southeastern, Pennsylvania, United States

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Slapstick – Alive and Well in the 21st Century

I had the opportunity last weekend to help out at the Stoogeum in Lower Gwynedd, a three story monument and memorabilia storehouse in honor of The Three Stooges.

Arguably they were the most successful proponents of slapstick comedy, a violent form of humor that gradually gave way to edgier forms of comedy over the last 50 years. Many people would consider their work passé — although don’t tell that to the many fans who showed up at the monthly open house. Their type of humor may not be as common as it once was, but its influence is still with us.

For example, consider a back-to-school television ad produced for the Staples office supply chain this summer. The Staples ad shows an African American teenage boy approaching his mom with a list of school supplies he’ll need for the year. Apparently this is an annual ritual for the boy, who looks forward to his mother’s registrations of shock to the high cost of giving her child all the tools he needs to succeed.

A short series of flashbacks — from previous years - ensues in which mom is holding one of several ingredients to bake a cake. In the first year, mom drops a dozen eggs on the floor. Year two, she drops an open bag of flour, and the flour billows up so that it (and this is significant) nearly hits her face. A quick cut-away to the third year when she drops an open carton of milk, and the contents splash up and land on her face. The message portion of the ad ends with the teenager’s presentation of this year’s list to Mom. This time she promptly displays the Staples Easy button, while she ices a now completed cake. The final punch line is delivered by the teenager’s smart-alecky, but wise beyond her years, little sister.

I’ll overlook the obvious question — like why did it take this woman four years to bake one cake — and note the similarity between the flour scene in the ad and its use in a number of silent comedies. One in particular came to my mind: Larry Semon’s The Barnyard (1923), in which his frequent African American costar Spencer Bell, dived into a barrel of flour and emerged coated from head to toe. Whether or not Semon intended this “white face” gag to be a comment on the minstrel show tradition of black face performers is a discussion for a future blog.

For now, the flour sight gag in the Staples ad (available for viewing, like everything else in the world, on youtube) seems more relevant. The editing was expertly done. As it is shown, the billowing cloud of flour rises up and obscures the actress's face, before it cuts away to the next flashback. The punch line of the scene is left to the viewer’s imagination: mom will undoubtedly have a coating of flour dust on her face within moments. Ending the gag here is effective — the humor of the situation is communicated and the commercial proceeds to the next scene. If the scene lasted a few seconds more, it would be a disaster. The sight of the woman’s coated face would ruin the effect built up in the viewer's mind. Also, it may also set Reverend Al Sharpton on the warpath, and God only knows we don’t need that now!

The old tried and true slapstick comedy style may seem quaint today, but actually it never went away. The influences of the old masters — regardless if their name was Chaplin, Keaton, Chase, Semon or Howard, Fine and Howard — are felt today as strongly as ever. More importantly, the movers and shakers in America media will continue to dip back into this past for a very long time to come.

(Thank you for reading. Please remember, we might as well sit back, relax, and have a laugh at our own expense regardless of what skin hue God gave us.)


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