Slapstick comedy is often maligned or looked down upon by critics and comedy aficionados as a lesser form of humor. It’s the kind of comedy that involves a pie hitting someone in the face or a guy slipping over on a banana peel. It’s physical comedy. It can be really stupid if it’s done by a comic who doesn’t take the art of physical comedy seriously. But then a true master like Jim Carrey or Peter Sellers or Michael Richards will come along and show everyone how to do it right. It’s rare that slapstick comedy works, but here are 10 times it actually did.
10. When Danny McBride broke a sink with his head in Pineapple Express
Too few action comedies use slapstick effectively to combine the action and the comedy. They keep the action sequences separate from the comedy. But if you bring slapstick humor into all the fist fights and car chases and shootouts (which are all action movie tropes begging to be used for over the top comical purposes), then you’d be able to keep the entire movie funny from start to finish. And it also makes the action more interesting and relatable. Not enough filmmakers realize that. So, for doing this and bringing slapstick into the action scenes, Pineapple Express succeeds at being more than just one the greatest stoner movies of all time – it’s one of the greatest action comedy movies of all time, too! The funniest scene in the movie is an action scene. Seth Rogen and James Franco go over to Danny McBride’s house to question him about his supplier and the whole encounter devolves into a savage fight. The humor comes from just how crazy the guys’ injuries are. Glass cabinets are smashed, coffee tables are destroyed, heads go through walls, doors are kicked down – and, of course, the coup de grâce that is McBride’s head hitting a sink so hard that it actually takes it off the wall. That’s comedy!
9. When Happy Gilmore fought Bob Barker
Happy Gilmore was the first of many wacky comedy movies to star Adam Sandler and many fans agree that it is still, to this day, his finest work. There are so many classic gags and funny moments in the movie. One such moment is one of the most beautifully crafted slapstick sequences of all time. It comes during a celebrity golf game in which Happy is playing with The Price is Right host Bob Barker and they get into a savage fight. Happy gets into a bunch of fights during his golfing career, but this one is different. The fight with Bob Barker lasts for a good few minutes and Barker ends up kicking Happy’s ass. This was actually one of the stipulations in Barker’s contract for his cameo appearance. Since he actually does practise martial arts in real life under the tutorage of none other than Chuck Norris, Barker wanted to win the fight in the movie. That’s the only reason he agreed to do it. In some cases, a gag can get old and become tiresome if it goes on for too long. In other cases, the longer it goes on, the funnier it gets. This gag is a prime example of the latter.
8. When Steve Martin pretends to be disabled in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels
Like Ghostbusters and Ocean’s Eleven, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is another movie classic to be getting an all-female remake. Later this year, we’ll be treated to The Hustle (formerly titled Nasty Women) starring Anne Hathaway and Rebel Wilson. It has promise, but nothing could ever top the original with Steve Martin and Michael Caine. The original 1988 Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is genuinely one of the funniest movies ever made. There are plenty of hilarious moments in the film, but the two funniest sequences have to be the whole Ruprecht scene and this little golden nugget of slapstick. The reason that this gag works is all in the context. Only we as an audience know that Michael Caine is doing everything in his power to out Steve Martin for pretending to be disabled in order to get him out of the running for the woman’s fortune. Everything that happens in the scene comes with this sort of insider knowledge into the con. So, there’s an emotional drive and serious internal conflict behind the image of Michael Caine getting a running start before smacking Steve Martin across the knees with a stick. This sort of humor is peppered throughout the whole movie, but it’s never funnier than in this hysterical scene. And the whole sequence ends with the perfect image and accompanying punchline. Steve Martin with a totally straight face and tears rolling down his cheeks and the woman saying, “Look, he’s crying!”
7. When angry farmers threw a cow on Alan Partridge
While there may have only ever been twelve episodes, I’m Alan Partridge is still one of the funniest and most memorable sitcoms in the history of British television. Its lead character is a cultural icon and every episode has at least one timeless classic moment (Alan pierces his foot on a spike, Alan gets covered in chocolate mousse, Alan yells “DAN!” a dozen times in a row etc.). The writers of the show were very smart and sophisticated, so they tended to avoid falling into the trap of slapstick comedy, because as we’ve learned, it’s only good when it’s done right – and it’s really, really hard to do it right. But they are responsible for one classic slapstick moment and that comes in the series 1 episode “Watership Alan.” The moment is so perfect because it is the culmination of everything that came before it. Alan angering the local farming community and taking on a gig presenting a water break commercial were all leading up to this moment. The shoot’s been a nightmare leading up to this final shot, and to top it all off, the farmers get together a throw a dead cow on top of Alan from the bridge above him. It works because it’s the most absurd thing the farmers could’ve decided to do. The way it’s shot is hilarious, too – it’s like the reconstruction scene from JFK, as everyone’s frantically looking around for the culprit.
6. When Frank Drebin tackled the Queen
Frankly, the whole of The Naked Gun could be included on this list. In fact, the entire trilogy could. Adapted from the TV police procedural spoof Police Squad!, which was criminally short-lived and cancelled for the dumbest reason (it was literally cancelled because you have to pay attention to it in order to follow the plot and get the jokes), The Naked Gun – its full title being The Naked Gun: From the Files of Police Squad! – is a masterpiece of slapstick comedy. The movie is the brain child of David Zucker, Jim Abrahams, and Jerry Zucker, the comedy gods behind Airplane!, and it stars Leslie Nielsen as one of the most iconic comedy characters of all time, the bumbling detective Frank Drebin. There are plenty of visual gags and clever puns and memorable bits abound in The Naked Gun, but there’s a scene in which Drebin is working the security detail for Queen Elizabeth II’s visit to Los Angeles that stands out as the finest moment of slapstick. Only Zucker, Abrahams, and Zucker could come up with an idea like a police detective tackles the Queen of the United Kingdom – and be able to pull it off in such hilarious fashion.
5. When Kevin fought off the burglars in Home Alone
Home Alone is now considered to be one of the best Christmas movies ever made. Audiences across the world stick in the DVD on Christmas eve, year after year. But when it was first released into theaters, the critics were not too kind to it. They specifically targeted the movie’s heavy use of slapstick comedy. One reviewer described the entire movie as a “sadistic festival of adult-bashing.” But there’s a careful art to the physical comedy in Home Alone. The slapstick in the movie manages to delicately walk a fine line between dumb fun and surreally cartoonish. Director Chris Columbus created scenes that felt like something out of a Looney Tunes cartoon, but he shot them in live action. None of the consequences of Kevin’s booby traps seem real. Swinging paint cans hit the burglars in the face and sends them flying down the stairs onto their backs and they’re fine. Poor Marv stands on a nail with his bare foot and there is nary a drop of blood. It’s the fact that the violence is so unrealistic and inconsequential that makes it so funny! Home Alone is one of the greatest slapstick-heavy comedy movies ever made and it will be enjoyed during every Christmas season for the foreseeable future.
4. When Blazing Saddles broke the fourth wall and a savage fight broke out on the studio lot
To Mel Brooks, the fourth wall doesn’t exist. His characters don’t exactly break it, because in Brooks’ movies, it never really exist in the first place. He often has his characters talk directly to the camera or refer to the movie they’re in as a movie or hawk the movie’s merchandise. It’s always used for a gag. One of the greatest cinematic slapstick gags in film history comes towards the end of Blazing Saddles, in around the third act when everything gets kicked up a notch. Before heading into a movie theater to see how their own movie ends, the cast of Blazing Saddles leave the set of Blazing Saddles and break out into a savage fight with all the actors and crew members from other movies on the Warner Bros. lot! It’s the craziest comedy you’ll ever see on the silver screen. It’s the kind of thing that a comic genius like Mel Brooks would think of and then never even bother attempting to orchestrate it as a reality, because it’s so damn crazy. But that’s not Brooks’ style. His madness is such that he was happy to orchestrate it as a reality, and as moviegoers, we can only thank him for it.
3. Whenever Cato attacked in The Pink Panther movies
Running gags throughout comedy movie franchises don’t always work, but the Cato scenes in The Pink Panther are one of the funniest of all time. Every time he shows up, it puts a smile on your face, and then as the scenes go on, they have you roaring with laughter. Cato is the Chinese guy who Inspector Clouseau has trained to attack him out of nowhere at any given time in order to keep himself alert at all times. It’s actually a pretty good idea that would probably work, but the main purpose of it in these movies is to give the audience a few minutes of Peter Sellers doing his signature wacky slapstick. They battle around Clouseau’s apartment and break all his stuff and fall through walls. Okay, some of the language is now dated – Clouseau refers to Cato as “my little yellow friend” – but the fights will be funny forever. You know your ribs are about to ache as soon as you hear Cato’s war cry, “Saaaaaaaaaah!!!” These fights have been referenced and parodied in pop culture in everything from 30 Rock to the James Franco/Bryan Cranston movie Why Him?, but there are few comedy moments in film history that can compare to these brutal fight scenes.
2. When Jim Carrey beat himself up in Liar Liar
Lord knows what makes the sight of a man beating himself up in a public bathroom so funny. In the hands of any other actor in any other movie, this would probably be a harrowing and disturbing sight. But when it’s performed by the brilliant and immensely talented Jim Carrey, it makes for one of the most hilarious sequences in the history of cinema. Part of what sells the scene to the audience is Carrey’s commitment to it. The filmmakers didn’t need to use any sound effects at all for the scene, but Carrey had gone all in. He really threw himself into the insanity and the physicality of the role. He claimed in an interview that he “would go home with total exhaustion” every night after they wrapped shooting for the day. He dedicated himself completely to this role to make sure that the movie would be as funny as it could be. The sounds that you hear when Fletcher smacks his head against the urinal, floor, and walls of the bathroom are the genuine sounds made by Jim Carrey’s own head. This clearly paid off, since Liar Liar is a really great movie with a strong message – don’t lie!
1. When Kramer tried to break a washing machine
Michael Richards has always been one of the greatest physical comedians in the world. The role of Cosmo Kramer offered him the chance to do hilarious slapstick every week on NBC’s airwaves. Richards could make anything funny. That’s why the writers always found him to be the easiest character to write for. They just had to write, “Kramer becomes a ball boy,” and they were done. They knew that would be hysterically funny, because of Richards’ performance. The very first opportunity for Richards’ to try out some slapstick comedy on Seinfeld came in the season 2 episode in “The Revenge,” in which Jerry feels he’s been ripped off by a laundromat owner, so Kramer tries to avenge him by filling one of the laundromat’s washing machines with cement. This, of course, goes horribly, but it gave Richards a chance to show off his physical comedy skills. Richards explained, “It wasn’t the show’s best episode, but I liked ‘The Revenge’ when I put dry cement into the washing machine. It was a four and a half minute routine. I was getting the stuff in my eyes, spilling it on the top of the machine. That kind of comedy is very special to my heart. It’s hard comedy to do on TV.”