What ever happened to slapstick comedy?
Slapstick comedy, sometimes referred to as physical comedy, was once a staple of both stage and the small and big screens. Prominent comedians like Chris Farley relied heavily upon slapstick comedy in order to get laughs out of their audiences, but they themselves were taking after physical comedians who traced their careers to the days of Old Hollywood. Perhaps one of the first onscreen physical comedians was Buster Keaton, a silent film star and former vaudeville performer who translated his remarkable knack of physical feats into deadpan comedy.
Keaton was a huge success, with his movies being some of the most popular of his era. From that point on, slapstick was a staple of most comedy films. While movies may not have always been entirely slapstick, most comedies would still incorporate at least some slapstick gags into their scripts. So what happened? Why is it that ever since the 1980s, arguably the golden age of the slapstick comedy, we've seen a decline in this kind of humor onscreen?
For one thing, there just isn't as much believability in slapstick anymore. It's been argued that one of the reasons why slapstick is so popular is that there is the perception that actors are actually risking getting hurt. After all, slip, trip, and fall injuries account for around a quarter of all reported injury claims each fiscal year; and slapstick comedians are constantly hurting themselves, or at least seeming to hurt themselves. Today, viewers are very aware of stunt doubles, as well as special effects that keep actors safe. While those safety guidelines are important, for viewers this means that slapstick can seem a bit more contrived and "fake".
This also takes some of the skill out of slapstick, and audiences have taken notice. Where once Buster Keaton was actually injured when performing his famous stunts, now there is very little skill required for physical comedy in movies. Although skilled physical comedians certainly still exist, a lack of skill can be compensated for through special effects and editing. The audience connects less with this type of comedy. Physical comedy that does succeed with audiences today is often quite extreme, either done with special effects or through practical stunts.
But if you're looking to watch a good slapstick comedy film during your time off or on vacation, you'll want to make sure that you're looking back at some older movies. The last thing you want is to waste your vacation time (rated as highly valuable by 96% of Americans) on a bad movie. And of course, the 1980s was the golden decade for physical comedy of recent history. With that in mind, below are some of the best slapstick comedy movies from the 1980s; try them out if you want a big laugh!
1. National Lampoon's Vacation
Starring Chevy Chase and Beverly D'Angelo, this 1983 classic focuses on one hapless family and their efforts to take the perfect road trip vacation across the country. As we previously mentioned, vacation time is important... which is why we can all relate to Clark Griswold's desperate attempts to keep his family vacation on track. But of course, the trip is derailed to ridiculous degrees, with everything from an unexpected death to a hostage crisis injected somewhat dark, but ridiculously funny humor into the story. Slapstick abounds in National Lampoon's Vacation, as well as the sequels it spawned over time. Perhaps the most famous of its sequels in 1989's National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation. The holiday film arguably dials the slapstick up even further than the original Vacation, which makes it just as much of a classic comedy.
2. Who Framed Roger Rabbit
This comedy, released in 1988, is certainly a unique entry to the slapstick comedy canon. But it certainly counts, and perhaps can go even further with its slapstick comedy because some of the characters involved are literally cartoons. Set in a version of Hollywood in which both human beings and living cartoons coexist, it focuses on Roger Rabbit, a cartoon who has been framed for murder. While the premise itself would be dark in other contexts, the ridiculously over the top nature of the film, as well as its voice actors, emphasize the slapstick aspects and keep it light. The voice actors in the movie were trained, like many other voice actors, to work with diversity and for different regions, making them capable of working for a variety of different companies. We're fortunate that they lent their talents to this gem!
Not only is 1980's Caddyshack seen as one of the best slapstick comedies of all time; it's also generally viewed by many as one of the best comedy films in general of all time. Focusing on golfers and caddies, as well as the various hijinks that they get into, Caddyshack is the perfect blend of a comedy and a sports movie. In fact, it makes sense that it's such a great slapstick film. The physical world of sports is perfect for physical comedy.
4. The Naked Gun: From the Files of the Police Squad!
Often referred to simply as The Naked Gun, this 1988 crime comedy is always going to have fans among people that love slapstick comedy. Focusing on a hapless police lieutenant played by Leslie Nielsen, The Naked Gun is known for its broad sense of humor as well as a cast packed full of famous faces. The Naked Gun was successful on both a critical and commercial level, proving that a movie can be slapstick and well-made. It even led to two sequels!
5. The Great Outdoors
Another 1988 slapstick comedy, The Great Outdoors stars Dan Akroyd and John Candy in a premise that may seem similar to National Lampoon's Vacation at first glance, but veers into different premises in reality. With Akroyd and Candy playing the heads of two different families that run into each other while on vacation, this movie has something for everyone. It certainly offers plenty in the way of physical comedy, with John Candy being one of the greats in that specific field.
While physical comedy may seem outdated to some, we shouldn't let it go that easily. Physical comedy has a lot to offer people who are interested in broadening their comedic horizons. Don't just look into movies from the 1980s; see what kinds of slapstick comedies are being released today, too!