Friday, June 29, 2012

The klutz in slapstick

There is a certain brand of comedy that can make me giggle in glee, wince in pity and cry inside with sympathy, or should that be empathy, and that is slapstick comedy. It is often underrated as a simple enough thing to create and second to anything requiring more mental wit.

I tend to disagree with this though and I think most of my fellow writers would think similarly too once they've done this simple test. 

This is my "Is slapstick an easy write?" test:
Challenge 1: Sit down and write a conversation between 3 people filled with witty reparte and biting sarcasm.
Challenge 2: Sit down and write a short but hilarious scene of 3 people in a slapstick situation. (Hint: banana peel slapstick moments are no longer so hilarious and may only produce a snicker.)

Now, I bet most of you find wit far easier as it is mostly in the mind and writers spend a whole lot of time mostly in their mind, sometimes even coming up with witty but unspoken retorts to sarcastic remarks on the value of their chosen profession (unlike and artist who often just cries or decides to hate the person saying such rude things).

Slapstick comedy is actually quite hard to write well and even harder to act well. There has to be a sense that the character doesn't have a clue what's about to hit them, is honestly just fumbling about and may really be a true idiot/misfit. There has to be an understanding in the audience/readership that there's some danger s/he's about to be in and a building of suspense before the incident occurs. And for truly clever slapstick moments there is something witty in the incident itself, whether it is a comment of the system we're living under, the way we relate to one another or something else.

The reason why there are people capable of being snooty over slapstick is purely because they've never tried writing or performing it themselves. When performed even the banana scene, so famous it is almost impossible to pull off properly anymore without deep sarcasm being involved, requires a person to do something that is quite unnatural to almost any human. And that is to willingly put themselves in a position where they're not only in danger but they will likely get hurt. To top it off they have to act like they don't know it.

It is somewhat like asking someone to purposely swing a hammer at their own thumb and not wince before the strike, only afterwards. Those of you used to lying straight faced might have some luck but the best act would be to smile contentedly over doing some project or another or even carry on a conversation with a fellow, complete with looking the other way, before and during the swing. Only when the thumb is hit could you let loose a yelp or wince.

Writing it without the use of any visual medium (not comic, no stage act and no movie) means relying on the imagination of the audience and that can stretch the humour rather thin unless it is a truly witty or unexpected moment. Slapstick in writing is often fragmented, appearing in short instances rather than throughout whole scenes. This does actually work rather well in producing slapstick comedy books even though it is almost the polar opposite approach of any visual slapstick comedy. In writing the comedy needs to be spaced and mingled with the 'everyday' and capable as this is a way of highlighting just how outlandish the moment is.

But in both visual and written only formats the essence of slapstick comedy relies completely on the klutz in the middle of the storm of events. Idiot or misfit there is something inherently klutzy about the character that makes us like, pity and empathise with them. In real life a klutz will bring more smiles and laughs than frowns and sighs (these mostly coming from their long suffering companions) and it is the same in fiction. In fact, to make slapstick have the greatest impact possible the klutz is best a likeable person no matter their reason for klutziness. The more likeable the greater the response to the ups and downs, trials and tribulations of the character. Without this likability there's just a ho-hum reaction of "Why doesn't s/he learn?" or "Are you really that much of an idiot?".

To produce this likability is easy enough. Just make the character an everyman or everywoman, a symbol of an age or the average Joe. Either that or if their a rich or powerful person then highlight their vulnerabilities and ineptitudes. If they are a poor or powerless man then highlight their capabilities and adeptness at survival. Pull on the opposites of position and ability and sympathy is drawn out. But don't forget that slapstick is nothing without the klutz.

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