From Pie in the Face to Pie in the Crotch-A History of the Comedy Genre

         Cinematic comedy can be considered the oldest film genre (and one of the most prolific and popular). Throughout the years, comedic films have taken on many forms. Comedy has been divided into sub-genres beginning with the characteristics of silent films, such as slapstick to the verbal comedy of the Marx Brothers, to the current categories, such as romantic-comedy, dark comedy, and satirical spoofs. Though each categorization seeks to classify a particular style, comedy in and of itself is based on the use of humor within its storyline. Many films do not fit specifically into one category but instead employ styles from various comedy subgenres. Although there are now subgenres within the category of comedy, all comedic films strive to achieve the same end result; to make the viewer smile and laugh.

         American comedy emerged in 1912. During this time, film entrepreneur Mack Sennett, soon nicknamed "The King of Comedy" and "The Master of Slapstick Comedy," formed the Keystone Company (and Studios), and it soon became the leading producer of comedic cinema. One of the earliest forms of comedy, slapstick, poked fun at farcical situations of physical mishap and indignity. This is primitive and universal comedy with broad, aggressive, physical, and visual action, including harmless or painless cruelty and violence, horseplay, and often vulgar sight gags (e.g., a custard pie in the face, collapsing houses, a loss of trousers or skirts, runaway crashing cars, people chases, etc). Slapstick often required exquisite timing and well-honed performance skills. Charlie Chaplin, well known for his slapstick style, received his start in moving pictures at Keystone Studios.

         Chaplin was one of the most creative and influential personalities of the silent film era. His principle character, "The Tramp," was a vagrant with the refined manners of a gentleman who wears a tight coat, oversized trousers and shoes, a bowler hat, carries a bamboo cane, and has a signature mustache. In 1925, Chaplin's film The Gold Rush was a huge success worldwide. It is in fact the highest grossing silent film in cinema history, taking in more $4,250,000 at the box office in 1925. True to its slapstick comedy style, the most famous scene from the film features "The Tramp" eating his boot to avoid starvation. Another well-known scene shows a house teetering on the edge of a cliff for several minutes before its occupants (including Chaplin) manage to escape to safety.

         With the coming of sound (or "talkies" as they were often called), slapstick went into a bit of a decline; and the flexible freedom of the earliest comedians was curtailed. Comedy was transformed, however, and began to be refined as an art form, with new themes, elements, and written characterizations, and comedic humor was now being derived from clever dialogue. Visual comedy remained strong throughout the 1930s, but now dialogue and verbal comedy were added. While actors like Chaplin still performed slapstick routines, dialogue and sound effects could now be incorporated into the films.

         Once verbal comedy emerged, a popular comedy team known as the Marx Brothers gained immense popularity. This group consisted of Groucho, a wise-cracking, ad-libbing, fast-talker; Chico, who was known for his distorted logic and broken Italian; Harpo, the mute pantomime who loved to chase the ladies; and Zeppo, the lesser known brother, who left the group in 1933 after the making of Duck Soup. The Marx Brothers used many styles within their films but relied mainly on a combination of slapstick, disrespect for the establishment, and nonsensical actions and dialogue. Their work has also been described as risqué and often absurd humor.

         With the invention of television in the 1950's, the cinema now faced competition. Hollywood began to produce character driven comedies with more mature themes. Many films even went so far as to tackle serious subjects, such as in Stanley Kubrick's 1963 Dr. Strangelove's take on Cold War paranoia.

         The comedy genre broadened over the next few decades and introduced the subgenres of screwball comedy, romantic comedy, dark or black comedy, and spoofs. The comedy genre in recent years has left no subject alone and no taboo untouched. With subjects ranging from homosexuality (The Birdcage, directed in 1995 by Mike Nichols) to suicide (Heathers, directed in 1998 by Michael Lehmann) to gross-out comedies involving apple pie in a sexual situation (American Pie, directed in 1999 by Paul Weitz), comedy has often been used as a way to bring sensitive subjects to the masses. While this sort of film making has been met with shock and scorn by some critics, comedy films have often proved to be box office gold.

Tara Wagner

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