Comedy 101: Reliable Gags Used by the Legends
For comedy aficionados who watch a lot of classic comedy — that is, films that date back not just a few decades, but even a century or more — it’s easy to spot recurring gags that the masters often relied upon for laughs; easy laughs, perhaps, but laughs nonetheless. And that was their job, after all.
Not all gags have survived or fared well with the passage of time; many are considered old-hat now. We could argue whether or not seeing someone slip on a banana peel is funny. To a first-time viewer, it probably would be. And if the person doing the slipping happens to be carrying a large cake and does a face-plant into the dessert as he hits the ground, even better.
But if such a gag is not your particular cup of tea, it’s just one of many that became reliable stand-bys, and were used for decades— especially in the first half of the 20th century — by the best in the business.
And, for those who stubbornly resist what we might dismiss today to be “corny” gags, consider Steve Martin’s assertion that, “unlike as in most of the arts, greatness in comedy is not necessarily judged by its ability to transcend generations. Comedy is designed to make people laugh now, not three generatons later…But just because it isn’t funny now doesn’t mean it wasn’t funny then.”
But in many cases, it is still funny now.
So, just for laughs…here are a few gags I recently compiled that you’ll probably recognize, and rank among the most used and/or popular with audiences during comedy’s Golden Era and beyond…
According to legend, the first time it was ever committed to film was for the 1913 Mack Sennett comedy, A Noise from the Deep (although some have cited that Ben Turpin’s 1909 film Mr. Flip includes a pie-in-the-face gag of sorts). Unfortunately, no prints of A Noise from the Deep are known to exist today, and specifics about the airborne pie in question has been subject to a bit of guess work by entertainment historians, with some help from early descriptions of the scene at the time. The film starred Mable Normand, a true pioneer as a film comedian and director, and Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, then still a rising star, before he became one of the most popular film comedians in the world. According to author Andy Edmonds in her Arbuckle book Frame Up!, the cast and crew “were searching for a gag to break a sequence in the comedy. Seeing a batch of pastries on a nearby tray, Roscoe grabbed a creamy custard pie and called Mabel off to the side. Waving the pie about, he explained to Mabel the routine he had in mind…” Sennett, directing, couldn’t hear the conversation, and Arbuckle wouldn’t tell him what he had planned, but Sennett decided to let the cameras roll, using a wide angle. At one point in the scene, Mabel took a pie, reared back, and let it fly into Arbuckle’s face. The crew, including Sennett, loved the gag, as did audiences, and it quickly became a cornerstone of film slapstick. It wasn’t long before a pie-throwing scene managed to get worked into countless comedies, both by Sennett and his competitors.
In 1927, while brainstorming ideas for a new film soon to be titled The Battle of the Century, the gag men at Hal Roach Studios, led by Stan Laurel (who unofficially supervised the creative end of most Laurel & Hardy films) traded gag possibilities. One suggested a pie-throwing gag, but it was quickly rejected by the others as being old hat, even in 1927. As Laurel & Hardy biographer John McCabe wrote, “Despite this general reaction, Stan pondered the idea and brought forth what he hoped would be a variation good enough for consideration. ‘Look,’ he said, ‘if we make a pie picture — let’s make a pie picture to end all pie pictures. Let’s give them so many pies that there will never be room for any more pie pictures in the whole history of the movies.’ ”
Director Leo McCarey, one of film history’s greatest comedy directors, deserves co-credit with Stan for the finished product. The climactic pie battle takes place on a city street, beginning with a single pie, and steadily escalating to retaliatory throws among a growing crowd of participants, sending whole and partial pies flying in all directions, including through open windows. Over 4,000 pies were used for the scene. It is still considered the greatest pie battle ever put on film. Here’s an edited version of the original scene.
In January of 1930, Hal Roach released the Our Gang (aka Little Rascals) short titled Shivering Shakespeare, starring what was arguably the funniest and most charming cast in the series’ long history, consisting of Jackie Cooper, Farina, Chubby, Mary Ann, and Wheezer. Film historian and critic Leonard Maltin observed how that film’s pie fight scene, taking place in a theatre as the kids attempted a Shakespeare production, included several curious shots of the pies being flung into the faces of their victims in slow motion, while other shots were filmed at normal speed. “This likely being the first pie battle to occur in a talkie,” Maltin speculates, “the director [Anthony Mack] was probably experimenting with the format, but the results are variable.”
And then, of course, there were The Three Stooges, forever associated with hurling all manner of inanimate, and often edible, objects at each other. Out of nearly 200 shorts they made in a 25-year span, only a handful of them actually featured true, no-holds-barred pie fights. These include Three Sappy People (1939), and perhaps their best pie battle, found in In the Sweet Pie and Pie (1941). Michael Fleming, author of The Three Stooges: An Illustrated History, says of In the Sweet Pie and Pie, “Though the Stooges are renowned for pie throwing, it took seven years and fifty-eight shorts before the first truly sustained meringue-topped battle.”
Full-on pie fights on film survived all the way through the mid-1960s, with features such as The Great Race (1965, directed by Blake Edwards, starring Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis), and Smashing Time (1967, starring Lynn Redgrave, Rita Tushingham, and Michael York). On TV at that time, pie-in-the-face master Soupy Sales reigned supreme, claiming to have been on the receiving end of 20,000 airborne pies in his career.
The boxing match — It seems nearly every film comedian or team has included a boxing match in at least one of their films: In silent films, Charlie Chaplin found himself in the ring in The Champion (1915), and City Lights (1931); Buster Keaton in Battling Butler (1924); Laurel & Hardy in the aforementioned Battle of the Century, and Any Old Port (1932).
The list doesn’t end there. The Three Stooges — Curly in particular — found themselves in the ring for Punch Drunks (1934); Abbott & Costello in Buck Privates (1941); and Martin & Lewis in Sailor Beware (1952).
The storylines leading up to these matches vary, but all involve the comical “hero” facing an impossibly huge and intimidating opponent, who is sometimes brought in at the last moment before the opening-round bell rings. How each woefully unprepared comic handles himself in the ring has depended on his personal style; he doesn’t want to be there, and uses whatever means necessary to avoid getting clobbered.
Limburger Cheese — Another favorite, in which the overpowering stench of this cheese has been put to great comic use.
It was probably first used as a gag in the Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle film The Waiter’s Ball (1916), the bulk of which takes place in a restaurant that keeps its limburger in the dining room safe, to avoid its pungent properties from disturbing the clientele. But when it’s taken out to serve to a customer, the facial reactions of the employees and patrons tell the story.
In the Our Gang (aka The Little Rascals) short Bear Hunters (1930), Chubby plays a joke by smearing a generous helping of limburger across Wheezer’s neck, instead of the proper salve to quiet his cough. Wheezer quickly becomes someone neither people nor animals want be around (getting Petey the dog, a mule and a goose to “react” to his offending aroma was no small feat, and perfectly executed).
In the Three Stooges short Horses Collars (1935), the Stooges keep limburger handy to cure Curly of his violent fits whenever he catches sight of a mouse. And Abbott & Costello (particularly Costello) deal with serving limburger while working behind a lunch counter in Who Done It ? (1942), and again on their TV show (1952).
Guy in a gorilla suit — For reasons that have pretty much dissipated into the mists of time, it was for years a guaranteed laugh-getter to have a gorilla cross paths with the comedian, who invariably gets freaked out, even if the beast isn’t doing anything particularly threatening (or may even be wearing a hat and tie). Sometimes the encounters involve a “real” gorilla which had escaped from a zoo or circus; sometimes a villain delierately dons the suit to frighten the comedian away. Hence, we see versions of this in Abbott & Costello’s Keep ’Em Flying (1943) and Africa Screams (1949); the Three Stooges in Dizzy Detectives (1943), A Bird in the Head (1946), Crime On Their Hands (1948), and Spooks (1953), the last being a 3-D film, in which the gorilla even gets to throw pies at the Stooges, thus checking off two gags on this list at the same time.
There’s more — Laurel & Hardy encountered a gorilla in Swiss Miss (1938), The Ritz Brothers did so in The Gorilla (1939), as did the Marx Brothers in At the Circus (1939).
Jumping ahead a few decades, the climactic chase in The Pink Panther (1964) has two costume party guests (Robert Wagner and David Niven), each in a gorilla suit, involved in a nighttime chase driving small, convertible sports cars. The brilliance of the scene solidifies the concept that there’s just something about a (fictional) gorilla that triggers the laugh reflex.
Anything in fast motion — In the early silent picture days, when cameras were hand-cranked, the speed of the action often seemed unnaturally quick, due to slight under-cranking (either intentionally or unwittingly) when the scene was being filmed — and, when played on a projector, the action appears speeded-up — but in those earliest of days, not necessarily for comic effect. Even with the leaps in technology since then, there is still something just plain funny about watching a scene played in fast motion, and it’s been done at one point or another in many of the funniest film comedies. It’s been used on TV as well, in such 1960s sitcoms as The Munsters, I Dream of Jeannie, and perhaps more famously in the ’70s on The Benny Hill Show and Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In.
The technique returned to film in the acclaimed 1981 classic from South Africa, The Gods Must Be Crazy, written and directed by Jaime Uys. Many gags are heightened by brief bursts of undercranking the camera, demonstrating that the method still works for getting laughs, if done right.
It should also be noted that writer/director Blake Edwards, the genius behind the Pink Panther film series, 10, Victor/Victoria, and others, would somtimes use slow motion for a visual gag rather than speed things up. He did so for The Return of the Pink Panther, which treats us to the sight of Inspector Clouseau leaping through the air at his servant Cato, but realizing things were going wrong while in mid-flight.
It would be easy to think that when it comes to comedy gags, everything has already been done in one form or another, many times over. It brings to mind a quote attributed to Charles H. Duell, the Commissioner of U.S. patent office near the turn of the 20th century, who supposedly once stated that the patent office would soon shrink in size, and eventually close, because… “Everything that can be invented has been invented.”
Of course, this isn’t the case when it comes to inventions or comedy. But the brief list above demonstrates that the old, dependable, silly gags from long ago still work — at least for some of us — even if they aren’t used as much today.
So, when time permits, seek out some gems by the old masters. And pass the limburger.
Until next time…
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Read my previous articles about comedy history at the links below, and at the links below:
“Halloween with Abbott & Costello” https://garryberman.medium.com/halloween-with-abbott-costello-2d39a21bbbba
“Buck Privates: An Appreciation” https://garryberman.medium.com/buck-privates-an-appreciation-da7b7d645fab
“Whatever Happened to Comedy Teams?” https://garryberman.medium.com/whatever-happened-to-comedy-teams-7e243b5c9d45
“Pie in Your Eye: A History of the Pie-in-the-face Gag” https://garryberman.medium.com/pie-in-your-eye-a-history-of-the-pie-in-the-face-gag-4dd8c31286a0
“Stars For a Cause: The Navy Relief Show of 1942” https://garryberman.medium.com/stars-for-a-cause-the-navy-relief-show-of-march-1942-af2ff6edf8d9
“Mary Kay and Johnny: Television’s First Sitcom” https://garryberman.medium.com/mary-kay-and-johnny-televisions-first-sitcom-835fec303b5e
“The First Person to be Censored on TV was…Eddie Cantor? https://garryberman.medium.com/eddie-cantor-the-first-person-to-be-censored-on-tv-78b56c68cae1
“A Tribute To Our Funniest Sitcom Moms” https://garryberman.medium.com/a-tribute-to-our-funniest-sitcom-moms-ed3f5757fe73
“Television’s Greatest Sitcom Dad?” https://garryberman.medium.com/televisions-greatest-sitcom-dad-ef2dab761525
“Breaking the Fourth Wall (in comedy)” https://garryberman.medium.com/breaking-the-fourth-wall-in-comedy-51edfa9f88f0
Please visit www.GarryBerman.com to read synopses and reviews of my books (including The Funniest Decade: A Celebration of American Comedy in the 1930s) and order them via the links to Amazon.com.