Pie in Your Eye: A history of the pie-in-the-face gag

It is a comedy staple, dating back to unknown origins: the throwing of a pie straight into the face of some unfortunate recipient, who is left with a momentary loss of all visible dignity. And yet, it’s funny, plain and simple — if done right, that is. Some may say that it’s a timeworn, silly, and cheap way for a comedian to get a laugh, whether he or she is the pie thrower or receiver. Others find it reliable and good for a laugh in any number of comic situations on the movie screen, TV screen, or stage. Here’s just part of the rich history of this simple but enduring gag, performed and perfected by some of the greatest comedy legends of the past century.

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Mabel and Roscoe in “A Noise From the Deep.”

According to legend, the first time it was ever committed to film was for the July, 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 of sorts, but the nature of the gag is debatable). Unfortunately, no prints of the film are known to exist today, and 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.

Arbuckle’s reputation as an expert pie thrower grew quickly. He could hurl two pies at once in opposite directions, and with pinpoint accuracy. In 1917, he teamed with his protégé, a young and eager Buster Keaton, who had been performing slapstick since he was a three-year-old with his parents in their vaudeville act. In The Butcher Boy, his first film appearance, Keaton fell victim not to a pie, but to a bag of flour, thrown by Arbuckle. Trying to keep his co-star from flinching, Arbuckle instructed him not to look at the oncoming bag until he heard “Now!” Keaton turned just in time to get flattened to the floor by the projectile. “He put my head where my feet were,” he later said.

Keaton explained in his memoirs that he and Arbuckle became very specific with their recipe for the pies created for onscreen flight. For instance, if the target was a blonde, custard was not used; the filling was a mixture of blackberries, flour, and water, topped with whipped cream. When a brunette was to be hit, a lemon-meringue filling was substituted for blackberries, which showed up better on the screen against a darker complexion. In addition, “Two crusts are cooked, one inside the other, until brittle. The double crust prevents crumbling when your fingers slide across the bottom in delivering the confectionery. Tin plates are never used because of the danger of cutting the recipient’s eye, something that could happen when the plate slides sideways at the crucial moment of impact.” The shortest throw, across a distance of from three to six feet, is called a shot putt, “and this was the custard-pie surprise I was about to heave at sweet-faced Alice Faye [in Hollywood Cavalcade of 1939]. I worried about her flinching. Besides spoiling the shot, this would mean hours of delay while Alice took a shower, got a whole new make-up job, a hairdo, and was fitted for a duplicate clothes outfit.” Keaton called upon the technique Arbuckle used on him years before. “I decided not to warn her when the great moment approached” in order to get a more genuine reaction.

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Keaton and Alice Faye.

In a 1962 interview with Chicago broadcaster and oral historian Studs Terkel, Keaton warned, “You could hit the wrong people with a pie, and get an audience mad at you. There are certain characters you just don’t hit with a pie. We found that out a long time ago.” He offered the example of variety show host Ed Sullivan appearing on Milton Berle’s show, and Berle hitting Sullivan in the face with a pie. “And the audience froze up on him, and Milton didn’t get another laugh while he was on that stage. There are just certain people you don’t hit with a pie, that’s all there is to it.” Keaton provided another example, common in the silent film era. “If I had a grande dame who was dogging it and putting it on, she was a gray-haired woman but so overbearing and everything else that the audience would like to hit her, then you could hit her with a pie and they’d laugh their heads off. But if she was a legitimate old lady and a sincere character, you wouldn’t dare hit her. If she’s a phony, that’s different. The same thing goes for a man.”

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“The Battle of the Century.”

By the time the greatest comedy team of all, Laurel & Hardy, had become an official team in 1927 at Hal Roach’s studio, pie throwing on film was already becoming a little too familiar with audiences for it to maintain its novelty value. While brainstorming ideas for a new film, which would become The Battle of the Century, the Roach studio gag men and Stan (who unofficially supervised the creative end of most Laurel & Hardy films) traded possibilities. One gag man suggested a pie-throwing gag, but it was quickly rejected by the others as being old hat. As Laurel and 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.’”

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The gag men warmed to the idea and went to work. At the same time, the studio purchasing agent ordered a wide variety of pies from the Los Angeles Pie Company: custard, cherry, blueberry, raspberry, coconut, banana, and lemon cream. In all, four thousand pies made their way to the studio, awaiting the framework of the story to be devised for their use.

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Director Leo McCarey, one of film history’s greatest comedy directors, deserves co-credit for the result along with Stan. The climactic pie battle takes place on a city street, beginning with a single pie and steadily escalating to retaliatory throws among the growing crowd of participants, sending whole and partial pies flying in all directions, including through open windows. It is still considered the greatest pie battle ever put on film, even though it exists today only as a heavily edited version of the original scene. In 1949, acclaimed film critic James Agee described the scene in Life magazine. “The first pies were thrown thoughtfully, almost philosophically. Then innocent bystanders began to get caught into the vortex. At full pitch it was Armageddon. But everything was calculated so nicely that until late in the picture, when havoc took over, every pie made its special kind of point and piled on its special kind of laugh.”

In 1990, on the 100th anniversary of Stan’s birth, New York Times film critic Vincent Canby called the scene “mayhem that is both pricelessly funny and epic.” Alas, it proved not to be the pie fight to end all pie fights. There would be many more to come.

In January of 1930, Roach studios released the Our Gang (aka Little Rascals) short 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 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 their 25-year career together, 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.”

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The tradition continued on television in the late 1940s and early ’50s with Milton Berle, and in the ’60s with the new master of the thrown pie, Soupy Sales, who delighted kids and adults on his outrageous, free-form show. Like his pie-throwing predecessors, Soupy had a substantial list of do’s and don’ts regarding the deceptively simple gag: “There is a definite art to pie-throwing,” he wrote. “You can use whipped cream, egg whites or shaving cream, but shaving cream is much better because it doesn’t spoil. And no tin plates. The secret is you just can’t push it and shove it in somebody’s face. It has to be done with a pie that has a lot of crust so that it breaks up into a thousand pieces when it hits you.”

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He also reflected on his relationship with pies as comedy props. “Over the years, about twenty thousand pies have been thrown at me or people on my show. In fact, not long ago during an interview with Bob Costas, he asked me about the effects of getting hit by so many pies, and I said, ‘I used to look like Cary Grant before all those pies.’ When all is said and done…I’ll probably be remembered for getting hit in the face with a pie.”

So popular was Soupy and his show (which originated in New York and later moved to Los Angeles) that some of the biggest stars in Hollywood made guest appearances to receive a pie in the face, sometimes for the benefit of their own children watching at home. It had become almost a rite of passage circa 1962. Among Soupy’s pie-battling guests were Jerry Lewis, Mickey Rooney, Tony Curtis, Burt Lancaster, and even Frank Sinatra, who called Soupy personally to request a spot on the show, but only on the condition that Sinatra would get hit with a pie — and that his appearance be kept a secret until airtime. Soupy was a bit stunned, but thrilled. Sinatra arrived at the studio on his own, without an entourage, and was eager to do it right (and on live TV). Soupy concocted a scenario in which Sinatra sang “A Foggy Day,” after which Soupy thanked him and chatted, until a knock at the door led to a pie in Soupy’s face. “It was Dean Martin,” he said to an unbelieving Frank, who then went to the door and received his own pie in the face. After giving it a taste, he reported, “It’s rum. It’s Dean all right.”

Sadly, that episode was not preserved on tape, but Sinatra returned at a later date, bringing pals Sammy Davis Jr. and Trini Lopez with him, for a predictably messy pie fight scene in a restaurant, with Soupy as the waiter.

The pie gag continued to appear in 1960s feature films as well, most notably in The Great Race, a comedy spectacular directed by Blake Edwards, starring Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis, and a full roster of others. Edwards used Laurel & Hardy’s Battle of the Century pie fight as his inspiration, hoping to top the final pie tally of that masterpiece. As he once explained, “I worked with Leo McCarey, and I used to get him talking. He talked about the early days, about Hal Roach and Laurel & Hardy and the great pie fight…I would say I learned as much from McCarey as from anybody.”

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The aftermath of the pie fight.

Despite Edwards’ best intentions, critics were split regarding the pie battle in The Great Race. Some loved the over-the-top nature of it, not to mention the sheer number of pies thrown (about 2,500, falling far short of the 4,000 in Battle of the Century), but others found fault in the timing and editing, causing the scene, despite its frenetic nature, to fall flat.

The daffy British comedy Smashing Time, starring Lynn Redgrave and Rita Tushingham, set against the backdrop of “mod” 1967 London, includes both a “squirt” fight in a cafe, during which Tushingham, other customers, and the cafe owner squirt and spray each other with assorted bottled condiments and sauces, and an epic pie fight in a trendy, posh restaurant.

In a stroke of genius, the legendary Monty Python group deconstructed the art of pie throwing in a stage sketch performed at their filmed Hollywood Bowl performance in 1980. Brilliant in both its concept and its execution, the sketch (credited to Terry Jones) had been around for some years before then. In it, Graham Chapman, standing at a lectern and speaking with scholarly authority, describes the various versions of the simple pie-in-the-face gag, as Jones, Terry Gilliam, and Michael Palin, dressed in overalls, demonstrate landing a number of pies upon various parts of each other’s bodies, quietly and with minimum movement, but with pinpoint timing and precision.

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From “Monty Python at the Hollywood Bowl.”

All of these examples just skim the surface of the pie gag history, of course, but whether you consider it silly and unfunny, or always good for a big laugh, it’s more than likely that, in the comedy world, we still haven’t seen the last flights of the surprisingly aerodynamic pie.

Until next time…

Written by

Pop Culture historian, Freelance Writer, Author, specializing in American comedy history in films, radio, and TV. Beatles and jazz enthusiast, animal lover.

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