Slapstick and the Novel

Jay Cole image

Humor is our most enjoyable form of truth.



Note: Today’s post is a bit longer than usual due to the inclusion of a short book excerpt, but—hang tough—it’s worth it.

Slapstick or physical comedy falls into the love it or hate it category, but you may be surprised to learn that it is one of the only universal forms of humor. Slapstick can be found in every country and every culture. As such, it shouldn’t be ignored by any humor writer.

Maybe you hate The Three Stooges, and maybe Gilligan’s Island is not on your Top Ten List, but the fact that they are still in syndication generations after their original production is testament to slapstick’s popularity with all ages and every demographic. In spite of this, many writers ignore this form of humor when writing novels and articles, feeling that slapstick can’t be made funny on the printed page—simply not true. Slapstick can be used everywhere, but it may take a bit more work in printed formats.

You can find slapstick scenes in many novels. Funny faces, funny appearances, funny actions, funny situations, and the occasional heavy dollop of the just plain stupid. Likely, one of the best explanations appears in the opening to Kurt Vonnegut’s 1976 novel entitled, Slapstick:

It is about what life feels like to me.

Slapstick Challenges A Writer’s Descriptive Abilities
It’s easy to put a pratfall on film. One only needs a good premise, a director who’s not a moron, and a great comedic actor or actress. When describing similar characters and actions in print, you have to paint a picture—assuming adequate caffeine, easy enough for a talented writer. However, a slapstick picture should deliberately accentuate:

  • Comic action
  • Comic characters (physical and personality traits). This can include personality clashes, and personalities clashing with action (fish out of water, etc.)
  • Additions—add comic flourishes external to the main action
  • Consequences of comic action
  • External forces—deliberate interference with characters and action

Essentially, slapstick can utilize all aspects of the scene. Everything is funny with the right perspective and carefully constructed description.

A Sample Slapstick Scene
Below is a short excerpt from my book,
Sexual Evolution: A Naughty Comedy of Social Madness.

This scene describes a failed assassination attempt by a quite obsessed, quite insane, and quite inept assassin. Note the add-ons to the primary action, both in the descriptions and, in this case, the addition of a few fictitious quotes\comments.

Setup: Our assassin, Gwen, is a television news anchor; she shoots from the unfinished floor of a high-rise building under construction, and the mentioned ‘DST cartridge’ is a memory storage device like a DVD.

    Gwen Taylor was back in her assassin’s window looking at MacClaren the Pig through her purse-sized binoculars. He was talking on the phone again as he tossed a DST cartridge in the air. He caught it repeatedly and sent it back toward the ceiling tiles with a flip. MacClaren stopped and pulled a single sheet from the buff file folder on his desk. Gwen knew exactly what he was doing.
    Figuring more ways to denigrate women.
    Setting her binoculars on the floor, Gwen opened a large packing case and pulled out a shoulder-fired rocket launching tube. “No mistakes this time. I just lock it onto a heat source and push the button.”
    Toasted Pig MacMuffin–MacClaren!
    She shouldered the weapon.

Time to die, you bastard!
The theme of all James Bond films.

    Sighting the rocket on MacClaren’s desk lamp, Gwen pushed the launch button. A geyser of intense flame shot from the end of the tube. The bright flash temporarily blinded Gwen.

And the rocket’s red glare…
Francis Scott Key
Lawyer and poet
Lord knows, he was no musician

    The anti-tank rocket, model MX-43 Rev. 2, had been stolen from a National Guard Armory and stored for several years in the damp basement of a popular Italian deli and pizza parlor/cocaine and methamphetamine distribution center. Gwen purchased it from a career criminal, who she’d previously used as an informant on a racketeering and political influence story. The little missile was then bounced around for nearly a week in the trunk of Gwen’s BMW. It was a truly marvelous example of American craftsmanship, which despite long storage and abuse, launched on command without hesitation. The rocket flew out the back of the tube behind Gwen, straight across the eleventh floor, missed two pallet loads of drywall, and accelerated out the empty window on the opposite side of the building.
    After exiting the building, the rocket flew two blocks to the river and crossed in less than a second. It had locked onto the Mid-Town Jaycees clambake on the far riverbank. Fortunately, no one was attending the cooking fire when the missile hit. The huge pot of Redstone clams blew sixty feet in the air and rained their now severely overcooked seafood dinner into the Jaycees’ laps. Also fortunate, the Jaycees were drunk enough to laugh at flying clams. It didn’t matter really. They still had corn-on-the-cob and a huge variety of potluck pasta and potato salads available. No one would die of starvation or poorly aimed rockets.
    The only known injury was a very small and very mild, clam-shaped burn on the tongue of a toy poodle, named Polo, which was both the Jaycees chapter mascot and honorary public relations director. The lucky pooch couldn’t resist the opportunity to steal away with his share of this seafood bounty falling from the heavens.

No animals were harmed in the making of this film.
Hollywood film disclaimer
A common lie to soothe the social conscience

Only one animal was harmed in the writing of this book.
Don’t care. It wasn’t my dog.

    The Jaycees chapter president, having caught a clam on the fly, sucked the neatly cooked morsel from its shell and continued to tap a second icy keg of Budweiser. “The clams were better last year,” he announced. It didn’t occur to him to blame the strange taste on the chemical residues of an explosive warhead and expended rocket propellant. “Probably that damn global warming.”
    When Gwen’s night vision returned, she was surprised to see MacClaren, sitting at his desk, chatting on the phone and routinely tossing his DST cartridge in the air. The Pig was supposed to be barbecue. She looked into the empty launcher tube. The rocket was gone. “Why isn’t he dead?” Gwen asked aloud.
    Her words gently reverberated down the empty tube. Gwen felt completely numb. She had failed once again. Her body began to shiver and quiver uncontrollably. Her tears burst forth, and her vision blurred into a blood-red haze.
    “Dead Pig. Pig dead. Dead Pig. Pig dead,” Gwen recited her new mantra as she collapsed into a fetal position on the concrete floor, hugging her now nicely warm ‘rocket tube thingy.’

Cover image: "Sexual Evolution"Fear Not!
If you fear that slapstick will not translate to the printed page, now is the time to reconsider and give it a try. It is absolutely doable.

Will slapstick appeal to every reader? No more than Gilligan’s Island, the number one program in syndication for almost fifty years.

Isn’t that worth some thought?

Parting Funny: I just carved my initials into a tree, but only as a warning to other trees.
Bridger Winegar
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