History of Physical Comedy

Posted on: July 16th, 2014 by Roundabout

Jim Dale got his big break at an audition after getting a big laugh from a big fall. From that moment on, he would use his physicality for laughs, making him part of a long line of artists unafraid of falling down on the job.

The art of physical comedy as we recognize it now has its roots in Italian Commedia Dell’arte, which translates to “Comedy of Art” and is defined by its improvisatory style, stock characters, and comedic interludes. Popular in the 16th and 17th centuries, the Commedia tradition laid the foundation for the acrobatics and pantomimes that we still see in comedy today. These are some people who have exemplified the ever-changing role of the body in comedy:

Marcel Marceau - Mime

The mime is perhaps one of the oldest and most recognizable characters of physical comedy, and it has an important defining element: silence. Since gesture is universal, pantomime shows could travel around to the courts of Europe with ease, with performers using only their bodies to express themselves. The mime tradition that we know today first took hold in France. Gaspard Deburau took the Pierrot character of Commedia tradition and brought him back to popularity, costumed in the black- and-white colors and white face paint that we still associate with this style. Thanks to the students of Deburau, mime would continue into the 20th century, with Paris as its hub. It was there that Marcel Marceau would train and eventually develop his own school and style, which some refer to as “corporeal mime.” This practice was characterized by taking mime beyond the same stock expressions and moves and instead making use of the entire body. His influence can be seen in modern day silent clowns like Bill Irwin and David Shiner, who not only perform physically demanding comedic bits without words, but who also bring great humanity into the relationship between their clowns and the audience.

Buster Keaton - Silent Film

Photo source IMDb.

In the early days of filmmaking, movies might be accompanied by a musical score played live by a pianist, but dialogue was restricted to the occasional title card. Thanks to these limitations, the earliest film stars were comedians who specialized in the physical, with Charlie Chaplin, the Marx Brothers, and Harold Lloyd among them. But perhaps the greatest was Buster Keaton, whose famously odd and expressive face said more to the camera in its deadpan silence than pages of words could ever hope to convey. Keaton performed some of the riskiest and most thrilling stunts of any actor of his day in films like The General and Steamboat Bill, Jr.

Donald O'Connor - Musical Comedy/Dance

Photo source IMDb.

As the American musical became popular, the form took hold on both stage and screen, allowing musical comedy performers to find many roles. Vaudeville peaked in popularity in 1928 but was already on the decline by the mid-1930s. Actors who were trained in the singing, dancing, and physical comedy of that tradition found themselves shifting over to film and musical theatre. Perhaps one number in one film best exemplifies how music and dance can enhance physical comedy: “Make ‘Em Laugh” as performed by Donald O’Connor in the 1952 film Singin’ in the Rain. In this number, O’Connor explains the self- sacrificing attitude of the comedic performer (in song) while sacrificing his own body at the same time. He climbs a wall, does a backflip, fights a dummy, and morphs his pliable face into every expression possible. It’s exhausting to watch and an exhilarating example of the heights to which musical comedy can climb.

Melissa McCarthy - Modern Slapstick

Photo source IMDb.

If we’ve learned anything from the long-running television series “America’s Funniest Home Videos” or from the popularity of YouTube clips of people falling, getting hit, or hurting themselves in other ways, our modern sense of humor is not so different from that of the Italians who came up with Commedia Dell’arte. Apparently, some things never get old, and comedic violence is one of them. Actress Melissa McCarthy has become a prime performer of this modern slapstick comedy, using her physicality to create indelibly funny moments in films like Bridesmaids and Identity Thief. She is one of the most recent women to take on physical comedy after men seemed to have a lock on slapstick in film. As long as we as an audience are primed to know that no one is really getting hurt, we’re happy to laugh at the performers’ pain.



Just Jim Dale plays at the Laura Pels Theatre May 15 through August 10. For more information and tickets, please visit our website.


Related Categories:
2013-2014 Season, Education @ Roundabout, Just Jim Dale, Upstage

  1. beau fitzpatrick

    July 18, 2014

    Hey there,
    great blog.
    We’d love to repost it on our blog.

    • Roundabout

      July 21, 2014

      Sure, no problem! Please link back to our post.

  2. History of Physical Comedy – theartofphysicalcomedy

    March 29, 2016

    […] History of Physical Comedy  […]



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