Friday, 4 June 2010


I have an ongoing research interest in slapstick comedy and its relation to art, language and creative thought.

I talk slapstick at conferences and events which have included Writing Encounters (York St. John University), Translated Acts (Central St. Martins) and Tertulia (Reading Room, Arnolfini).

Here's a short essay on the ‘slapstick object' published in Vacuum Art
Paper (Brighton, 2008).


It doesn’t matter how Wile E. Coyote got hold the cannon (presumably, from the ACME Corporation), or how he managed to manoeuvre it onto that ledge half way up the canyon, or how likely it is that the trajectory of the flying cannonball will coincide with that of the fast-approaching, supersonically gifted Road Runner. None of this matters because when the fuse burns down, and the flame disappears….nothing happens.
A silence.
The coyote, poised for the explosive detonation, looks puzzled. He investigates the failed fuse. Still nothing. With increasing exasperation, he walks to the other end of the cannon and looks, practically inserts his top half, right into the shaft when……
It finally goes off, firing the cannonball clean through his head.

Wile E.’s ill-fated encounter with the cannon is a variation on a particular joke logic, a micro-narrative sequence, which is ubiquitous in slapstick. Perhaps this particular model is most famously exemplified by Luis Lumiere’s 1895 short L’Arroseur Arrose (The Sprinkler Spinkled), in which a mischievous saboteur interrupts the flow of a gardener’s hosepipe by stepping on it, only to remove the offending foot at precisely the moment the nonplussed gardener looks directly into the nozzle. Cue a violent in-face splashing, and a subsequent spanking administered by the angry, wettened gardener. The gardener wettened, or the coyote head-blown-off, no matter; in both cases, the full humiliating force of the expulsion is taken, like a custard pie, slap bang in the face.

The elemental shape of both gags is that of FLOW –[interrupted by]- BLOCKAGE – [causing] BUILD UP – [resulting in] – EXPULSION, with the significant variation that in the Road Runner version, the blockage is not ‘explained’ through the presence of a third party, its cause is not made apparent to either the coyote or the viewer. It is experienced as an unexplained delay which seems to display a mysterious purposiveness: i.e. the cannon can be guaranteed to detonate at precisely the moment the coyote places his face in harm’s way. The pause appears intentional, purposeful, and it becomes irresistible, if not unavoidable to attribute this sense of ‘purpose’ to nothing (or no one) other than the cannon itself.
After all, this pause, this exasperating delay, disrupts the regularity of mechanistic time, in which inanimate things respond automatically and predictably to external stimuli. The pause is a moment of doubt, it leaves just enough space for the suspicion to arise that things are not happening purely as a result of an automated process. Through perceivably delaying, or withholding their response, inanimate things can momentarily seem to be possessed of not only of agency but of reason, doubt, suspicion, malice, or perhaps – in the case of the ACME Corporation products Wile E. Coyote employs to attempt to harm an innocent bird – a sense of righteousness.

This tendency reaches its zenith perhaps in a gag which ranks among the British public’s most treasured sit com ‘moments’: Basil Fawlty’s crazed assault on that unfortunate car, that red Austin 1100 Countryman in the ‘Gourmet Nights’ episode of Fawlty Towers (BBC, 1975). A concatenation of circumstances too intricate to relate – something to do with an urgent serving of roast duck being prepared across town – precedes this scene, in which the already edgy hotel owner is pushed to the brink of sanity when the car conks out in the midst of a three-point turn. Fawlty quite obviously interprets this interruption of mechanical function as a quite deliberate withdrawal of cooperation on the part of the car – this much is evidenced by the precise wording of his outburst:

Basil: Come on, start, will you!? Start, you vicious bastard!! Come on! Oh my God! I'm warning you — if you don't start… I'll count to three. One…two…three…!!Right! That's it! You've tried it on just once too often! Right! Well, don't say I haven't warned you! I've laid it on the line to you time and time again! Right! Well…this is it! I'm going to give you a damn good thrashing!

Mid-shout, he gets out of the car and slams the door, as if to get a better position from which to admonish the vehicle as an entity, to point a finger at the thing in its entirety, separate from himself, indeed his opposite number in a verbal and physical confrontation. The ‘thrashing’ which ensues is administered with the aid of a gangly stick, the ridiculous excessiveness of this action intensified by the effete delicacy of this young, leafy branch, dancing daintily in between each exaggerated thwack. And the entire tirade, indeed the very character of Basil Fawlty, is characterised by its inefficiency, its highly uneconomical excessiveness.

In this scene there is certainly a blockage, an exasperating pause. If there is an attendant expulsion, then it is surely the expulsion of language: exclamatory, expletive, immoderate and misdirected. The audience watch as sixty nine words, and an accusatory pointed finger, are directed with violent force toward an insentient, oblivious, mute hulk of metal; whatever agency we may detect within its lack of movement, the car is, quite clearly, still only a car. The slapstick thing resists anthropomorphism, or magically uncanny vitalism. It maintains its thingly form, and identity. And this, ultimately, is how it wins. The ‘uncooperative’ behaviour of Fawlty’s car (which, significantly belongs to his not-so-beloved wife, Sybill) provokes in him the high stupidity of approaching a non-figurative, indifferently inert thing as if it possessed the human characteristics of agency and free will, the ability to respond to verbal stimuli, to enter actively into dialectical opposition.

The perceived ‘agency’, or ‘life’ of the slapstick object is but a momentary impression, based on minute aspects of its behaviour in time – perhaps its sense of comic timing – rather than its material form, or any overtly anthropomorphic activity. In slapstick, visually at least, a car is a car, a plank a plank, a piano a piano, and so on. And yet, at the same time no: by the logic of slapstick, a car can become an insurmountable obstacle, an ‘innocent’ plank is spontaneously transformed into a lethal mechanism for catapulting a boulder towards an unsuspecting coyote, and, far from bringing forth beautiful music, a piano is literalised as a dead weight. In slapstick, things become both more and less than what they are. They come to life, seem momentarily possessed of the power of thought, the agility of free will. And then once more they grow obstinately dull, thick and heavy; reminding us of the insurmountability of gravity, the deadness of brute matter. If the stolid silence of Basil Fawlty’s car ‘speaks’, then it is of the unyieldingness of things, in all their obdurate objecthood, their dumb materiality, the consummate performance of their mute deadpan.

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