What is Slapstick? From Comedia dell’arte to Chuchel

by Annie Tam

Introduction

Chuchel is an absurd, zany, surreal point and click game where you guide a character named Chuchel. You go through a series of puzzles and minigames with the goal of getting the object of Chuchel’s desire, which is a ripe juicy cherry. Chuchel finds himself in all sorts of ridiculous and silly situations, and his primary partner in crime/nemesis/pet is this cute little companion whose name is Kekel. It’s a very playful game with a lot of interesting interactions, sound, and animation, and is extremely slapstick in nature.

In this video, I’m going to talk about how the game Chuchel emulates traditional slapstick found in movies, shows, theaters, and cartoons. Made by Amanita Design and released in 2018, Chuchel is a great take on classic slapstick humor in a more modern, untraditional medium – that is to say, a game! I’m also going to talk about how Chuchel differs from traditional slapstick, but that comes quite a bit later.

The idea that Chuchel has a lot of slapstick comedy is usually quite obvious when you play the game – this ridiculously fuzzy, orange, temperamental ball named Chuchel constantly undergoes a series of physical mishaps — there are plenty of pratfalls, objects thrown, clumsy tripping and falling, and so on and so forth — and these mishaps are often accompanied by the sounds of squeaks, boings, squelches and plops.

What I really want to do here is articulate why Chuchel feels so slapstick-y, and explicitly explain how it embodies traditional slapstick. Recognizing that Chuchel is slapstick is one thing, but understanding the why and how of it is quite another .

What is Slapstick Comedy?

So, what is slapstick, in a more traditional sense? What might you see in more veteran mediums, like film or theater or cartoons? I’m going to mainly rely on Louise Peacock’s article “Slapstick and Comic Performance”. One of the definitions Peacock provides is the following:Slapstick is “a mode of performance that relies on broad physical comedy…derived from performed violence and comic pain and is likely to involve trips, falls, beatings, and throwing of items”

Live Performance

Let’s now take a quick look at the history of slapstick, starting with live performance: Commedia dell’arte, otherwise known as “Italian comedy,” dates back to the 16th century, and was performed by theater troupes from Italy throughout Europe. The performers often wore masks, forcing them to project their characters’ emotions through bodily movement and action, such as — leaps, obscene gestures, tumbles, and all sorts of physical performance.

Additionally, the characters were often meant to satirize Italian stereotypes, like the foolish old man, or devious servant. Peacock notes that the highly stylised performance combined with the masks worn by the actors discourage the audience from developing an empathic relationship with any of the characters.

There are clearly elements of slapstick present in Commedia dell’arte — the costumes and exaggerated movements dehumanize the performers and allow the audience to laugh, even when conflict or violence arise. The exaggerated caricatures of Italian stereotypes combined with an absurd comic frame give us something we can all point to and laugh at — the characters and their stupidity are recognizable, yet exaggerated enough so as to be foreign, as are the absurd situations and circumstances the characters find themselves in.

Circus clowning is another early form of slapstick, dating back to the mid-nineteenth century across the UK, Europe and America. Circus clowning relies mostly on physical gags, and similar to performers of Commedia dell’arte, the clowns perform with exaggerated movements, outlandish costumes, and face make-up. Peacock points out that such hyperbolized movement and appearance “go some way towards establishing an otherness about the performance that mitigates the appearance of pain.” However, unlike Commedia dell’arte, these characters are not satirizing stereotypes that can be found in reality; rather, the humor in circus clowning comes from the exaggerated movements and behaviors of the performers. The humor, then, is heavily grounded in the physicality of the performers.

Through their costumes and make-up, circus clowns become entirely “other”. The “gags” performed by circus clowns, further their ‘otherness’. The gags involve comic violence between clowns and dubious props, and are often of an excessive and unexpected nature. 

The props used often take a spin on our expectations of those objects: for example, props might include  a flower that squirts out water, or a Pringle can that actually contains a snake inside. They enable the performers to physically act in a greater variety of ways by offering more potential and surprising interactions – they can touch, engage, and react to the props with highly stylized and hyperbolized behavior. All of this ultimately contributes to the clowns’ “otherness”. 

From these stage examples, we can see how important dehumanization is for slapstick to be successful. Through the usage of masks in Commedia dell’arte and the makeup of circus clowns, performers distance themselves from their characters and establish a lack of reality, which lets the audience know that the violence and pain being portrayed isn’t real. We laugh at rather than sympathize with them. 

Of course, the dehumanization never goes so far as to render the characters and their actions entirely unfamiliar – rather, slapstick works by juggling between the real and unreal. Real enough that we can recognize the circumstance – unreal enough such that we can laugh. “Otherness”, established by masks or makeup, emphasize the ‘unreal’, but maintains the realness required to identify what’s occurring. 

Props, too, also go a long way in enabling the performers to establish the lack of reality or a hyperbolized one through actions, as briefly explored earlier in circus clowning, what with the flowers shooting water and all…but we can really see how props enable slapstick performers in silent films, such that the lack of reality can be found in the hyperbolized stunts and interactions performers might have with the props. 

Film and Television

Buster Keaton, for example, is an icon when it comes to slapstick, known for his silent films from the early 20th century. His films usually focus on his outrageous stunts, such as…jumping across the top of buildings, falling through awnings, or approaching Jean Claude Van Damme levels of flexibility. His stunts often rely on props in the scene, like a car that falls apart on its own, or pieces of lumber in the way of a moving train. The usage of props is vital to highlighting unreality in such films. Without quirky sounds to emphasize the action, the props combined with Keaton’s elaborate stunts provide the circumstances of some central absurdity. 

Keaton’s performances with these props are often outrageous and risky. Peacock connects this risk to notions of excess, and points to the example of Keaton narrowly fitting through the hole of a window on the falling facade of a house. While we are aware that the facade itself is made of real building materials that threaten real harm to Keaton, this interestingly does not prevent us from laughing. The threat itself is so unrealistic that it lends itself to the characteristic nature of slapstick, which is to say: excess. We never really believe that something as outrageous as a falling facade would happen, much less hit the fictional character Keaton portrays.

Moving a few decades forward, Tom and Jerry is another classic example of slapstick comedy. What’s notable about this show is that it implements sound and is animated, which contrasts against the silence in Buster Keaton films and the genuine physical skill of Keaton. Nonetheless, the foundation of slapstick humor remains the same, despite the stark difference in auditory and visual stimuli. The show Tom and Jerry still seeks to establish notions of excess and a lack of reality, the same as Keaton films. The sounds that accompany actions in Tom and Jerry are often exaggerated and unrealistic; for example, the show makes use of slide-whistles when someone falls or gets confused, or cymbals when crashes occur. This auditory input adds to the unreality by further emphasizing the excessive nature of the interactions that unfold.

Additionally, the performers – aka, Tom and Jerry, are extremely malleable and resilient due to their animation. There are more opportunities for exaggeration and unexpected events; characters can shatter like glass or be flattened into a pancake. Obviously, stage actors cannot survive being pancaked the same way animated characters can, so the unrealistic aspects in slapstick can be exaggerated tenfold. Animation really opens windows for slapstick humor as the characters are no longer dependent on the skills, contortions, and acrobatics of the performers, but rather, the creativity and imagination of the animators, which significantly carry and enable more potentiality for slapstick humor. 

Also, what sets Tom and Jerry apart from the other examples I have mentioned is its reliance on a central double act. While double-acts are certainly present in Commedia dell’arte and circus clowning, it isn’t always at the forefront, as it is with Tom and Jerry. Having two characters in conflict with one another not only sets the stage for hilarious situations, but also gives the audience some choice over whom to identify with. The main characters use just about everything at their disposal to mess with each other, leading to oodles of comic pain and violence. The absurd dynamic between Tom and Jerry is an ever-present source of conflict and hilarity, which nicely sets up absurd situations that add to the excessive nature of the show. 

Elements of Slapstick

So what do these traditional examples of slapstick have?

Peacock identifies the following as essential elements of slapstick comedy:

  • A central double act
  • Comic pain and comic violence
  • Falling and tripping
  • Malicious props
  • Throwing of objects
  • And stunts and acrobatics

Going on to also mention the use of:

  • Sound
  • Excess and transgression

We’ve certainly seen some of these elements in the traditional examples we just examined.

CHUCHEL SLAPSTICK

DOUBLE ACT

So how is Chuchel traditionally slapstick? Well, it certainly has all the elements of slapstick! You have the central double act of Chuchel and Kekel, which is reminiscent of the double act between Tom and Jerry, though Chuchel and Kekel don’t antagonize each other as much. The dynamic between Chuchel and Kekel is primarily that between an owner and a pet, but of course, with that comes scenarios in which they are in conflict, and scenarios in which they are collaborative. 

COMIC PAIN

There is plenty of comic pain in Chuchel, as is found in traditional slapstick. Comic pain occurs because of some accident or some type of incompetence, and you could see this in this example of circus clowning, where a clown accidentally drops a sandbag on his foot. So in Chuchel, you find many examples that manifest comic pain, particularly through falling and tripping. Chuchel here attempts to get the cherry, but falls over himself. Comic pain can manifest not just through the actions of the performers, but also through the use of malicious props. For example, we can guide Chuchel to press the red button, but shortly after pressing it, a heavy weight flattens Chuchel like a pancake. In this case, both the player and Chuchel does not expect this to occur from pressing the red button, and the red button acts as a malicious prop that causes Chuchel’s pain. Malicious props often subvert our expectations, as seen earlier in the example of a flower unexpectedly shooting water.

COMIC VIOLENCE

Not only do you find a lot of comic pain in Chuchel, but you also find many examples of comic violence. Comic violence occurs when either one of the central double act attacks one another or when a third party attacks both of them. Comic violence is abundant in Tom and Jerry, as we can see here. Jerry throws a brick at Tom, who shatters like glass. In Chuchel, we can see comic violence occur in the double act of Chuchel and Kekel – they’re both in mech suits, punching and boxing each other. Additionally, it occurs when Chuchel and Kekel team up, precariously balanced on one another to hammer open an egg, which acts as the third party. 

THROWING OF OBJECTS

When you think of objects that are thrown in slapstick, you might first think of the classic pie in the face or rotten tomatoes. In Spongebob, Squidward attempts to do an ‘interpretative dance’, which is unfortunately not received well by the audience, and gets tomatoed. Chuchel draws on this scenario in this particular example, where Chuchel gets an egg thrown at his face after he lifts his name up and flexes. He also gets a variety of objects thrown at him by you, if you are the player, as he is singing – and presumably, he’s singing poorly. 

STUNTS AND ACROBATICS

Stunts and acrobatics are also found in Chuchel, as they are in Buster Keaton films. Keaton obviously does things with his body that most people cannot – he can dangle upside-down on a rope, perched precariously by a waterfall and save a woman. And Tom in Tom and Jerry can fly through the air with flimsy-looking wings and bounce off a needley house, only to land perfectly in an inflated pool. Chuchel is  like Tom and Jerry in that Chuchel is animated as a performer, and the things that he can withstand and do are also quite amazing and unrealistic. For example, Kekel can act as an object to be tossed to knock down a door frame of wood, and bounce off a variety of objects without accruing any actual harm. The exaggeration that can be created in animation is impressive. Bodies can contort in ways that even the best human contortionist could not mimic. Stunts and acrobatics, in animations found in Chuchel or Tom and Jerry, very much emphasize the sense of unreality required to establish a comic frame. 

SOUND

Additionally, one of the most important aspects of slapstick is sound. Unfortunately, Buster Keaton films lacked that, but we know of the unrealistic nature of the presented scenarios by context and the skill of the performers. However, other traditional forms of slapstick, like theater or shows that have sound, have that in abundance.

Chuchel also utilizes sound effects to establish distance from reality. The sounds are highly stylized and exaggerated, and reinforce the excessive nature of the violence. Chuchel has a lot of conventional punchy sounds that you might normally hear in slapsticks, like a fall or punch might be accentuated by ham-smacking noises and cymbals. But Chuchel has really amazing unconventional, unique sounds too, like jello creatures emitting synth noises, or birds singing like an alarm clock. These are really unexpected and add to the surreal, zany nature of the game, and heighten the sense of unreality that enables us to laugh at everything that’s going on. 

EXCESS (PHYSICAL)

Excess is also important for audiences to derive satisfaction from slapstick performances. Physical excess involves stunts that would normally be physically impossible for the average person, as we can see here in this Buster Keaton stunt.

EXCESS (VIOLENCE)

Excessive violence is also commonly found, but it must be excessive to the point that a lack of reality is clearly depicted such that the audience doesn’t gasp in horror, but laugh instead. Tom and Jerry, for instance, has excessive violence, but it is so exaggerated that we don’t empathize with Tom, but rather, laugh at him. Chuchel clearly contains physical excess and excessive violence, like when he gets cut in half here.

TRANSGRESSION

Transgression is also a vital component for audiences to derive satisfaction from slapstick performances, particularly, social transgression. Transgression is particularly satisfying because it allows the audience to get a form of vicarious pleasure and amusement from the action – Peacock describes slapstick as a “safe form of rebellion”, where we can enjoy the breaking of status quos without suffering the repercussions.

 In Chuchel, Chuchel gets egged in the face, and normally this is a no-no in day-to-day customs, but here the player can break social custom without any judgment or fear of retaliation. Additionally, transgression can be seen when Chuchel pees on a snowman, and peeing in random places or anywhere you want is a no-no. This is meant to amuse and satisfy the player, as the player guides Chuchel to pee on anything he wants to. 

INTERACTIVITY

This brings me to my closing remarks about Chuchel and gaming as a medium for slapstick. Interactivity adds a new dimension to the genre, and Chuchel gives you a variety of ways to participate, as it is highly interactive.The player participates in a way that a passive audience cannot. 

You can not only guide Chuchel and act like his ‘God’, such that you practically interact as Chuchel, but you can also at times be the audience and interact with Chuchel. For example, you not only are able to guide Chuchel to pee, but you can also chuck objects at Chuchel. 

This dynamism allows for a much greater, enhanced degree of vicarious pleasure that more traditional mediums don’t have – it grants the player a greater feeling of autonomy and variety. The player essentially experiences slapstick in a more intimate way, as the interactivity amplifies  the vicarious pleasure he or she feels. 

Other slapstick games, like Untitled Goose Game, or Octodad, also allow the player to choose how they experience the humor. Ultimately, I believe that interactive forms of media, like video games, provide unique opportunities for the genre. We can finally participate in the fun of slapstick comedy.

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