A Brief History Of Women In Slapstick Comedy
When Melissa McCarthy’s latest comedy, The Boss, recently hit theaters, the reviews were not kind. But even the harsher critics are willing to admit that there’s something special about McCarthy — and not just because she’s probably the only person who can rock that severe mom haircut with so much conviction. If you watch the trailer for The Boss, you’ll see another unique talent on full display:
Did you notice McCarthy flail against that limo door, or smack into the living room wall? These may be simple jokes, but the fact that a woman is making them is significant. While the history of physical comedy is stacked with male legends — Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Peter Sellers, Jim Carrey — it’s much harder to rattle off a list of women renowned for their pratfalls. Look at any round-up of all-time great slapstick stars and you might find one lady on the list. Physical comedy montages and tributes are even more gender-imbalanced.
Beautiful women in romantic comedies are expected to fall to make themselves endearing, sure, but slapstick is rarely an actress’s main shtick, thanks to a standard that TV Tropes has brilliantly dubbed “Beauty Is Never Tarnished.” The website quotes George Eliot, who wrote in Silly Novels by Lady Novelists:
“Whatever vicissitudes she may undergo, from being dashed out of her carriage to having her head shaved in a fever, she comes out of them all with a complexion more blooming and locks more redundant than ever.”
The idea is that facial contortions or falls make a woman, at least for a moment, less beautiful and graceful. Such moments are not conventionally feminine, which still makes many people uncomfortable, even in modern times. Just consider Tina Fey’s infamous story in her book Bossypants about an offhand comment Jimmy Fallon made to Amy Poehler once in the SNL writers’ room. After Poehler made a dirty “unladylike” joke, Fallon — who was, as Fey put it, “arguably the star of the show at the time” — squirmed and said, “Stop that! It’s not cute! I don’t like it.”
Of course, Poehler whipped around and delivered her cathartic comeback, “I don’t fucking care if you like it,” but that squeamishness at a woman who peddles bawdy, indelicate humor helps explain why physical comedy “greats” are almost always men. Since funny ladies must also be hot, and falling on your face or crossing your eyes is decidedly not, physical comedy just isn’t the easiest sphere for women to break into.
Thankfully, these actresses — some of whom have defied the “beautiful woman” conventions in other ways, too — didn’t let that stop them. And in wiping out, they’ve helped to wipe out damaging ideas about “appropriate” gender roles.
Plus, they’re just funny. Enjoy.
If you tuned into I Love Lucy at any point during its six-year run, you might’ve seen Lucille Ball tumbling out of a hammock. Or desperately clenching her cheeks to hide all that candy. Or awkwardly prancing around a vat of grapes. Although the show is incredibly retro in a lot of ways — Desi’s persistent “Lucy, I’m home!” is one example — there’s something radical about watching a woman in a 1950s TV show whose biggest assets are her elastic face and cheerful clumsiness, not an immaculately starched dress.
When NBC executives needed a sitcom to compete with the CBS hit I Love Lucy, they called in Joan Davis. Davis had started her showbiz career at the age of 7 when she entered the vaudeville circuit. There she developed a knack for slapstick that landed her silly bit roles in movies like Thin Ice (above) and eventually, a string of radio shows. Her big television break, I Married Joan, didn’t prove a match for Lucy, but like Lucille Ball’s hit, it toyed with the traditional ’50s sitcom wife role by presenting a vivacious goof who was infinitely more interesting than her husband.
Carol Burnett experimented with all kinds of comedy styles and comedians over 11 seasons of The Carol Burnett Show, but much of it skewed physical. In fact, her skits sometimes played fast and loose with the “Wouldn’t Hit a Girl” component of the slapstick double standard TV Tropes defines — just watch the “Butler and the Maid” sketch, which sees Tim Conway repeatedly slapping her on the boss’s orders. (Of course, she slugs him right back.) Recurring characters like Nora Desmond and Stella Toddler took frequent nosedives, and no matter the sketch, you could always count on Burnett to sell it with an exaggerated facial expression.
Penny Marshall and Cindy Williams
Laverne & Shirley was a milestone in TV female friendship. The girls worked together, lived together, and ditched horrible dance partners together. To heighten the single girl hijinks, Marshall and Williams frequently delved into physical comedy, and as one (admittedly quite biased) fan noted, the pair conjured some of Lucille Ball’s spirit. The above clip shows that Marshall and Williams also shared their idol’s affinity for space-age slapstick.
Molly Shannon arrived at Saturday Night Live right as the reign of the so-called “bad boys” (Chris Rock, Adam Sandler, David Spade, Rob Schneider, and Chris Farley) was coming to an end. And while the prospect of following Farley in the physical comedy sphere would scare off plenty of new SNL recruits, Shannon leapt right in with trademark characters like Mary Katherine Gallagher, the nervous Catholic schoolgirl constantly jamming her fingers into her armpits, and Sally O’Malley, the brassy 50-year-old who liked to “kick, stretch, and kick.” Both these ladies and other Shannon creations were thoroughly unconcerned with grace. What they wanted was attention, even if the popular high school boys or cocky wiseguys watching didn’t think they deserved any. They did, and they got it.
As her Strangers with Candy stint proves, Amy Sedaris is not afraid to mine grotesque facial expressions for laughs. When her character Jerri Blank wasn’t horrifying teens with tales of her dark past, she was crossing her eyes and warping her lips into a deranged frown. It was all in the service of spoofing after-school specials, but Sedaris can do more than merely pull a face. She also displayed comedic acrobatics in her Second City days with Stephen Colbert, and did some committed fake humping in the middle of a so-called Shondaland obstacle course.
McCarthy’s Ghostbusters costar also knows how to use physicality for laughs. This was most brilliantly on display in her recent “Naked & Afraid: Celebrity Edition” sketch with Peter Dinklage, where she shimmied, twisted, and perched her pixelated body for maximum comedic effect. Jones may be best known for her brash stand-up and Weekend Update desk bits with Colin Jost, but she’s been picking up more slapstick-heavy skits on the show (the ninja sketch with Russell Crowe comes to mind) and seems poised to display her physical comedy chops even further in Ghostbusters this summer.
Amy Poehler isn’t often singled out for her physical comedy chops — although her most famous character, Leslie Knope, certainly had her moments. But she deserves a place in the conversation for the fearlessly funny work she did at Saturday Night Live in the last weeks of her first pregnancy. She’s been praised most often for her performance of the Sarah Palin rap, but she’s no less committed in the fake perfume ad for “I’m No Angel,” where she never once drops her sexy smirk as she waddles over to Josh Brolin’s cowboy in a crowded bar.
No one watching Gilmore Girls in 2001 could’ve anticipated that Sookie St. James would move on to a lucrative career in expletive-laden physical comedy. But ever since Bridesmaids, Melissa McCarthy has been one of the most recognizable faces of modern slapstick. Her characters are bold oddballs who don’t let a bridal store couch or a set of stairs stand in their way — and if someone happens to laugh at their pratfalls, that doesn’t diminish their self-confidence. They’ve got it in spades.