From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
Slapstick is a type of comedy involving exaggerated extreme physical violence or activities which exceed the boundaries of common sense, such as a character being hit in the face with a heavy frying pan or running into a brick wall. These hyperbolic depictions are often found in children's cartoons (such as Tom and Jerry, Road Runner...), and light film comedies aimed at younger audiences. Though the term is often used pejoratively, the performance of slapstick comedy requires exquisite timing and skillful execution.
The phrase comes from the battacchio—called the 'slap stick' in English—a club-like object composed of two wooden slats used in Commedia dell'arte. When struck, the battacchio produces a loud smacking noise, though little force is transferred from the object to the person being struck. Actors may thus hit one another repeatedly with great audible effect while causing very little actual physical damage. Along with the inflatable bladder (of which the whoopee cushion is a modern variant), it was among the earliest forms of special effects that could be carried on one's person.
While the object from which the genre is derived dates from the Renaissance, theater historians argue that slapstick comedy has been at least somewhat present in almost all comedic genres since the rejuvenation of theater in church liturgical dramas in the Middle Ages. (Some argue for instances of it in Greek and Roman theater, as well.) Beating the devil off stage, for example, remained a stock comedic device in many otherwise serious religious plays. Shakespeare also incorporated many chase scenes and beatings into his comedies. Building off its later popularity in the nineteenth and early twentieth-century ethnic routines of the American vaudeville house, the style was explored extensively during the "golden era" of black and white, silent movies directed by figures Mack Sennett and Hal Roach and featuring such notables as Mabel Normand, Roscoe "Fatty" Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, Dick van Dyke, the Keystone Kops, and the Three Stooges. Slapstick is also common in animated cartoons such as Tom and Jerry and Looney Tunes.
In recent times, some have criticized representations of violence in a belief that they encourage actual violence, a claim supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Slapstick comedy has not escaped negative attention, though its lengthy presence in performance history and obviously fictitious nature usually protects it from efforts meant to censor video games and action films. Slapstick continues to maintain a presence in modern comedy that draws upon its lineage, running in film from Buster Keaton to Mel Brooks to the Farrelly Brothers, and in live performance from Weber & Fields to Jackie Gleason to Rowan Atkinson.