theatrical origin and history of the noun ‘slapstick’


The Hoople Electric Spanker – Our Boarding House – Brownsville Herald – 18 April 1940

The Hoople Electric Spanker – from the comic strip Our Boarding House – published in The Brownsville Herald (Brownsville, Texas) – 18th April 1940



The literal meaning of the noun slapstick is a device consisting of two flat pieces of wood joined together at one end, used to produce a loud slapping noise.


photograph: OnMusic Dictionary


Although the device is much older, the word slapstick itself, of American-English origin, only dates from the late 19th century. The double-slatted paddle was specially used in pantomime and ‘low’ comedy* to make a great noise with the pretence of dealing a heavy blow. The word soon came to be used attributively to qualify this type of comedy; I have found an early instance of this use in The Cincinnati Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio) of 27th April 1885:

The Kindergarten Company opened last night at the People’s Theater to a large and very enthusiastic audience, producing Robert Griffin Morris’ dramatic absurdity entitled “The Kindergarten,” which Mr. Morris himself describes as “being a genteel insanity,” and, singularly, the author has actually described it. The skit is intended as a satire on the model Kindergarten School of education, at present almost a craze in certain portions of the country. As a satire we must in justice pronounce it a failure, but as a vehicle for the introduction of lots of fun of the slap-stick order the “thing” jogs along as merrily as the old one-horse shay.

Sometimes, a small explosive charge was hidden in the stick to make a bang of the sort associated with clownish circus-comedy. This could provoke accidents, as reported for instance in The Chicago Sunday Tribune (Chicago, Illinois) of 31st May 1908:

James Balno, a clown employed at the Hippodrome in New York, was seriously injured last week during a rehearsal in his dressing room of a new piece of business with his partner, Perry Shaw. A slapstick with a blank cartridge between the boards, was to be used in the act, and to test it Balno struck it against the edge of a door. The cartridge exploded and a piece of the metal shot into Balno’s shoulder, severing an artery. He promptly fainted and had to be removed to the Flower hospital, where the wound was dressed. He will recover.

The word came to designate knockabout comedy or humour, farce, horseplay. The following is the beginning of an article published in The New York Times (New York, N.Y.) of 1st May 1904:


Can nothing be done to prevent the threatened destruction of the Weberfield temple of low comedy? For years now Meyer and Mike and their dialectical antics have been one of the far famed and justly famed features of a metropolis all too barren of institutions devoted to the muses. Boys have laughed at their slapsticks, literal and linguistic.

The medium with which slapstick is most often associated is silent cinema film. As early as 29th August 1912, the Albuquerque Evening Herald (Albuquerque, New Mexico) had:


London, Aug. 29.—Comic cinematograph scenes will hereafter turn from the prevailing style of slapstick humor toward the subtler laugh that is inherent in quaint characters and odd situations, according to John Bunny, one of the growing group of American moving picture actors, whose faces are as well known in Paris, Rome and Tokyo as their own streets.
“From long experience with the stage,” explained Bunny today, “I have found that people are best appealed to through their intellects. A good film show tells only three-fifths of the story, which the watchers complete out of their own heads, whereat they are greatly pleased with themselves, thinking all the while that it is the picture that pleases them.
“The trouble with slapstick comics is that they leave nothing to the imagination. The gestures are too violent and action too frantic. Personally, I achieve better results with one roll of the eyes and one almost imperceptible shrug of the shoulder.”



* The slapstick has also been used as a percussion instrument by several composers, for instance by the Austrian composer, conductor and pianist Gustav Mahler (1860-1911) in the original version of his Sixth Symphony, first performed in 1906.


Other words or phrases of theatrical origin:
to be decent (sufficiently clothed to see visitors)
Mrs Grundy
Paul Pry
Box and Cox
Hamlet without the Prince
old chestnut
to play to the gallery
to steal someone’s thunder
bums on seats

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