Types of Comedy: Part One – Physical Comedy

Posted on 14 July 2011

I would love to do an encyclopedic list of ALL types of comedy. To begin I will cover the three broadest and most basic categories:

  1. physical comedy
  2. verbal comedy
  3. situational comedy

Certainly all of these get used in combination. Situational comedy in particular suggests a more theatrical presentation, whereby verbal and physical humour are used to enhance the comicality of the given circumstances. In fact verbal comedy will often allude to physical comedy without actually enacting physical events. So what do they offer individually?

Physical Comedy

This is the most basic and easily understood comedy. From babies to adults to people from all eras and cultures—farting, slipping on a banana peel, or making a rabbit appear and disappear from a hat is going to elicit laughter. We recognise the humanity of these acts, we recognise what’s at stake, and we all find it funny.

Physical comedy has mostly to do with our physicality: the vulnerability of our bodies and the strange things our bodies do such as fart, gurgle, vomit, excrete, gesticulate, and twitch. It also deals with our interactions with physical objects: such as trying to keep some object from falling over, avoiding being struck by an object, trying to get an object to perform correctly, keeping an object from getting away, attempting to remove an object, etc. Our interactions with animals and sometimes other people take on the humour of both bodies and objects.

Physical comedy can be over-used. One too many fart jokes can spoil the comic broth. Physical comedy can be abused. When sometimes humorous acts become an element of bullying, the humour will be sucked out for the empathetic members of the audience.

Empathy is one of the greatest building blocks for comedy. We cringe when someone in a cartoon hits their own thumb with a hammer. We laugh in relief when the results are a giant throbbing red thumb that heals in moments. Have a character hit another character’s thumb in an act of meanness, empathy dictates that we feel fear and anger (fight or flight) on behalf of the abused character.

Some of the most well-loved and well-remembered comedians are masters of physical comedy. Buster Keaton’s slapstick is still studied and used by comedians and filmmakers to this day. His most famous stunt was standing underneath one side of a two-storey building and having that side fall on top of him…and survive. One of the open windows, it turns out, was located precisely where Buster was standing. This same schtick was later used by another famous physical comedian, Jackie Chan.

Other physical comedians worth looking into are Frank Woodley, Rowan Atkinson as Mr Bean, Lucille Ball, Carol Burnett, and Mabel Normand, the first woman to throw a pie at Charlie Chaplin. Taking a course in clowning, acrobatics, even dance is not necessary, but helpful when pursuing this sort of humour.

Next week: Verbal Comedy

Peace and kindness,


2 responses to Types of Comedy: Part One – Physical Comedy

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