What is a Pratfall?

Malcolm Tatum

Pratfalls are a classic technique utilized throughout the history of the stage and screen. Essentially, a pratfall is some type of intentional exaggerated fall that is used as a slapstick comedic tool to elicit laughter from the audience. Perhaps the classic example of a pratfall is that of an individual slipping on a banana peel that was just discarded by another person. The combination of unexpected events, exaggerated movement, and the embarrassment of falling to the ground has delighted audiences for centuries.

A person slipping on a banana peel is a classic pratfall.
A person slipping on a banana peel is a classic pratfall.

While the basic elements of the pratfall have been part of entertainment for as long as recorded history, the device came into its own during the early 20th century and the days of vaudeville. Many vaudeville shows were staged to move at a fast pace and elicit instant response from the audience. This led many of the comedic stage acts of the day to include sequences in their routines for people slipping on a freshly mopped floor, or tripping and landing on a table full of cream pies. While predictable even in those early years, the pratfall rarely failed to achieve the desired result.

A pratfall is a sight gag that is meant to make the audience laugh.
A pratfall is a sight gag that is meant to make the audience laugh.

With the dawn of movies, the pratfall also became a common visual device used in silent films. Since the medium relied heavily on broad movements to convey emotions among the players, the pratfall was an ideal device to employ in many of the more famous comedies of the day. After movies moved on to include sound as well as visuals, the pratfall was enhanced with the addition of screams, warnings intended to alert someone to an impending but ultimately funny fall, and various remarks by the person who just took the fall. Comedy teams such as Laurel and Hardy often made good use of the pratfall.

Television continued the legacy of the pratfall well into the latter part of the 20th century. The television variety show format that was popular from the 1950’s to the 1970’s often used the device as part of an overall broad comedy sketch format that was the staple of some of the biggest shows of the day. Many people consider comedienne Carol Burnett to be the consummate performer when it comes to sketch physical comedy and the use of pratfalls.

Pratfalls were not confined to variety shows when it came to television. Situation comedies often included the use of pratfalls as part of the action with main characters in the productions. In this respect, Lucille Ball is often cited as one of the most beloved and most adept of actresses to employ the use of the pratfall within a situation comedy setting.

Today, the pratfall remains a staple of entertainment on both the stage and screen. While perhaps not a prominent as in times past, the device continues to delight audiences and will not doubt continue to do so for many years.

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