What is Physical Comedy?

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  • Written By: Michael Pollick
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 29 September 2019
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Physical comedy is one of the older forms of humor in human culture. Watching another person fall down, get dirty, receive a slap, trip over obstacles or perform a stunt has always been a popular source of entertainment for audiences of all ages. Physical comedy often depends on a sense of schadenfreude, the secret pleasure an audience member may derive from witnessing the misfortune, real or imaginary, of the performer. A circus clown who takes a hit of seltzer water to his or her face or a comedian making a comically exaggerated entrance is using his or her physicality to sell the joke to the audience. Physical comedy is not necessarily a low-brow form of entertainment, since many mimes and comedic actors can tell elaborate stories through body movement alone.


One of the masters of physical comedy was the late silent film comedian Buster Keaton. Keaton's films were often based around his willingness to put himself into risky situations for the sake of a visual joke. The sight of Keaton stoically riding on the pistons of a steam train, for example, entertained audiences because of the sheer physicality of the act. Other silent film stars such as Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd also used physical stunts and visual humor in their films. Charlie Chaplin's character "The Tramp" would routinely throw himself in front of a moving car or get struck by flying objects. Lloyd's films featured his ability to hang precariously from tall buildings or perform other seemingly impossible feats of strength.

Many modern comedians also use physical comedy in their acts. The late John Ritter, for example, would take at least one pratfall per episode of the sitcom Three's Company. Some of the best humor from situation comedies is derived from comedy bits such as a slow burn reaction or comical expressions of other emotions. The character Kramer on the sitcom Seinfeld became famous for his exaggerated entrances and exits, along with his over-the-top physical movements as he delivered his lines. Actor Jim Carrey also became well-known for his ability to use physical comedy in order to enhance a comedic scene. The premise of many popular cartoons is based on a more physical type of comedy or sight gags, such as the endless cat-and-mouse pursuit between a coyote and a roadrunner or a literal cat and mouse team known as Tom and Jerry.

Clowns and mimes primarily focus on physical and visual humor because of their natural restrictions with dialog. A mime or clown must use his or her physicality to set up a scene, play it through and sell the punchline to an audience. Even stand-up comedians who use spoken dialog must occasionally use physical types of comedy in order to enhance the joke's delivery. A number of comedians, notably the late Lucille Ball and comedienne Carol Burnett, can successfully combine verbal and physical comedy skills to entertain their audiences. Physical comedians depend on the same sense of timing as other types of comedians in order to produce the desired results.


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Post 3

My Grandfather used to own the home of one of the greatest physical comedians of all time. He had Charlie Chaplin's old house on West Channel Road in Santa Monica. When I was a kid, he used to play the old Charlie Chaplin videos over the holidays when I would come over to visit. Most of the kids from my generation have no idea who Charlie Chaplin is, but I loved his work and I am a big fan of good comedy. Chaplin was one of the best early comedians.

Post 2

I do not know what it is about physical comedy, but it always makes me laugh. I usually watch Tosh.0 on Comedy Central late night when I need a comedy pick me up. The show is a series of web videos of random people and their epic fails. The host, Daniel Tosh, often recreates some of the comedies as well as creates web redemptions where the subject of the funniest video is invited on the show to recreate the video without any failures. It is a great show, but definitely not for the faint of heart.

Post 1

This kind of humor was what originally caused me to ask myself, "why do I laugh?" The question lead me into study of the subconscious. Funny how one thing leads to another.

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