Make ‘Em Laugh: Tracing Modern Physical Comedy Back To Commedia dell’arte

Most people know what slapstick is. When we think of physical comedy, we may think of TV classics such as the pratfalls of Charlie Chaplin or Chevy Chase, the slap-fights of The Three Stooges, or the exaggerated facial reactions of Lucille Ball and Carol Burnett. Using physicality to sell the joke, however, goes all the way back to Commedia dell’Arte in about 1550, when Italian troupes literally cataloged and numbered the funny “bits” (tropes) that could be used over and over, without fail, to produce a laugh. The site Laugh Button identifies some of humanity’s favorite slapstick as shticks like “the fall, the slip, the trip, the collide and the double take.” Commedia dell’Arte is shortened from a name which means “the comedy of the craft of comedic improvisation.” Our famous performers today are still practicing this art!

Modern movies, Broadway shows, TV and youtube shorts frequently use the same reliable comedic routines as those Renaissance Italians, and we’re still laughing–hard. Think of current comedy masters like James Cordon,  Melissa McCarthy, Jimmy Fallon, Tina Fey, Amy Poehler, Zach Galifianakis, Jim Carey, Conan O’Brien—they are all masters of what boils down to the Commedia dell’Arte playbook.  The comedic actors of Commedia were usually trickster servants called Zanni, from which we get the English word “zany.”  The Zanni over time were broken down and divided into various subtypes, like the famous Harlequin that goes back as far as the 14th Century. These masterful performers would have a hundred stock physical joke scenarios memorized so that they could plug them into a scene improvisationally.


The stock jokes, or gags, were called lazzi (pronounced ˈlɑ-tsi) which is the plural of “lazzo,” meaning “joke or witticism.” Mel Gordon’s book, Lazzi: The Comic Routines of the Commedia dell’Arte, categorizes 250 routines from 1550-1750, many of which survive today, some in modified forms. For example, the “Running around the Balcony Lazzo” is just as you’d imagine, and you can see this timeless joke in the Disney ride Pirates of the Caribbean where the pirates are chasing women around the town, but in the next balcony, a large threatening woman has turned the tables and is chasing a pirate around her house with a broom.  Some other predictable lazzi are “The Chair” being pulled out from under someone or breaking under them; The Laughter and Tears Lazzo where hilarious laughing turns into crying mid-scene; and the Lazzo of the Foreign Language, where a character is forced to pretend to know another language and makes up gibberish in the style of that language they don’t know, while another character translates the language. This last one is the central comedic situation driving the plot of the famous play The Foreigner, by Larry Shue.

Now let’s look at some fun clips and examples of physical comedy from the modern era that are straight out of the Commedia Lazzi…Classics of TV Comedy:

The very famous I Love Lucy chocolate factory scene relies on physical comedy, where Lucy and her best friend Ethel can’t keep up with the speed of the conveyor belt producing the chocolates they are tasked with wrapping, and come up with “creative” ways to try and fix their conundrum.

If you want more of Lucille Ball, check out “Vitameatavegamin,” where Lucy accidentally gets drunk filming a TV commercial, or “Lucy’s Italian Movie,” where she wrestles a local Italian woman in a grape vat!

The Three Stooges embody the “lowly” trickster/servant with their slapstick routines as they pinch, slap, poke, swing, fall, and break things on a minute-to-minute basis. A famous scene is where they attempt to fix a doorbell, but end up pulling Moe through a wall attached to the electrical wires. Laurel & Hardy did very similar gimmicks.


“Acrobatics” & Pratfalls:

Saturday Night Live, and in movies and TV shows, Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Chevy Chase are known for their career-spanning pratfalls. They fall and trip and slip and fail to get up to great comedic effects. Pratfalls fall under the lazzo category “Acrobatics,” and there is a specific ladder lazzo that involves falling” from a ladder or wall after being shaken off, shot, or gravitationally abandoned” which can include “desperate attempts not to fall,” and “pratfalls over furniture.” See Steve Martin doing pratfalls in his Pink Panther movies, The Jerk, and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels. Chevy Chase’s early SNL sketch with a ladder is a classic, and his Clark Griswold is a serial pratfall specialist. Martin Short All three doing classic Commedia physical humor together in The Three Amigos, like in this trailer:

Think about this: even the most recent Captain America: Civil War movie used the entrance of teenage Spider Man in a brand new suit to produce physical comedy, making him awkward in his newfound skills against his more polished team members. As he swings and shoots webs, yelling and colliding and trying to “keep up with the big kids,” he’s embodying the Commedia “Acrobatics” style of physical humor. Listening to the crowd in the theatre, it worked!

The Dirty Stuff:

Much of Commedia and modern humor is, well, based on dirty humor. Jim Carrey is known for his hilarious (and sometimes disgusting) physical humor. Remember his Ace Ventura Rhino “birth scene,” where he is trapped in and then slowly emerges from the nether region of an African Rhino? There’s also a scene in Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls where he helps an African woman give birth by simply pushing on her belly as in CPR, “popping” the baby out and across the room into its father’s arms, umbilical cord still attached. Finally, remember that in Me, Myself & Irene, Carrey pulled off a breastfeeding joke where a nursing mother looks up and suddenly he is also attached to her!? Well, in classic Commedia, believe it or not, there is actually a whole category for sexual and “scatological” humor—that literally means poop and bathroom jokes! And it seems that for good or bad, Jim Carrey is a master of both.

If you were doubting it, women do this style of humor too. Bridesmaids actors Melissa McCarthy, Kristen Wiig, Maya Rudolph, Rebel Wilson, and Wendy McLendon-Covey went there with humorous scenes involving diarrhea in the street, mile-high “steam heat” propositions with an Air Marshall, and submarine -sandwich foodie sex in the outtakes.

Modern Physical Comedy “It” figures:

James Cordon One Man, Two Guvnors creates an internal fight with himself that becomes physical. His Tony performance of this scene is amazing and explains his wide appeal and current fame. The show launched him to everyday household fame, and now he’s got the Late Show and that wonderful series of in-the-car lip syncs with other celebrities, including Adele, Justin Bieber, Lin Manuel Miranda and other B-way celebs.

Zach Galifianakis is known for his oddball characters in movies and his own web show “Between Two Ferns” and the TV series Baskets. “On Physical Comedy” is a strange but hilarious casual scene he appears to have recorded on his own, where he is talking seriously about the art and craft of comedy being text-based, yet his chair keeps breaking under him in the oldest Commedia joke in the book. When he gives up and continues from the ground, comics Patton Oswalt & Brian Posehn make an appearance to ridicule him–but they’re wearing only towels and their junk is censored out with the infamous black bar! Plus, the physical comedy of their height different keeps the silliness going.  ( A bit of language in this one)

Melissa McCarthy is a genius of physical comedy and improvisation in such films as Spy, Tammy, The Heat, Identity Thief and Bridesmaids, as well as her recently wrapped TV series Mike & Molly. Other actors and directors attest to her playfulness on camera and the fact that she’s willing to try a scene over and over with different tactics for a laugh. This goes to the heart of the Commedia practice, where the zanni actor knows an entire playbook of moves, shticks, gags, and tropes that can be applied to any situation, and they can (seemingly) effortlessly change it up for the best laughs. Many of her films have outtakes where we get to see these moments, and her pratfalls are some of the best around.

Resources for Students of Theatre

If you’re a theatre student, a relatively famous resource to learn more is The Physical Comedy Handbook by Davis Robinson, (1999) which breaks down physical comedy into different forms and techniques, and guides readers through “how to” exercises to help anyone develop their sense of comedy and play.


In addition, The Routledge Companion to Commedia dell’Arte, 2014, is a full-sized university text covering a thorough grounding in the subject by Judith Chaffee and Olly Crick. “From Commedia dell’Arte came archetypal characters that are still with us today, such as Harlequin and Pantalone, and the rediscovered craft of writing comic dramas and masked theatre. From it came the forces that helped create and influence Opera, Ballet, Pantomime, Shakespeare, Moliere, Lopes de Vega, Goldoni, Meyerhold, and even the glove puppet, Mr. Punch.”


Written by Rachel Duncan

Rachel lives in Salem, Oregon, and has directed at The Pentacle Theatre, Children's Educational Theatre, Central High School, and Western Mennonite School, among others.

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