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Erin Sullivan
Dr. McLaughlin
Multimedia Writing and Rhetoric
18 November 2015
The Women of Saturday Night Lives Take on Slapstick
Live from New York, its Saturday Night rings through the houses of thousands of
Americans each and every weekend. First airing in October of 1975, Saturday Night Live still
remains a prominent late night television show to this day, not only proving its ability to produce
great entertainment but also its success. Most shows disappear after just a few short seasons and
the lucky ones maybe span a decade or so. So, how has Saturday Night Live managed to maintain
such high recognition and ratings for four decades? Unlike other television shows, it focuses on
comedy rooted in the cultural practices and political entities rather than developing and
following a specific premise. More specifically, Saturday Night Live specializes in a particular
form of comedy, slapstick comedy, which was primarily recognized in the 1920s. Yet, at this
time, it was filled predominantly with male actors because women were too fragile, too precious
to slip on a banana peel or fall down a flight of stairs (Clayton 148). Thus, as it has been
modified along the way to embody a more contemporary form, it has also extended to include
female performers. In particular, the women of Saturday Night Live have demonstrated the
evolution of slapstick comedy. From Gilda Radner to Maya Rudolph, the women transformed the
elements of slapstick comedy to embody a new form which alludes to reality through character
adaptations, portrays characters that are culturally rejected, and causes suffering to the source of
mockery rather than each other.

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While slapstick comedy seems to be an easily concocted, self- explanatory concept, it has
deeper roots dating back to early Italian theatre. This term slapstick is derived from the English
translation of batacchio, or rather the Italian word to describe the wooden stick carried by
Arlecchino in the commedia dellarte (Peacock 15). More than simply a wooden stick, a
slapstick resembled a club like stage prop constructed of two wooden paddles, joined at one
end, used by circus clowns to hit each other, thereby producing a slapping sound (Trahair 47).
Contrary to its predicted purpose based on the piercing sound and name it was capable of
producing, slapsticks were hardly ever used to inflict pain upon another character. For example,
the performers of commedia dellarte, theatre characterized by masked performances, would
make sure to navigate the stage in a way that would distance themselves far enough from the
slapstick so that they would not feel its effects (Peacock 19). Thus, these actors would still create
the illusion of pain without experiencing it and the audience could pick up on this trickery,
ensuring that no harm was done and laughter could appropriately ensue.
Drawing from the European theatres use of slapstick, Americans began to incorporate this
concept of slapstick comedy into their own film industry during the early 1920s at the peak of
the silent film industry. Although these movies lacked the extra dimension of sound, they made
up for it by utilizing slapstick comedy. Slapstick provided the opportunity to explore humor
stimulated by the body. For example, Mack Sennetts Tillies Punctured Romance portrays two
people who meet through the girl accidently hitting the guy with a brick and these types of
accidents are sustained throughout the whole film (Andrin 228). Although this form of slapstick
causes great harm to the actors, its exaggeration and constant turmoil of injuries leaves no time
for the audience to respond emotionally and feel their pain. Rather, the audience chuckles at the
couples misfortunes. As technology advanced and the machine age emerged, this body focused

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slapstick comedy transformed into crazy machine comedy. Crazy machines are more than just
a machine, but rather one that produces nothing other than a process that destroys itself
(Gunning 138). In the movie Get Out and Get Under, Lloyd transforms a car into a crazy
machine as it fails to turn back on until it eventually receives a shot of heroin, jolting away
without a driver (Gunning 148). This not only shows how the cars fails to achieve its primary
purpose of transporting a driver to its desired destination, but it also alludes to the idea that in the
end, the car will eventually destroy itself as it races away with no sign of return. Thus, rather
than slapstick being based upon a wooden weapon, it slowly yet surely have evolved into a
source of comedy that draws upon its cultural surroundings rather than violence to generate
While Saturday Night Live does embrace its cultural surroundings, one of the original
elements of slapstick comedy, it also maintains the lack of reality and physical violence that also
characterize slapstick comedy as expressed through male characters on the show. It is proven that
a certain element of fantasy and unreality was essential to achieve comic distance of slapstick
comedy (Riblet 173). For example, Dan Aykroyd embodies toy company president Irvin
Mainway whose company sells products like Bag O Glass and a teddy bear with a built- in
chainsaw. While these toys are immediately alarming due to their dangerous nature, the humor
lies in the fact that no sane business owner would create and market such toys that would injure
kids because it is inherent that parents would never purchase anything that could harm their
precious children, a custom deeply understood in society. Thus, audiences appropriate
slapsticks comic anarchy to their cultural presents, whether as a challenge to the dead weight of
tradition or a goad to cultural change (King and Paulus 4). In The Dark Side with Nat X, Chris
Chris Rock plays a zealous, militant talk show host who not only draws on cultural events of the

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time like the OJ Simpsons murder case and Jesse Jacksons democratic campaign but also
focuses on the racial inequality through terse yet explicit comments. For example, he insinuates
how he can only have a top five because the man wants to deprive him of ten and how if Mike
Tyson touches a white girl, he could get them all (the black men) killed. Thus, this not only
challenges the tradition of white men being superior but it also calls for society to be wellinformed on their current nations events and recognize and amend the gap between whites and
blacks. Finally, original slapstick embraced the knockabout physical humor, which emphasized
kicking, punching, stumbling and flailing (Karnick and Jenkins 67). For instance, Chris Farley
plays a motivational speaker by the name of Matt Foley who was invited to talk to two teenage
kids in their home after their parents discover a bag of pot in their living room. Like every good
motivational speaker, he passionately delivers his speech, utilizing a variety of violent hand
motions which include punching the air. At one point, he becomes so carried away that he
accidentally falls and smashes a wood table, relating back to the physical violence as a source of
humor for slapstick comedy. Thus, the men of SNL were able to exemplify the original elements
of slapstick.
Contrary to the men, the women performers began to modify the elements of slapstick to
further its evolution. While these new elements may seem more different than similar, they are
merely an extension that retain the psychological nature of slapstick. In particular, the first
element, central absurdity was adjusted to allude to relatively realistic commodities whether it be
based on the characters mannerisms or the cultural undertones of the sketch. For example, Tina
Fey portrayed Sarah Palin along with her sidekick Amy Poehler as Hillary Clinton giving a nonpartisan address. Not only dressing the part and adopting Sarahs Alaskan drawl, Fey also
primary bases this address on the issue of sexism and even ventures into addressing global

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warming briefly. Thus, the combination of these elements acts contrary to one of the defining
original elements of slapstick, central absurdity which assumes a lack of reality (Peacock 30).
While this scenario is absurd in more than one way including the assumption of false identities
and the scenario of Palin and Clinton working together, it is rooted in the illusion of reality
through the costumes as well as the acknowledgment of prominent political issues in the world.
Similarly, Ana Gasteyer acts as an NPR host named Margaret Jo McCullen by speaking in a
monotone voice about her relatively uninteresting life where getting greedy for Christmas
includes asking Santa for a wooden bowl and oversized index cards. While the jokes quickly
grow wildly absurd, the mannerisms of the characters are maintained and allude to the publicly
accepted boring nature of NPR. Thus, the execution of this sketch not only upholds the rather
somber tone of NPR radio, but it also catches its true essence by portraying it in the light of how
the majority of society views its impacts on the radio industry. In both these sketches, the women
of Saturday Night Live affirmed the transformation of early slapstick comedy into a new form
where humor lies in the realistic representation of certain aspects of society.
Similar to this newfound realistic aspect to slapstick comedy, if the women were not
mocking celebrities, they were portraying characters that were culturally rejected by society,
including Debbie Downer and Mary Katherine Gallagher, rather than mocking society in order to
incite social change. Although original slapstick drew on violence, as it evolved it developed into
reckless jokes that seemed to throw more fuel on to the fire of change in society (Katrib 114).
While still drawing on culture, Saturday Night Live took these characters in a one step further
than simply creating characters to transform society, they portrayed characters that were
culturally rejected as a source of humor. For example, Rachel Dratch played the role of Debbie
Downer whose interjections into the conversation were always negative. At a birthday party,

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everything out of Debbies mouth touches base on either current worldwide crisis like the crisis
in Sudan in 2004 or an absurd personal problem like her doctor saying if she doesnt cut down
on her consumption of fish, her mercury levels will reach toxic proportions. While these
comments call attention to various crisis and could provoke a change in societys response to
them, the primary reason these cultural elements are incorporated into the sketch is to generate
laughter from the sheer idea that so many negative comment could come out of a single persons
mouth, a behavior contrary to the cultural norm. In a similar manner, Molly Shannon portrays
Mary Katherine Gallagher, Catholic school girl misfit, defying the pure, wholesome stereotype
through her scandalous interpretation of the school uniform and provocative dance moves. More
so than this, Mary Katherine demonstrates social ineptness when she informs the priest running
the talent show audition that when she gets nervous, she sticks her hands under her armpits and
smells them and proceeds to do this. While Mary Katherines promiscuous representation of
school girls could result in Catholic school administrations hammering down on dress code and
behavior, this detail is rather irrelevant to the overall purpose of the sketch. Mary Katherine
could have been a public school girl for all that it mattersthe primary focus and humor lies
within the fact that she cannot interact normally with other people. Because of this, she not only
makes a fool of herself, but also makes the priest feel uncomfortable as reflected in his awkward
body movements and rather distressed facial expressions, circumstances which add to the humor
of the scenario. From these two examples, it is apparent that this new slapstick generates humor
through portraying socially unacceptable people rather than relying on social conditions to
provide comical undertones.
As seen with Saturday Night Lives representation of culturally rejected individuals, the
suffering in slapstick is incurred by those who are being mocked rather than the performers

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themselves. Originally, slapstick focused on physical violence which stems from the object itself
and it evolved into pain and suffering as noted in the movie Three Stooges which reverted back
to more brutal side of comedy yet focused on pain and suffering from violence rather than
violence itself (Andrin 133). Furthermore, the performers on Saturday Night Live extend this
evolution further to the pain and suffering which they bring upon the celebrities who become the
butt of their jokes. For example, Gilda Radners impersonation of Barbara Walters exaggerates
her lisp by putting the w sound in every word. While people are already insecure about lisps, the
attention Radner draws to its prominence could cause even more grief. Continuing on, Radner
alludes to the idea that Barbara Walters is very self- centered because instead of wasting time
with extraneous personalitiesthe whole shows going to be about one terrific person who I
really respectme! With selfishness as a naturally condoned personality trait, this could
embarrass Barbara and cause inner suffering as all her flaws are picked apart in front of millions.
Likewise, Maya Rudolph adapts Whitney Houstons accent and performs her infamous dance
move and says alright after every statement. This emphasizes the obnoxious nature of
Houstons habits, emphasizing these imperfections as the whole purpose of this sketch. Yet
Rudolphs impersonation is relentless as she alludes to Houstons cocaine addiction and recent
divorce. Those two personal problems combined can be a great source of anguish for any person,
and now they have to watch their tragic life story unfold on national television. Arguably, both
these scenarios could not be slapstick since it appears no one suffers, but delving into the
content, one can see how both these influential people are torn to shreds for their shortcomings.
Anyone in their shoes would not find humor in these jokes. In the end, both Radner and Rudolph
experience no suffering since it is just a part of their job in the slapstick industry.

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All these women in Saturday Night Live are not only proof of womens influence in the
evolution of slapstick, but also the evolution of women in comedy overall. In 19th century France,
womens humor avoided the male impropriety and was restricted to a domainchild rearing
defined as a womens sphere (Johnson 48- 49). This not only implies an inherent divide
between each genders idea of comedy, but also attributes its division due to social roles of each
gender. Still even into the 20th century, masculine comedy insistently re-established dominance
over some other, most particularly the feminine (Burns 153). Thus, womens role in society
changed little over the course of a century and their prominent role as housewives played a major
part into their humor. But as women gained their rights in the later 20th century and slowly began
their climb towards gender equality, the humor of men and women has begun to morph into a
single form of humor. Because of this, it has been easier for women to integrate themselves into
the comedy industry which has led to better representation of women as humorous individuals
particularly on Saturday Night Live. Thus, the integration of women into comedy was another
factor that raised Saturday Night Lives ratings and aided the evolution of slapstick comedy. As
the evolution of women in comedy and slapstick happened side by side, the women of Saturday
Night Live were able to leave their mark on slapstick comedy by attributing it with a greater
sense of reality, a greater emphasis on culturally rejected individuals and a greater focus on the
suffering of the target of their impersonation.

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Works Cited
Andrin, Muriel. Back to the Slap: Slapsticks Hyperbolic Gesture and the Rhetoric of
Violence. Slapstick Comedy. Ed. Tom Paulus and Rob King. New York: Taylor &
Francis, 2010. 226- 235. Print.
Burns, Christy L. Parody and Postmodern Sex: Humor in Thomas Pynchon and Tama
Janowitz. Performing Gender and Comedy: Theories, Texts and Contexts. Ed. Shannon
Hengen. Ontario: Overseas Publishers Association, 1998. 149- 166. Print
Consumer Probe: Irvin Mainway. Perf. Dan Aykroyd. NBC. NBC Universal, Web.
The Dark Side with Nat X. Dir. Diamond Jim. Perf. Chris Rock and Tracy Morgan. Yahoo! Web.
Debbie Downer at a Birthday Party. Dir. Mike Halterman. Perf. Rachel Dratch and Ben Affleck.
NBC. NBC Universal. Web.
Down By the River. Perf. Chris Farley. Hulu. NBC Studios, Inc, Web.
Gilda Radner SNL. Perf. Gilda Radner. Yahoo! Web.
Gunning, Tom. The Mechanisms of Laughter: the Devices of Slapstick. Slapstick Comedy. Ed.
Tom Paulus and Rob King. New York: Taylor & Francis, 2010. 137- 151. Print.
Johnson, Warren. The Veiled Laugh: Women, the Body, and the Comic in Nineteenth- Century
France. Performing Gender and Comedy: Theories, Texts and Contexts. Ed. Shannon
Hengen. Ontario: Overseas Publishers Association, 1998. 47- 58. Print.
Karnick, Krstine Brunovska Karnick, and Henry Jenkins. Introduction: Funny Stories.
Classical Hollywood Comedy. Ed. Kristine Brunovska Karnick and Henry Jenkins. New
York: American Film Institute, 1995. 168- 189. Print.

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Katrib, Ruba. "TRANSITION GAGS." Art In America 103.6 (2015): 114-21. Web.
King, Rob, and Tom Paulus. Introduction: Restoring Slapstick to the Historiography of
American Film. Slapstick Comedy. Ed. Tom Paulus and Rob King. New York: Taylor &
Francis, 2010. 1- 19. Print.
NPRs Delicious Dish Schweddy Balls. Perf. Ana Gasteyer, Molly Shannon, and Alec Baldwin.
Hulu. NBC Studios, Inc. Web.
Palin/Hillary Open. Dir. Seth Meyers. Perf. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler. Hulu. NBC Studios, Inc
Peacock, Louise. Slapstick and Comic Performance: Comedy and Pain. 2014. Print.
Riblet, Doug. The Keystone Film Company and the Historiography of Early Slapstick.
Classical Hollywood Comedy. Ed. Kristine Brunovska Karnick and Henry Jenkins. New
York: American Film Institute, 1995. 168- 189. Print.
St. Monicas Talent Auditions. Perf. Molly Shannon and Will Ferrell and Gabriel Byrne. Hulu.
NBC Studios, Inc. Web.
Trahair, Lisa. The Comedy of Philosophy Sense and Nonsense in Early Cinematic Slapstick.
Albany: State U of New York, 2007. SUNY Ser., Insinuations. Web.
Weekend Update: Whitney Houston on Her Summer Plans. Perf. Maya Rudolph and Amy
Poehler. NBC. NBC Universal. Web.