Most of us think of slapstick as a type of comedy that includes things like pies in the face, pratfalls and mugged facial expressions. The word slapstick, however, originates from an actual object that became popular with the pre-Renaissance comedic style called commedia dell’arte.
Commedia is a theatrical presentation in which specific, stock characters, most of which wear masks, improvise performances based on standard scenarios. Characters included miserly merchants, military braggarts, doddering old men, mischievous servants and attractive young lovers.
Because each performance was improvised, the actors worked local names, current scandals and the latest news into the plots and dialogue. The comedy was broad, presentational and often violent. Because commedia was presented outdoors to large crowds, a device called a slapstick was created to make sure each comedic blow could be heard as a loud “thwack!” throughout the crowd.
The stick was club-like, built from two wooden slats that created a loud sound without hurting the actor who’d been hit.
The slapstick became indicative of the broad comedy for which it was created, so much so that it’s name survived well past commedia’s popularity.