Whilst perusing old issues of Photoplay magazine, this little article caught my silent comedy-loving eye: “The Five Funniest Things In The World.” “Funniest Things” meaning “the top 5 gags guaranteed to make folks laugh.” Being written at the late date of 1918–and that is late, considering how fast screen comedy evolved–I knew it probably wouldn’t list banana peel gags or pie throwing. (I’d like to go back in time, stand in a room full of Edwardian film critics, say “CUSTARD PIE” and watch all the eyes roll.)
Hmm, so what were considered the funniest gags ever, from the viewpoint of our worldly-wise Photoplay writer Homer Croy?
Well, for starters, pie throwing.
Hmm, maybe this list would be more typical than expected. Or was there more to it? Let us read:
The funniest thing in the world is for one person to hit another with a pie. Crude as this may sound it has made more people laugh than any other situation in motion pictures. It was first discovered twelve years ago [Me: Interesting!] and has been a constant expedient ever since without, so far as can be discovered, any diminution of appreciation.
This might be the first vintage article I’ve seen putting a specific time frame on when pie throwing showed up in pictures. 12 years before 1918 brings us to 1906 (also known as “Before Mr. Flip,” the 1909 Ben Turpin short thought to include the first filmed pie in the face). Hmm, I wonder what film the writer was thinking of? Can we trust his memory? Possibly, the trend itself showed up in force around that year? Sadly, the proof has almost certainly vanished long ago (although there’s always a faint hope something new will turn up).
Ah, there is a catch:
Other comic situations may fail…but the picture of a person placing a pie fairly and squarely on the unsuspecting face of another never fails to arouse an audience’s risibilities. But the situation has to be led up to craftily. You can not open a scene with one person seizing a pie and hurling it into the face of an unsuspecting party and expect the audience to rise to the occasion; the scene has to be prepared for. There must be a plausible explanation of why one person should find it paramount to hurl a pie into another’s face.
Take that, Ham and Bud! (Or fill in your preferred 1910s lower-tier slapstick comedy team–the writer presumably has them in mind.) The author describes an ideal situation that would lead to the natural conclusion of a pie in the kisser:
He must have been set on by the other–preferably by somebody larger than himself–and then suddenly the worm turns and sends the pie with unerring accuracy into the face of the astonished aggressor. To this an audience never fails to respond.
Cause and effect, my friends–give the audience what it wants!
So what’s the second funniest thing in the world?
The second funniest thing in the world is for a waiter to fall down stairs with a tray of dishes. Over and over the situation has been worked and yet it never grows old.
Huh! I’ve never thought about it too much, but this gag does crop up a lot in silent comedies. Also in features. In Gloria Swanson’s Stage Struck (1925), for instance, there’s a busy restaurant scene with a recurring gag where her woiking goil almost but never quite drops a tray of dishes. (For the most part.)
Speaking of not quite dropping trays:
Sometimes a reverse twist is given by having the waiter stumble and the diners scurry to escape the threatening crockery, but with the dishes never quite falling. The reverse of the situation is just as humorous as the scene’s accepted version.
Now for the third “Funniest Thing”–and boy oh boy, can I concur that this gag was popular. Give a studio a puddle, and they’ve got themselves a two-reeler!
In experimenting with the sense of humor it was discovered that there was something irresistibly amusing in seeing someone fall into water. Particularly amusing it was found by comedy directors to see a dignified, silk-hatted individual going along and then to have him meet with an unfortuitous catastrophe such as stopping on a bridge to lean against the banister to admire the graceful swans and then to have the banister give quickly and unexpectedly away.
This is a mighty specific scenario–perchance, my Photoplay article-writing friend, you have a secret longing to write comedy scenarios? Homer’s even take audience psychology into account:
Knowing well that a fall of six or eight feet into water would not hurt him, audiences gave themselves up to the full enjoyment of the situation.
Funniest Thing #4 requires–dynamite!
Audiences are always amused by two things: by something unexpected and by something anticipated…the element of anticipation…is made use of almost wholly in situations employing explosives. A set is erected with a number of bottles labeled “nitro-glycerine” or “dynamite” and an actor comes in in comedy make-up and begins to smoke. Throwing his match aside it sets fire to a fuse. The fuse begins to splutter while he smokes on unmindful. On such an occasion an audience never fails to give vent to its sense of the incongruous.
I love that proper-sounding last sentence, by the way. How can I use it in real life? ” Man, I hope Andrew doesn’t embarrass himself at work again. Poor guy. On such an occasion an audience never fails to give vent to its sense of the incongruous.” Eh? Ehhh?
And the fifth and last Funniest Thing Ever is…
…For a man to assume a woman’s clothes. If the man happens to be stout all the better and if he should happen to so manipulate his skirts as to show a flash of underwear still better.
From Arbuckle to Some Like It Hot to your brother’s over-the-top Halloween costume, ya gotta admit this gag does have some staying power.
Homer adds another pithy observation:
But strange as it may seem the placing of a woman in man’s apparel is not funny. Many directors staked their pictures and their reputations on this reverse to find that an audience will not laugh at a woman in overalls. If she is the possessor of a pretty face they will think her cute, but never funny.
Ay, there’s the rub!
The article ends with the tacit acceptance that the Funniest Five are here to stay:
The scenes have been blacklisted and yet when the directors have tried every other situation wherein a laugh might be aroused they have come thankfully back to the funny five.
While it’s safe to say that these gags have, for the most part, gone out of date, some of their spirit is still around. A character experienced a sudden humiliation has basically been “pied,” plenty of funny scenes involve surprise or anticipation, and, of course, we always chuckle at someone very stuffy being taken down a few pegs. The Five Gags are still with us, just in different forms. (Well, the fifth one is still pretty much intact.)
And speaking of Funniest Thing #1, remind me to write you guys an article on pie-throwing in silent films one day…! (It just might surprise you.)
Source: Croy, Homer. “The Five Funniest Things In The World.” Photoplay, September 1918, pages 90-2.