If you see someone on the street being beaten in the face with a hammer, it is probable you will not laugh. Unless you are just the worst person, not even a giggle will escape your lips because the action is too close to you, and by close I mean the action is real. The situation is not the same when the street fighters are in a movie or a tv show because the medium provides the distance that lets you laugh at violence, that makes it obviously false. Over the course of their careers, The Three Stooges have done to each other more violence than your average rioting soccer fan-base in post-game celebration/outraged-chaos, but when The Stooges do it, it’s funny. Here are three reasons you enjoy three grown men abusing each other.
- We’re Designed Not to Expect it
Here is a story of a man called Fistpunch McKenzie.
In an assault on logic, both Fistpunch’s parents abandoned him before he was born. When li’l Fistpunch emerged from the ether in a hospital birthing room, a doctor tossed him on a cold metal table then attacked him with a scalpel. Fistpunch killed the doctor using his baby-wits and adorable itty bitty fisty wisties. In the decades that followed, Fistpunch McKenzie took part in every war, often fighting on both sides. One fine spring afternoon, Fistpunch was once again in a hospital, this time on his deathbed. A nurse, hoping to enliven the dying man’s last moments, played an episode of The Three Stooges on the small hospital tv bolted to the wall. Fistpunch did not laugh once. The Nurse puts on Steamboat Bill, Jr., but Buster Keaton could not get a laugh out of Fistpunch. She used her phone to show him a Youtube video of a squirrel jumping on a cat, but did Fistpunch so much as crack a smile? No, and he died confused.
The moral of the story is that you are not Fistpunch McKenzie. Fistpunch did not find The Stooges funny because he was raised to think of violence as a normal event; pity Fistpunch, for his life was terrible though his name was rad.
We all have a set of cultural expectations that define what is normal and what is aberrant. These expectations form as we go about our business of being alive and participating with a culture in which violence isn’t the norm. We can laugh at physical comedy because it’s so different from the relative peace most people grow up with.
- It’s Not You
An important facet of physical comedy is that you aren’t getting hurt, and you’re far from the people who are. Here is a series of clips from The Three Stooges in which terrible things happen to people and you get to laugh about it.
You can laugh every time Moe beats Larry or Curly because you are not Larry or Curly. The violence isn’t happening to you, so it is allowed to be funny. Your safety relative to The Stooges makes their suffering humorous. You’re constantly comparing yourself to whoever you’re watching, and the sadistic bits of your brain send joy chemicals around when you see someone suffering while you feel fine. There is, however, one important caveat…
- Nobody Gets Hurt
This is where things get subjective. You probably don’t laugh at all the violence you witness. The reason you don’t spend your time giggling at Million Dollar Baby or Saving Private Ryan is because the violence in those movies is meant to represent reality rather than parody it. In The Three Stooges, it’s obvious the characters are not really getting hurt, and that was part of the fun: the audience could laugh at fictional pain. The relationship we have with pain gets reworked in physical comedy: instead of pain being linked to negativity, it is linked to humor.
Modern physical comedy is a bit more graphic with its violence; pain and humor have naturally evolved as lighthearted mischief grows stale; the audience needs more violence so the pain intensifies. In short, tripping on a banana got boring so now we have videos of people tripping off buildings.
The physical part of physical comedy is a bit more evident in newer movies and TV in which people pull their teeth out (Hangover) or are tossed in a pit of snakes (Jackass 3) or are Jonah Hill (c’mon, look at his career and tell me how many movies he’s in where he doesn’t get hurt in funny ways). Now The Three Stooges and Buster Keaton look innocent in comparison to how intense physical comedy has become which begs the question. . .
What Does This All Say About You?
You’re a monster.
Or, at least, that is what people would say about you 80 years ago. The boundary between Saving Private Ryan and modern physical comedy is narrowing, and it is most evident in something you have either said about “kids these days” or it has been said about you: the young’ns are growing desensitized to violence. For example, the original review of Psycho from Time magazine called it “one of the messiest, most nauseating murders ever filmed.” In contrast, two metacritic reviewers, Heidi Martinuzzi and TC, respectively called Saw gruesome and macabre “in a very delightful way” and “fun to watch.” So we’re all becoming a bit accustomed to violence in our lives, and because of that desensitization physical comedy is intensifying the physical aspect to the point that it is overlapping with old horror. I bet The Hangover would be absolutely terrifying to some post-depression working class youth and Saw would make them beg holy light for release. In essence, we are closing the gap between ourselves and Fistpunch McKenzie.