On Oct. 11, the Museum of Modern Art held a screening of Jackass 3D, which opened in theaters on Friday. It's safe to say that when Johnny Knoxville, Steve-O, Chris Pontius, Wee-Man and the rest of the Jackass crew started to film one another getting hit in the crotch, they probably didn't expect to be featured by such an eminent artistic institution. While a healthy debate can be waged over whether making urine snow cones and eating them is art, their version of modern-day slapstick has its roots in a long line of classic comedy pioneers who realized that sometimes the funniest thing to watch is other people's misfortune. As MoMA curator Josh Siegel told the New York Times, Jackass 3D is "merely the climax or the lowest depths, if you prefer of a tradition that dates back to 1895, when the Lumière brothers drenched a poor sap with a garden hose and filmed it."
But it reaches further back than that, virtually to the beginnings of civilization. There are historical accounts of clownish performances in ancient Egypt and China, and classical Greek and Roman theater never missed the chance to indulge in bawdy guff. The definition of slapstick can be traced back to the 1500s. The word literally came from a stick composed of two pieces of wood that slapped together to produce a loud whack when it struck someone (often an actor's behind). In the 16th century, the weapon was used in commedia dell'arte, an Italian form of theater where Harlequin, a recurring character in the genre, would use it to strike his comic victims. The Italian Renaissance dreamed up the character of Pulcinella, a hunchbacked, hook-nosed wife beater, who is still around today as the character of Punch in the Punch and Judy puppet shows.
Our contemporary understanding of slapstick began in the vaudeville era of the late 19th century. In the 1890s, Paris' famous Moulin Rouge cabaret hall saw the performances of a certain Joseph Pujol, nicknamed Le Pétomane, or the fartomaniac, for his uncanny ability to produce sound effects with his posterior. The genre then took off in the age of silent film, with Buster Keaton narrowly avoiding getting crushed by an entire frame of a house, Charlie Chaplin's hapless boxing and Laurel and Hardy's physical antics. Into the 1920s and '30s, Larry, Moe and Curly of the Three Stooges took over the mantle of absurd comedy with eye jabs, thumps on the head and nyuk, nyuk, nyuks.
In the 1950s, Warner Bros.' Looney Tunes took absurdist humor to a new level through animation, which allowed characters like Wile E. Coyote and Bugs Bunny to do things no human could do (often involving Acme dynamite). I Love Lucy forayed into slapstick, and the 1960s brought The Dick Van Dyke Show, which centered on Van Dyke's incredible physicality, neatly summed up in the show's opening montage in which Van Dyke repeatedly battles his own ottoman.
In recent times, we've seen Chevy Chase play a bumbling President Ford on Saturday Night Live and the inept character of Clark Griswold in the National Lampoon's Vacation movies. And before his more dramatic roles, Jim Carrey was basically a modern-day rubber man. In the 1990s, television's America's Funniest Home Videos offered a more reality-based version of slapstick, broadcasting the comedic foibles of everyday people to a national audience. And it signaled the eventual popularity of YouTube, which is now the first stop for anybody in search of moments of unscripted comic hilarity.
The Jackass movies are a hybrid of slapstick and improv. And though the latest 3-D venture may seem to be a particular modern example of the marriage of technology and our more puerile instincts, it's far closer to the age-old appeal of the banana-peel slip or the Three Stooges eye jab than many realize.