slapstick and physical comedy

What are slapstick and physical comedy?

From the Ancient Greeks to the Middle Ages when every noble house had its fool or jester; from Charlie Chaplin in the silent movies right through to programmes like “Total Wipeout” or “You’ve been framed”; humans have laughed at physical comedy and slapstick.  Many of our most popular cartoons are also based on slapstick, from Tom and Jerry to the Wily Coyote.  So what are slapstick and physical comedy, what are the differences?  Why do we laugh at it – and should we?

Physical comedy has a wider definition than slapstick.  Physical comedy involves the manipulation of the body or face for comic effect, rather than through the use of words.  This can include slapstick, mime, stunts, funny faces and clowning.  Slapstick, then, is a distinct type of physical comedy.  Slapstick revolves around fake and exaggerated violence and dramatic buffoonery involving improbable situations, or ordinary situations that go wrong (usually resulting in pain).  

Both are considered “low comedy” as oppose to the “high comedy” that takes advantage of sophisticated dialogue through wit and satire.  Research by medical anthropologist Ann Hale (University of Sydney) suggests that the humour involved in physical comedy is actually deep-seated and that even babies under the age of 1 can find humour in their parent doing something unusual – whether that’s peek-a-boo or mum crawling into the room instead of walking.

Great physical comedians in present day

These people use their whole bodies for comic effect.  If you find yourself laughing at something when there’s no dialogue, that’s physical comedy:

  • David Schwimmer (plays Ross Geller in Friends) – if you’re not sure what I’m talking about, rewatch the scene with the leather pants.
  • Michael McIntyre.  This sketch is magnificent.
  • Rowan Atkinson.  This video explains his fabulous physical comedy skills.
  • John Cleese – here with The Ministry of Silly Walks
  • Jim Carey – here with his many faces (also very good at falling over)
  • Mike Meyers – here are some great moments.

Isn’t laughing at slapstick cruel?

When you watch a group of children sitting at a puppet show laughing at a man puppet beating his wife puppet and a police puppet beating somebody over the head with a truncheon, you have to ask if this is right.  When we watch TV programmes centred on people falling off things, falling over, or accidentally hurting themselves… is this comedy or cruelty?  In many slapstick routines or comedies based on this, there is a “fool” character – Mr Bean, the 3 Stooges, the side-kick criminal in Home Alone, Dumb and Dumber.  Are we laughing at the misfortune of somebody who isn’t that clever?

I personally think that we should treat this pretty carefully.  I love physical comedy – see my list of top physical comedians below – and I love to laugh at people using their bodies in an amusing and artful way.  I’ve also got to be honest and own up to finding some gratuitous violence pretty entertaining too (I love the Die Hard movies).  However, I do think we should be careful when we laugh at people getting hurt or hurting one another, or when we laugh at “the fool” who is the brunt of all the pain.  It’s a slippery slope.

The danger is that if we are amused by people hurting themselves – for example in “You’ve been Framed” – we may find ourselves laughing at the person who falls over on the ice, instead of rushing over to help them up and checking they are okay.

How can we make physical comedy part of our playful lives?

To start with, take an ordinary task.  Making scrambled eggs for example.  Imagine all the things that could go wrong with this task: you can’t get the fridge door open, you drop the pan on your foot, you drop the egg and it makes a mess everywhere.  To create a funny sketch: take one of these imaginary problems and pretend that’s what’s happened.  Take the fridge door not opening: (a great example here from Friends).  It’s not just having the problem though – it’s how you react to it and what you do.

Pick your moment though.  A bit of physical comedy every now and then is hilarious, takes us out of the humdrum of everyday life and makes us laugh.  Somebody hamming up every single task all day long would become pretty annoying.  Gauge the reaction of your audience.


podcasts about play

As I’m exploring more about the benefits of play I am discovering so much out there – there’s a whole world of play to discover!  Here is a run-down of a few podcasts about play that I can’t wait to listen to:


“Fearlessly Playful” by Dr Kate Raynes-Goldie

A podcast featuring conversations with people changing their lives with the power of play.  Kate Raynes-Goldie travels the world helping organisations

“The Playful Pivot”

Three short podcasts about how play can help you live the life you want.

“Playful Intelligence” with Dr Anthony DeBenedet

Author of “Playful Intelligence: the Power of Living Lightly in a Serious World” explains how playfulness can counteract the seriousness of everyday life.

Rabya Lomas on prioritising creativity and playful living.

Rabya Lomas is best known for the amazing and beautiful playful images on her instagram account.

The Abundant Mama – a fun reminder to add playfulness to every day.

Tanis Frame talks about “thriving” – but to thrive, we need to be playful.

National Play Day

National Play Day 2020

Every year on the 1st August in National Play Day.  A day when organisations, children and families get out to play at hundreds of community events across the UK.  It’s a celebration of play and a campaign to raise awareness of the importance of play in children’s lives.

This year Play Day is different.  Normally the campaign co-ordinates hundreds of events, getting children together to play in communities everywhere.  Due to current government guidance about social gatherings and distancing because of the Covid crisis, they are asking people not to organise public Playday 2020 events.  Instead, the emphasis is on encouraging families to play at home.

Where did Playday come from?

Playday started in 1986.  A group of playworkers were concerned about cuts and closures of play centres in London. They decided to have a day for play to raise the profile of these issues.  By 1981 this was a national event and last year there were more than 850 events across the UK celebrating playday and highlighting the importance of play.  It’s now coordinated by Play England, in partnership with Play Wales, Play Scotland and PlayBoard Northern Ireland.

What can you do for playday?

Events can be as small as a group of friends, a school or a playgroup getting the children together for a day of play, imagination and creativity in a hall, woods or park, or as large as a massive organised festival or street party.

This year for Playday, there are two things you can do:

Play @ Home

Here are some ideas to get them off those screens to celebrate play day today:

  • dressing up and role-play – stimulates empathy, development of emotional literacy and language skills.  Whether you set up a vet surgery for the soft toys, a mud kitchen restaurant, a “cops and robbers” scenario or play schools.
  • card or board games
  • running around games – remember hide and seek, sardines, tag?
  • building – whether you are building a townscape with wooden blocks, turning cardboard boxes into a train, car, doll-house or city, using Lego or modelling, you will be developing imagination, creativity and story-making skills.
  • simple games – marbles, jacks, tic-tac-toe, battleships, hopscotch, bottle bowling.
  • outdoor games – football, french cricket, “Robin Hood”.

There are some amazing ideas on: 

The Genius of Play


Use social media as a power for good.  Raise awareness of the importance of play.  It’s fundamental for children’s health, development and happiness.  Post ideas of ways you can play.  Share images of you and your children enjoying play.  Use #playday2020.

I’d love to hear what you do to celebrate Playday today.  Please do comment below and share your play.


As a society we have just been through (and are still dealing with) a global crisis the like of which hasn’t been seen for a century.  Across the world schools and businesses have been closed and movement and socialising have been restricted in an attempt to slow the spread of the covid-19 virus.  This virus can cause no symptoms in many, but can be deadly to others.  We know that play is crucial to social development and learning, so what is the impact of covid on children’s social development?  What effect has this crisis had on playfulness, and where do we go from here?

Where play suffered

When you think about what play is, you realise that this crisis will inevitably have had an impact on it.  Play is spontaneous, internally motivated and creative.  Play is undertaken for the joy of the activity. 

For several months our children have been stuck at home, unable to socialise with their peers, unable to visit play-parks.  For some, this has meant being confined in a dwelling or flat, while others have had access to gardens and the countryside.  Parents have been anxious about the risk of infection for themselves and loved ones, but also about the security of their jobs as businesses have been closed for protracted periods, and dealing with the stress of supporting their child with learning at home while the schools have been closed.  

With little option, and in many cases having to use this for school work too, many children have turned to their screens for solace.

There are children out there who may fall into one or more of the following groups:

  • key worker or vulnerable children who have been at school throughout the crisis, sitting at individual desks and separated at play-times.
  • children who have been at home with parents who have been supporting multiple children while also attempting to work from home.
  • children who have been at home with parents who are extremely anxious about either the virus or financial instability
  • children who have been parked in front of a screen throughout the crisis
  • children who have suffered loss and grief because of the covid crisis.
  • children for whom home is not a safe place – perhaps due to poverty, homelessness, addiction or abuse.

These children will have experienced some form of play deprivation during lock-down.

Where play has triumphed

Necessity is indeed the mother of invention, and boredom can often be a catalyst for creativity.  Where parents have been furloughed (at home but not working) and where there are siblings, there has been time to build relationships and play in a way that may never have been possible before in our over-timetabled society.

Many people and companies have shared their resources for free to give parents ideas and activities to do indoors with their little ones.  It’s possible that some families have realised that play doesn’t have to be a bought-in, organised commodity relying on foam filled climbing frames and ball pits.  They have enjoyed spending time with one another and have discovered their playfulness.

Children in these groups:

  • children with siblings to play with
  • children with at least one parent at home who is not having to work (either stay-at-home parent or furloughed) who has the inclination to spend time playing with the child

will have done much better both with their academic work learning from home, but also with the ability to be creative, to socialise, to come up with new activities and ideas.

Where do we go from here?

There’s a pretty huge gulf opened up during this crisis both financially, academically and socially.  We can’t even begin to count the psychological and social cost this pandemic has had on our children until things begin to return to normal in September and perhaps we won’t truly know for many years.  It’s true that children are resilient.  However, it is widely known that childhood is key for building social skills, for developing creativity and for developing neural pathways.  History has shown that children who are deprived of play have psychological and social problems as adults (an extreme example, but many children who spent time in Romanian orphanages in the 1980s have still got psychological and social problems as adults, even after 30 years living in loving adoptive families).  Our children have been deprived of play and of wider social interaction for several months, at a crucial time in their development.

Our priority needs to be to get children playing again.  Of course, we want to ensure that they are safe, and we want to avoid transmission of this dreadful virus, but to reduce the impact of covid on children’s social development has to be a priority.

“Our priority needs to be to get children playing again.”

If you can’t get out of the house, set up a video call with a group of friends, preferably with a couple of games or craft activities pre-arranged so they can play and interact in a positive way.  Another alternative would be to initiate a creative task, for example creating an imaginary world.  They can work on it separately but share their creations.  For example, one person could draw a map, another could create characters and then they could email one another with stories based in this world.  Even better if it leads to model making and a game that could continue once they are able to meet up again.  

If you can get out of the house, do so.  Go and play in the woods.  Set up a picnic and let the children play.  A few children with some trees and sticks won’t need much prompting for play, but if in doubt read the stories of Robin Hood, Winnie the Pooh or Red Riding Hood before you go.  A little nudge for the imagination should provide enough ideas for hours of play!

If you have a garden, invite a few of your child’s friends over.  Remind them of the importance of social distancing and hand-washing, and then let them play.  If they are a little unsure what to play (and seem to be hanging around looking for inspiration) then create a fort / tent using old sheets and an airer, create a potion station using some jam jars and a pestle and mortar, get out a box of cars or lego and then just watch them play.