What Was the Last Great Moment of Movie Slapstick Comedy?

Melissa McCarthy Identity Thief

In the fall of 1995, I witnessed the funniest thing I have ever seen in my entire life: Jim Carrey emerging from the anus of a fake rhinoceros.

Sure, Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls‘ “birthing” scene is not the most inspired gag of all time. But looking back, I can’t think of a time when I’ve laughed more. Even today, watching Carrey emerge from the back of the rubber beast through a hole the size of his pinky cracks me up. Back then, no one could have pulled it off but Carrey.

In 2013, no one could have pulled it off, period.

A decade and a half after Carrey’s silly display of physicality, “slapstick” comedy has all but faded away. Make no mistake: There’s a difference between what Kevin James does in Grown Ups (oh, he fell off a rope swing and hurt himself — hilarious!) and what the best of the best physical comedians have committed to film in the past 100 years.

The legendary Charlie Chaplin is revered for his accomplishments in the early days of cinema. A refresher of his 1936 film Modern Times reminds that his directorial nuance and crowd-pleasing performances were vaudevillian stunts not far removed from what Carrey was doing in Ace Ventura.

When did slapstick take a turn for the worse? In March of last year, Aardman Animation co-founder and director Peter Lord described to us why physical comedy has teetered out of today’s live-action features, but continues to function in animation (like in his 2012 film Pirates! A Band of Misfits): “Some people have the timing, but none of them have the physical bravery.” Cartoon characters can do anything, their puppeteers taking full advantage. There’s a precedent for outlandish animation; its appeal to younger generations is what Hollywood hopes to capture.

Slapstick is essentially that animated spirit brought to life by actors. Like the meticulous timing and craftsmanship involved with even the goofiest toons, it’s an art form that cannot simply be executed, but needs to be mastered in order to work at all.

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Comparing physical comedic highlights to “great performances” might be hard to swallow, but the slapstick masters of the ’90s — Carrey, Chris Farley and, hell, even Rowan Atkinson as Mr. Bean — were tapping into the same vein that helps a method actor like Daniel Day-Lewis bring Abraham Lincoln to life: commitment.

This was Farley in a nutshell. He wasn’t just the big, wacky dude. He was the big, wacky dude who would go there.

The truth is, we have performers today who possess the abilities to push boundaries. James is the butt of more jokes than he is the deliverer of them, but he knows how to operate in the frame of a comedy.

Commitment is twofold: you need the gags, and you need quality material. James surrounds himself with junk — Here Comes the Boom quickly turns him into a hero and smooth operator, even when overpowered by professional MMA fighters.

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Farley’s characters were lovable losers. Instead of finding empowerment from leading man status, he found it in laughs. Tommy Boy, Black Sheep, and even Beverly Hills Ninja — Farley’s creations were idiotic and larger than life, but they always had the best intentions.

The scripts didn’t shame him. Black Sheep stands out as the epitome of this attitude: Even when Farley is cast away from his family, minding his own business playing checkers, he’s decimated by bad luck. And owns it.

This weekend, Melissa McCarthy works her magic in the Identity Thief, which pairs her with Jason Bateman for a road trip movie that feels spiritually connected to the Farley/David Spade days.

In my mind, McCarthy is a potential harbinger for a return to physical comedy, the kind of performer who knows how she appears on camera and can push material to fit her style. Unfortunately, Identity Thief is not that movie — it’s more Jamesian low-brow than deranged Farley or Carrey-like material.

McCarthy call pull off big and broad humor — see Bridesmaids for photographic evidence — but Identity Thief takes a wrong turn by making her completely unlikable, and forcing the dumb jokes into a scenario that doesn’t make any sense.

For now, we can relish in McCarthy’s moments of genius in Bridesmaids:

One reason Hollywood may not be pushing itself to improve the state of slapstick is that the audience has no taste for it. In 2012, the Farrelly brothers recreated the wild romps of yesteryear in The Three Stooges. The movie split critics down the middle — for every review that championed its faithfulness to the Stooges’ old material, another ripped it apart for the same reasons. In the end, the movie grossed a middling $40 million and disappeared into obscurity.

Blame the cultural shift on the great comedy of the last decade: With strong voices emerging in the world of television and film — Judd Apatow, Tina Fey, and the bizarre antics seen on FX, Adult Swim, and the Internet — slapstick is losing its footing.

Acting wacky looks dumb in comparison to well-crafted wordplay and a swift reference. The plentiful options have turned comedy fans into subsections. It’s hard to imagine anyone enjoying Farley crashing through a table as Matt Foley, motivational speaker on a ’90s episode of Saturday Night Live, with the current standards set by intellectually driven comedy.

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Late Wednesday, The Hollywood Reporter announced that McCarthy was preparing to launch her own company, On the Day, that would culture material created and approved by the up-and-coming comedic star. Michelle Darnell is based on a character created by McCarthy; Just Do It is derived from a sex-help book, with McCarthy attached to write and star; Cousin Irv From Mars will see McCarthy lend her skills to a children’s movie.

By cultivating her own projects, McCarthy has the opportunity to reclaim physical comedy, melding it with her sharp wit, and reintroducing slapstick to audiences who pine for the long line of cinematic history that allowed for comedic agility that would make Stretch Armstrong’s jaw drop.

As a slapstick fan, I want that moment I had nearly two decades ago: sublime stupidity provoking laughter in its rawest form. It doesn’t have to be someone emerging from the anus of a fake rhinoceros, but that’s where the bar is set.

Now it’s your turn: what was the last great moment of movie slapstick comedy? Let us know in the comments, and please, don’t trip on your way down there.

Follow Matt Patches on Twitter @misterpatches

[Photo Credit: Universal Pictures]

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