One day, thousands of years ago, someone took a wooden club to the berries and an entire genre of comedy was born. Physical comedy is an art form, one that’s attempted by many and mastered by few. It’s more than just pratfalls and nutshots, more than poop jokes and wakka wakka. There are people who may not be terrific actors, but who are absolute geniuses of physical comedy. It’s something that isn’t nearly as prevalent in the current era (at least not in a genuinely great sense), but the history is a rich and hilarious one. I couldn’t begin to list all of the great performers, but here are a handful of my favorites in what I think are their best scenes. Please enjoy, and for the love of God, watch your step.
Buster Keaton - Cyclone sequence, Steamboat Bill, Jr (1928): Some amazing physical comedy took place in the silent era, out of necessity if nothing else, since jokes couldn’t be heard. This scene, featuring Keaton doing all of his own stunts, is absolutely incredible and his performance is completely devoid of special effects.
Chris Farley - The airplane bathroom, Tommy Boy (1995): Chris Farley was a fantastic comedian who left us far too soon. He didn’t have a great string of films — there are decent moments in all of them (and I’ll never grow tired of watching him fall through a table), but none of them measured up to his first starring vehicle, Tommy Boy. This scene of him crammed into an airplane bathroom makes me laugh myself to tears to this day, no matter how many times I’ve seen it.
Peter Sellers and Burt Kwouk - Inspector Clouseau & Cato Training, The Pink Panther Strikes Again (1976): Some of the great forgotten comedy comes from Blake Edwards’ Pink Panther series, starring Peter Sellers as the bumbling Inspector Clouseau. My favorite recurring bits are the training sequences. Clouseau’s friend/manservent Cato, who Clouseau has ordered to randomly (and violently) attack him in order to keep him on his toes, comes after him furiously and at the most inopportune moments. Chaos and hilarity often ensued.
Jim Carrey - Mental hospital, Ace Ventura, Pet Detective: We sometimes forget that there was a time when Jim Carrey was absolutely insanely funny. Ace Ventura, Pet Detective is an absolutely ridiculous movie, and yet it works so well and so often. There’s a lot to choose from, but I picked this scene because of a) the slow-motion part at its beginning, and b) the headdesk moment at the end.
Curly Howard - Oyster stew, A Plumbing We Will Go (1940): The Three Stooges are, of course, an institution of physical comedy. Not everyone appreciates them anymore, but I grew up watching old, old reruns of them. There are a lot of great slapstick scenes with them, but I always come back to this one, featuring a solo performance by Curly that is note-perfect.
Martin Short - Twistin’ The Night Away, Innerspace (1987): Martin Short is another one who we forget sometimes how funny he once was. For years, Innerspace was one of my favorite movies, and I still check it out again every now and then and yes, it’s still pretty damn funny. I really wanted to give you the “I’M POSSESSED!” scene but sadly I can’t find it. Instead, you’ll have to settle for a bit of whiskey, a little dancing, and some Sam Cooke.
The Marx Brothers - The stateroom, A Night At The Opera (1935): The other great slapstick institution is, of course, the trio known as the Marx Brothers. The entire sequence of this scene is phenomenal, including the egg-ordering scene (you can watch the full sequence here), but I chose to highlight the end of it, featuring 15 people crammed into a tiny little room. There’s a lot to take in here, and I recommend watching it a few times.
Jackie Chan - Chopsticks, The Fearless Hyena (1979): Jackie Chan has been at it forever and a week, and while his shtick has grown tired of late, he was once an inferno of physical comedy-inspired martial arts. This goofy sequence featuring Jackie engaging a quick battle with chopsticks with his learned teacher, is absolutely Chan in his prime.
Cleavon Little - The Sheriff is near/nobody move or…, Blazing Saddles (1974): Quite simply one of the funniest movies in history, full stop. Every performance is amazing, but Cleavon Little steals this (in a role originally meant for Richard Pryor) with a surprisingly subtle performance. There’s a lot going on in this scene, from Jack Starrett’s buffonery as the drunken rambler Gabby Johnson, to… uh.. all of the other Johnsons and their bizarre reaction shots to Sheriff Bart essentially taking himself hostage.
Bruce Campbell - The hand possession, Evil Dead II, (1987): In addition to being a horror comedy classic, the Evil Dead films introduced us to a character that would become a household name — or at least a name in housewares. Ashley J. Williams, played with chintastic lunacy by Bruce Campbell, is one of the best characters ever, but this scene, of his hand becoming possessed and trying to kill him, is the very height of his physical comedy abilities.
Jerry Lewis - Pantomime, The Errand Boy, (1961): I’ll be honest: a lot of Jerry Lewis material annoys me, and I’m not just talking about the telethons. But he had a gift for comedic timing and movement, and one of his most amazing bits was this bit of pantomime from The Errand Boy. If you want to see more, I recommend looking into the typewriter scene from Who’s Minding The Store.
John Belushi - Cafeteria scene, Animal House, (1978): Another one gone too soon due to living too hard, Belushi is simply a legend. This scene, from the great music to open it, the carefully balanced tray, the horse impression, the zit and its ensuing chase, to the inevitable food fight (which is sadly not shown in this clip), its comedic brilliance is mesmerizing.
Kristen Wiig, Melissa McCarthy, Rose Byrne, Maya Rudolph, Ellie Kemper - Trying on dresses, Bridesmaids, (2011): Oh, God. This scene. It’s got it all — poop, vomit, you name it. It’s unbelievably crude, but also unbelievably fun. Melissa McCarthy owns her part of it (“Megan NO!” “LOOK AWAY!”), but everyone does damn fine work here.
Steve Martin - Soul transference, All Of Me, (1984): This is one of my favorite scenes of all time, in a film often left unmentioned in the Steve Martin pantheon. His movements are hypnotically crazed, jerking and lurching about as half of his body is taken over by Lily Tomlin. It is quite simply perfect.
(h/t to reader Julie for inspiring this post)