Writing Slapstick

I’m venturing out of my comfort zone with this story I’ve been working on. You see, life has been… interesting this year. It’s not just that feeling that the Four Horsemen are breathing down the back of my neck (don’t turn around) with plagues and earthquakes (what’s next? I don’t want to know!). It’s that my family seems to be taking turns one after another having health crises and there is *nothing* I can do. I’m stuck, at the day job, and the world is slowly turning upside down around me. I dropped my daughter off at work in the dark of the morning and she was telling me how work has been this last week. “Someone deadass looked at me on Wednesday and told me thank you. They said ‘thank you for working.’ I was thinking ‘What the f*ck does that mean?!” (Sidenote: the Junior Mad Scientist has a mouth that would make a sailor blush. It was getting better, and then she started working in a kitchen. All hope is lost).

What it meant was that people are running scared. Yes, she works in a high-contact job as a fast food server/maker/all the things (they rotate staff to all the different stations). However, her personal risk is relatively low should she be infected, and the family behind her is taking steps to keep her and the rest of the family safe. So it’s more than simply her working. She was just a face this terrified person who is watching the world all jumble up like a snowglobe being shaken could count on to be smiling (even if it’s because it’s her job) and present. When grocery stores are bare, this place has food.

A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky animals. (I love that movie, for reasons I’ll get into below). This last weekish of life has proven this law of natural selection to me once again. I knew it. I’ve pretty much always known it. The corollary is that in times of panic, we need calm. And alternatively, one of the ways to release pressure and move toward calm, is laughter. There are good reasons for the prevalence of dark humor in high-stress occupations. I grew up with a father who was deeply involved in First Response, as a paramedic, EMT, firefighter… I myself wound up training as a first responder and becoming involved in search and rescue. I know what black humor lurks in the depths of men and women I wouldn’t hesitate to label hero as I looked up to them and wanted to be like them.

Humor is important in times of crisis. We need to laugh, and be transported out of the vise of terror that is being wound down on our souls by external forces. This post isn’t about the reality of that vise. It’s sufficient that people are having a Very Bad Day.

What I have been trying to do, as a writer, is to give a little levity in the form of a serial story I’ve been working on for more than a month, now. It’s supposed to be over-the-top and playful and I’ve been very much enjoying the writing of it. But I ran into trouble yesterday with the latest bit.

How the heck do you write slapstick successfully? It’s a visual art. It was born on the stages of Vaudeville – oh, I know the roots of it probably go back into the mists of prehistory. Laughing at someone else’s misfortune is a very human reflex, after all. We laugh when we are uncomfortable. We laugh in response to things we probably ought not. Vaudeville takes that, and makes it safe. You know the person being ‘beat up’ through pratfalls, accidental collisions, and such-like is being done no real harm. They will be up and bowing for curtain call. In a former career I’ve even used some techniques in my work as a balloon twister, pretending to struggle with a balloon, before suddenly and expertly reducing it to the desired form. It’s fun, to combine that perception of incompetence with the oversized body motions to really sell the campy acting. You’re goofing off. You’re playing it up… the actors who capered on the stage pretending to trip over their shoelaces only to cartwheel were usually highly skilled and trained in acrobatics. It was a play for laughs.

But how to translate that into story, without writing too many words of description that slow down the action? I am struggling with it. Now, I’d send this off to the First Reader, ordinarily, but he is out of pocket and out of the correct frame of mind to be my constant editor. So I ask you… is this funny to you? Is this a joke? (I was never a clown. Clowning is a calling, not a job, and besides, I didn’t go to Clown College).

The Case of the Perambulating Hatrack, Part 6

(if you want to begin at the beginning, look here)

The house, as I’d suspected, was in an upscale neighborhood. A modest brick front in a row of narrow townhouses. The only clue from the exterior that something was amiss was a crooked curtain in the lower left window. 

I paid the cabbie, with extra in his tip. I had, after all, smoked in his cab even though it hadn’t been on purpose. Nor had it left a smell I was aware of. Still. You don’t tick off a cabbie. 

I took a couple of breaths to stand on the sidewalk and look around. There was nobody outside. This wasn’t the kind of place where children were welcome, at least not where they could be seen and heard. It was the wrong time of day for women walking their dogs. Speaking of dogs, I could hear a distant yapping. It seemed to emanate from the house in front of me. 

I squared my shoulders, sucked in my gut, and walked up the steps. I had raised my hand to the knocker – shaped like a dachshund’s head – when the door flew open in front of me. 

“Mr. Dennessey!” Her voice would have told me she was at the end of her rope, even if her appearance didn’t. When she had been in my office, her hair had been perfectly styled in that ‘just woke up’ mode, her face in the ‘why, I’m not wearing any!’ look, and her clothing had not been smeared with what looked like peanut butter but probably wasn’t. 

I looked past her as the hatrack in question skittered from one side of the foyer to the other. I didn’t see the dog, but I could certainly hear it. They were both out of sight, but not unheard, for an instant, then the hatrack reappeared headed in the other direction. Through the limited space around her and the doorframe I could catch glimpses of what was going on. The dog was chasing the rack, and then, they went back again, this time the rack in hot pursuit of the pup. 

“I’m going in.” I told her, and she stepped out of my way as I came through the door. 

The next few minutes were a confused blur. Later on, in the dark of the night, I’d wake up in a cold sweat, remembering fragments of it. I pieced it together over time, because right then, as I hit the faux hardwood running, I didn’t have time to think. I just reacted. The hatrack wasn’t running so much as it was walking, quickly. It lacked knees, for one thing. The three legs with the ornate curled toes flexed this way and that, in a motion I still don’t have a word to describe. The dog, on the other hand, was all legs, flying after it yapping breathlessly. The hatrack dipped around the couch and the dog dashed under it. The hatrack somehow cantered up onto the couch, bending in ridiculous ways. 

For a brief moment it seemed as though, having gained the high ground, the furniture had won. Then the dog slid out on the far side of the couch, claws scrabbling against the hard floor. It’s sausage body caromed off a kitschy stump and resin coffee table, and with this slingshot of momentum, the inconceivable happened. The dog managed to achieve low earth orbit. Low enough, he cleared the seat cushion and wrapped his angular little jaws right around the closest leg on the hatrack. 

The effect on the hatrack was galvanizing. I had already started moving towards it, but as the sharp teeth sank into the wood, it leapt upward, over the back of the couch, and straight toward me. I flung my arms outward, partly from sheer surprise at my quarry taking the offensive in this way. One of the curlicue branches of the top of the rack struck me sharply in the cheekbone, another stung my biceps, and somehow it ducked beneath my arm and I… 

Look. I have a lot of mass. Once I get up a full head of steam, I just keep rolling. Against an opponent without the eerie agility of the hatrack? I’ll just plow them under. I’ve done it before and since. The downside is that I do not turn on a dime. I lost track of dog and rack as I took a header over the couch. 

Through the gap under it, because it seemed Ms. T&A liked legs on everything, I could see the hatrack had stopped in the foyer. It was violently shaking the leg the dog was attached to, and as I watched the chiweenie once again took a giant leap for his kind, and achieved liftoff. 

I scrambled to get back on my feet and back in the game. It’s not my fault I’m top heavy, it’s in my genes. I noted as I galloped past her that my client was pressed up against the door, her hands clamped over her face. 

The hatrack didn’t have many options. I was coming from parlor side, dog was touching town in what appeared to be formal dining, through which I glimpsed kitchen. That left the stairs. With it’s curious gliding gait, lack of knees, and especially eye-less-ness, I thought I had it. 

I have been wrong before, and I will be wrong again. I have never been so humiliatingly wrong as I was at that moment. That dolled-up piece of kindling cornered like a race car and made for the stairs. I lunged, and got a hold on it. It had made it up five steps, and I can’t pull much vertical on my best day. I caught it just at the polished wooden ball that provided a juncture for the three curled legs. I lay there on the steps, half up the stairs, feeling the warm wood quiver under my hand, when I saw the dog coming. 

It had taken him a hot second to recover from that last landing. This time, he was coming in hot and mad. Where he had been yapping happily before, now his fat little body was even lower to the ground, his stubby legs churning, and his tail held low. He didn’t make a sound, and I didn’t even have time to twitch. 

The chiweenie ran up me like a chamois up the Alps. I could feel his claws digging in for traction as he scaled my bulk. Holding the hatrack firmly, I tried to get my balance and get back on my own two feet. I lurched up, holding the rack crosswise and trying to lift it over my head as the dog peaked and launched off my head at it. Below us, I heard a piercing shriek. 

“Mr. Pebbles!” 

Distracted, I stumbled toward her, and the door. 

Which she opened. I have no idea why, to this day. I never asked her what she was thinking. Discretion is the better part, etc., etc. Dog, hanging from rack, held now in almost jousting position, went out the door first. Followed closely by orc, attempting not to fall down the steps. 

I managed to keep more or less upright. By dropping the pernicious hatrack, and grabbing the wrought-iron decorative fence next to the steps. Which had not been designed with orc support in mind. I stood straight again, looking at the dog and hatrack, already dwindling into the distance on the empty street. 

Mr. Peeeeebbles!” The despairing wail  behind me got me moving. 

Running down a deserted city avenue lined by shady trees sounds idyllic, if you are one of those fitness fanatics, I suppose. I am not one, and I am built for power, not speed. I might never have caught them had the hatrack not decided it was tired of the nonsense, and planted all three feet squarely. Just as the beserker purse dog lunged for the kill, it swept with one tentacular leg, and the dog tumbled down the road, yipping. I reached out and grabbed the upper globe juncture, and gasped out, “All done here.” 

It froze. The dog did not. I reached down with my free hand and grabbed it by the scruff. I looked at the gleaming wood sphere. “Make a move, and I’ll use you to pick my teeth. For years. Every. Last. Splinter. Capisce?” 

The upper rack limbs all went limp for a minute, then slowly curled back up. I took this as surrender, and picked it up, walking back up the road toward her, dog growling and gnashing in one hand, rigid piece of wood in the other. 

By the time she met us not too far from her place, Mr. Pebbles was literally frothing at the mouth.


  1. Some years ago I was doing battle with a vending machine at Flat State U. An older woman was waiting as I finally got it to take the last quarter, and for some reason I asked the air, “So, do I go with the chocolate group, the sugar group, or the fried group?” She chuckled. I got my candy bar, turned and said, “Well, if you are what you eat, I’m fast, cheap, and easy.” She almost doubled over, laughing as I departed.

    She tracked me down a little while later. And thanked me. She said that she’d been having a horrible time, and that was the first laugh she’d had in a week.

  2. I can see the idiot dog in my mind’s eye.

    Disney Plus has a video from the 50s or 60s that is called something like the logic of animation– it might help you visualize what to do for slapstick?

  3. Chuckle Chuckle 😀

    By the way, I’m a fan of gallows humor. 😉

    1. #MeToo. I love me some noose jokes, scaffolding jokes, and trap door jokes.

      Course, jokes need to be mixed in with a little serious, or used very skillfully, or they lose their impact.

      Like a main character that you introduce by trying to establish forty elements of tragic backstory. I don’t think forty elements of tragic backstory could work for any character, unless introduced over time and either the character thought it was a positive experience, or if only the character buys the tragedy “and then I stubbed my toe” style.

  4. I like it. The dog is dead-on. But very hard to do in first person like that. In third person the narrator can capture the awkward face-plant when he goes over the couch. Good job.

    Nice bit of menacing the hat-rack at the end. ~:D

    1. In third person, a snippet of levity:

      Alice gunned the engine and pulled into the parking lot next door to the theater. At that time of night, it was about half empty. As she and the other women got out of the truck, there was a thunderous sound of flapping wings.

      Down at the corner, a gigantic beast fell from the sky and landed on Wellington Street. It was 100 feet long from nose to tail, but by a very acrobatic twist in mid-air, it managed to miss all the buildings and power lines as it came down.

      It squeezed under the traffic lights at the end of the street and stalked forward on powerful limbs, tail swishing from one side of the road to the other. Its fur was silvery black and shining, its scales iridescent under the streetlights. Its head was equipped with jaws big enough to bite a truck in half. Canine teeth two feet long protruded from its upper jaw like sabers.

      Alice stood on the sidewalk with her hands on her hips and watched it come. It came right up and butted her with its nose.

      “You drive like a lunatic!” said the dragon in a deep, disapproving voice. “I saw you drift that corner on the Clairmont Access, somebody should yank your license.”

      “Maybe so,” said Alice, “but you still owe me five bucks McIntyre, you big lizard. I beat you fair and square.”

  5. I chortled. The slapstick was well paced and not too wordy. I realize the trepidation, but that worked quite well. Now, i have to go back and read the rest of the story,,,

  6. Cedar, I read a long time ago that men make the blackest jokes about the things we most fear, so those in dangerous occupations can be relied upon to tell jokes we “normal” people understand the least. I’ve read it is a coping mechanism.
    As far as your kids go, pray that one of them doesn’t decide to join the Marines. I took me at least a decade for my tongue to tame itself for civilian ears after I got out.

  7. I watch the WildEarth safari stream on YouTube. Just yesterday, Lauren the Scottish biologist had a sad tale of how monkeys had found the bathroom window left ajar to let the steam out (which they do at their lodge in hot humid weather), in a moment when the bathroom had been left unattended before Lauren came back and retrieved her stuff.

    Every container in the bathroom had been opened, and either eaten, thrown around, or spilled out. They ate her multivitamins and her “lady pills.” (She didn’t elaborate because there are kids on the channel, but obviously she was upset, to go into that particular detail.) Her expensive non-cruelty vegan sun cream had been used, enjoyed, and smeared around by the monkeys, and her bead bracelet had been broken and strewn all over. And her eyelash curler wound up in the toilet.

    Then, on the same day, she was called away from her breakfast, and one of her colleagues left a door ajar while running to do something for thirty seconds. When she came back to the table, her cereal and other breakfast foods were still there, but her peeled banana was outside, rapidly disappearing inside a couple of monkeys.

    This is the sort of thing that could easily happen in a magical or science fiction world. Maybe the monkey-analogs start following the character around, looking for more bounty. Maybe they suffer ill effects from eating the character’s potions or nano-goodies. Maybe they start to develop human or magical characteristics. Maybe it turns out they were under a spell and are desperately trying to get back to humanity. Etc.

    They also had an incident about a month back where the safari folks were watching an elephant play happily with something long and skinny, and then they suddenly realized with horror that the elephant had dug up and disconnected the PVC pipe that brought water to the lodge. It’s a lot less cute to watch your after-work shower disappear!

    Funny stuff that is also a real inconvenience or danger can happen at any time, and usually at the worst time. Not everything that happens in a plot has to be character-driven, but the characters will have to react and deal awith those problems. Even the villain or antagonist wants a shower after work, much less drinking water and flush toilets.

    1. “They also had an incident about a month back where the safari folks were watching an elephant play happily with something long and skinny, and then they suddenly realized with horror that the elephant had dug up and disconnected the PVC pipe that brought water to the lodge.”

      Right after I started work at Really Big IT Company in 1998, an e-mail came across one of our internal mailing lists:

      “Can someone in the Product Development team tell us if our wireless capable version of software package is ready for beta testing? We’re installing the wired version for accounting at Krueger National Park in South Africa, and we can’t stop the elephants from knocking down or digging up the network cables!”

      I knew I had found a company I’d never be bored working for……

    2. What on earth is an eye-lash curler? Amazon knew. People do that? We’re a strange species.

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