The Five Funniest Things in the World in 1918 (and a Silent Comedy Mystery)

I was flipping through old film magazines and discovered a fascinating little article in the September 1918 issue of Photoplay. Written by Homer Coy, it lists five sure secrets of then-current screen comedy… and creates a little mystery.

First, The Five Funniest Things in the World, per Mr. Coy:

Number Five: Men in Women’s Clothes

Ivan Mosjoukine in The House in Kolomna.

“The fifth scene that can always be counted on to make an audience laugh is
for a man to assume a woman’s clothes. If the man happens to be stout all the better and if he should happen to so manipulate his skirts as to show a flash of underwear still better. But strange as it may seem the placing of a woman in man’s apparel is not funny. Many directors staked their pictures and their reputations on this reverse to find that an audience will not laugh at a woman in overalls. If she is the possessor of a pretty face they will think her cute, but never funny. Nor must she stay too long in overalls. If she does her, appeal is gone and the scene is lost. Just a flash and then back to more conventional attire.”

So much to unpack. So, so much. I have a toothache too. Mr. Coy would likely have been surprised by Ossi Oswalda and Ernst Lubitsch’s farce, I Don’t Want to Be a Man.

Number Four: The Expected and the Unexpected

Charlie Chaplin’s table manners in The Immigrant.

“Audiences are always amused by two things: by something unexpected and by something anticipated. A waiter takes a piece of pie and, standing behind a swinging door, waits to reek revenge on a fellow waiter when the door opens and instead of the other waiter in comes the manager of the restaurant. The manager gets the pie. The scene never fails to arouse the desired laughter; it succeeds by reason of its element of surprise.

On the other hand the element of anticipation is just as strong and is made use of almost wholly in situations employing explosives. A set is erected with a number of bottles labeled “nitro-glycerine” or “dynamite” and an actor comes in in comedy make-up and begins to smoke. Throwing his match aside it sets fire to a fuse. The fuse begins to splutter while he smokes on unmindful. On such an occasion an audience never fails to give vent to its sense of the incongruous. If it should stop to reason that real explosives were not being used and that in reality the labeled bottles were empty, it would see the evident pretenses of the scene; but it never does. It always feels sure that in another moment the powder will blow the innocent person four ways from the post office and as a result pounds its palms in approval.”

These comedy tricks are so non-specific that one wonders if Coy realized he only had four things on his list and wrote this at 7:59 when the deadline was 8:00. It’s not bad advice but all comedy is either expected or unexpected. Heck, all events are either expected or unexpected.

Number Three: Fall in the Water

Harold Lloyd in Haunted Spooks.

“In experimenting with the sense of humor it was discovered that there was something irresistibly amusing in seeing some one fall into water. Particularly amusing it was found by comedy directors to see a dignified, silk-hatted individual going along and then to have him meet with an unfortuitous catastrophe such as stopping on a bridge to lean against the banister to admire the graceful swans and then to have the banister give quickly and unexpectedly away. Knowing well that a fall of six or eight feet into water would not hurt him, audiences gave themselves up to the full enjoyment of the situation.”

If you find yourself in a silent comedy, avoid stairs and banisters at all costs!

Number Two: A Waiter Falling Down and Breaking Dishes

Mr. Coy’s attitude, we presume.

“The second funniest thing in the world is for a waiter to fall down stairs with a tray of dishes. Over and over the situation has been worked and yet it never grows old. Sometimes he is craning his neck to see a pretty girl and lands at the newel post; sometimes it is because he has been out the night before and is too sleepy to have the necessary care; sometimes he is being pursued by his wife and in his eagerness to get away makes a misstep that ends calamitously.”

The newel post is one of the fancy posts you find on a flight of stairs, by the way. And is it just me or does Coy have a thing about waiters?

Number One: Pies

Pie in Mr. Flip.

“The funniest thing in the world is for one person to hit another with a pie. Crude as this may sound it has made more people laugh than any other situation in motion pictures. It was first discovered twelve years ago and has been a constant expedient ever since without, so far as can be discovered, any diminution of appreciation. It has made millions laugh and tonight will make a hundred thousand more voice their appreciation in laryngeal outbursts. It is the one situation that can always be depended on.”

Mr. Flip (1909) is often credited as the first cinematic pie in the face but I debunked that notion soundly in my review with two references to earlier pie-ings from 1903 and 1905.

But twelve years is rather specific (why not ten or five?) and doesn’t line up with 1909, 1903 or 1905. Twelve years from 1918 is 1906 so which 1906 film could Coy be referring to? If you have any idea, please let me know.


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  1. Katie M

    It appears that Fred Karno’s show “Mumming Birds” used a pie in the face long before 1909. I don’t know if Coy would’ve been familar with that, though. It’s the only thing I could find.

  2. Marie Roget

    Coy definitely has a thing about waiters! Having waitressed in university to make ends meet (The Tulip in Toronto), I can attest that if you drop/break a dish in a crowded restaurant most customers will politely ignore or perhaps tsk tsk (unless you dropped it on THEM) but there will always be some (fill in the blank) who laughs out loud. No matter how many plates you have balanced on your arm, some so-and-so thinks it’s funny that you didn’t balance one properly 😦

    There really was an art to falling down stairs in silents, with or without dishes. Hit a stair wrong or hit the newel post at the bottom instead of missing it could mean cracking a rib!

    1. Fritzi Kramer

      I actually had a server drop a plate beside me and it splashed a bit of food on me. He was so apologetic that I felt just awful. I wonder how this anti-waitstaff nonsense got started?

      Oh yes, definitely! These stunt comedians were a professional’s professionals.

      1. Marie Roget

        Professionals indeed! As stuntman extraordinaire Harvey Parry said in the Brownlow-Gill Hollywood series, stunt men or women have to think at least 14 feet ahead of their bodies to avoid injury, or worse.

        Love the way Dressler and Davies are spoofing the attitude of The Swells toward wait staff (the staff at any restaurant are there to be food and drink servers, NOT personal servants). Be rude to the wait staff, or the cooks for that matter, at your gastronomic peril! Evil Marie R. only did a little deed to a customer once. Ok, twice. Both times were memorable. Over peppering something right before serving it up can cause a lot of sneezing. Who knew? 😉

  3. Shari Polikoff

    It’s fascinating to think of pie fights being ‘old hat’ as far back as 1918. And almost a century later, that shtick was being cranked out in Blake Edwards’s ‘The Great Race’ and in one of the worst episodes of a TV show I adore, ‘Route 66.’ Too much goo for my taste!

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