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Pie-Throwing In Comedy: A Brief History

Any excuse for me to draw Mabel Normand is a good one.

Any excuse for me to draw Mabel Normand is a good one.

I really can’t think of a better day to discuss this than Pi Day, so here we go.

Pies in the face generally didn’t  happen on screen before Keystone came along. Actually, they flat-out didn’t. There are many anecdotes and theories about who threw the first pie and who took the first one in the face on camera, but the most common story is that the pie was thrown by Mabel Normand, with the recipient either being Ben Turpin or her good friend Roscoe Arbuckle.

Pie Throwing 101 – A Master Class:

The first thrown pie caught on film has been attributed to comedienne Mabel Normand at Keystone. One day in 1913 Mabel Normand, attempting to get the famously cross-eyed Ben Turpin to laugh, picked up a lemon meringue pie which some workmen had brought to lunch with them and suddenly smashed it into Turpin’s face. Turpin laughed good-heartedly and wiped the pie from his face. When Keystone Studios founder Mack Sennett saw the scene in the projection room, pie throwing promptly joined pratfalls and mad chases as staples of Keystone comedies. Indeed, the studio was soon buying so many pies from a nearby grocery store that the owner began to specialize in custard pies. “They were a special kind of pie,” Sennett once recalled. “They were full of a sort of paste and sticky stuff so that when they hit they didn’t splatter too much, but dripped nice and gooey.”

Comedy Films:

The major hallmark of Sennett’s career work was inventive, visual, improvised comedy displayed in short silent films that moved frantically. His early short comedies featured wild slapstick chase finales, visual gags and stunts, and speedy, zany action. The action appeared all the more frantic and frenzied by his use of a filming technique whereby he shot the pictures at a slow camera speed, and then accelerated the frames in the projector during playback. He often cast vaudevillian, burlesque, and circus performers in his films. Those with exaggerated or grotesque looks (obese, cross-eyed, lanky, leering, pop-eyed, etc.) were chosen to add to the unreality of the situations. His most popular pictures involved his bumbling comedy policemen, the Keystone Cops. There would be flying pies, bricks, careening vehicles with people hanging off, crashes, and other dangerous-looking stunts. Cinema’s first custard-pie-in-the-face was in Sennett’s silent film comedy A Noise From the Deep (1913), in which comedian Mabel Normand, a farmgirl threw a pie into the kisser of obese farmhand Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle.

So there we go. Since most anecdotes cite Mabel as being the one to throw the first pie on film, history will generally give the credit to her. (Actually, Mabel deserves credit for a lot of things and doesn’t get it generally, so she’ll probably be pleased to at least have this. I’ll give her a post of her own at some point because she should have one.) Whether the first pie on film hit Roscoe or Turpin, though, is still up for debate. What isn’t up for debate, however, is what happened after this: Mack Sennett realized what a delightfully anarchic gag pie-throwing was and started using it everywhere, usually as the start to his wild chase scenes.

Of course, it took Charlie Chaplin to raise it to the next level. He staged an actual pie fight in Behind The Screen in 1916, which ended up being the first proper pie fight on film:

By the mid-1920s, things got more sophisticated, and so pie jokes started to fall by the wayside, as they were viewed as a cheap way to get a laugh. Except then in 1927 Charlie’s 1916 effort got one-upped – or rather two-upped, since a rising double act managed to go through literally over 4,000 pies in one scene.

Stan and Ollie haven’t fully evolved into the characters we know them as today here, but you get the idea. (I still die every time I see Stan actually charging people to take pies out of the truck and handing them out. He’s adorable.)

This one didn’t get topped until the 1960s, when The Great Race finally pulled it off by doing this.

I can’t think of a major pie fight that’s happened since the one featured in The Great Race, but I’m sure Mack Sennett would love knowing that one of his pet gags has evolved since into a way for sports teams to celebrate great plays and protestors to make statements. It’s still a symbol of wild anarchy, which is just the way Sennett liked it.

Now go eat some pie and do some arithmetic involving circles.