Earlier, I posted some thoughts on how pie fights and saloon brawls start. But why do they start? To anybody reading this right now: have you ever in your life witnessed a saloon brawl or pie fight in real life? They are so common in movies, I expect future civilizations to think we have them all the time.
I’m less interested in saloon fights as pie fights for this subject. Pie fights get put in movies because they are thought to be funny. I know of no other use for the pie fight than to induce laughter. But are pie fights really funny?
Let’s take our old friends Guy #1 and Guy #2. Imagine, if you will, Guy #1 taking a nice lemon custard pie and smashing it in the face of Guy #2. I’ll wager most of you are not doubling over laughing right now. But conventional wisdom suggests that I just described something utterly hilarious, so what’s wrong with your sense of humor?
Okay, so we all know that analyzing humor, as I am doing now, kills the joke. But come on, surely you agree with me, right? Guy #1 hitting Guy #2 with a pie isn’t funny. Perhaps, however, the humor of the pie fight depends upon escalation. Escalation is an important part of comedy: you start with something small, which snowballs slowly and then more quickly into something bigger. This exact pattern can be seen in comedies of all sorts. Whether it’s Laurel and Hardy taking turns getting back at each other until they finally destroy a house in Big Business, a few missed cues and mild rivalries culminating in chaos and war in Noises Off, a mishap with a zipper culminating in mass humiliation in There’s Something About Mary, or one travel misfortune leading to an avalanche of them in Planes, Trains, and Automobiles, the structure is all the same. In Groundhog Day, we spent a lot of time with that first repetition, but eventually whole cycles are reduced to single hilarious shots. In Bringing Up Baby, Cary Grant’s life goes just a little haywire when he runs across Katharine Hepburn, but by the end it’s gone racing off the rails. Comedy as different as the Coens and the Three Stooges follows this same pattern.
It’s not the only pattern, but it’s certainly the one the pie fight uses. Guy #1 hits Guy #2 with a pie. Then Guy #3 is roped in, Guy #4 is a jerk, and suddenly everybody is in a mad, tasty frenzy.
The problem is, comic escalation doesn’t work if the initial conflict isn’t funny. In every single one of the examples I named above, the sequences are funny because the very first incident is funny on its own. If Guy #1 hitting Guy #2 with a pie isn’t funny, the mass hysteria isn’t funny either, just ridiculous.
Why, then, are pie fights so common? Well, maybe they’re not anymore, but they’re common enough to be familiar to us all. I think the reason is that they are a great setting for comedy. The pie fights that fail are the ones that mistake the pie fight for the comedy instead of the framework to hang comedy upon. Comedy is very delicate and needs just the right environment to survive. As so much of comedy is chaos and ridiculousness, what better environment for comedy than the chaos and ridiculousness of a pie fight? (An aside: Comedy also thrives in counterpoint; for example, chaos and ridiculousness occurring within an excessively orderly and sensible environment.)
Let’s go back to our initial unfunny scenario: Guy #1 hits Guy #2 with a pie. That’s chaos but not comedy — so how can we put some comedy into it?
I saw a game show in England once. It was the kind of show where a contestant would come on and be given some challenge to perform. This one guy was told that two mystery people would be brought in from backstage, and if he took a pie and hit one of them in the face, he would win some money. The first person was brought on. It was his wife. Did he want to hit his wife in the face with the pie? He shook his head, and so the host brought in the second mystery guest. It was his boss.
Now his wife and his boss are standing in front of him, and the host is saying he can pick one of them to hit in the face with a pie, or he can walk away without the cash prize. What does he do?
This is already funny, and nobody’s even been hit yet. Ok, we can argue about how funny, and we can bemoan the lack of sophistication. But it is comedy. The audience is oooing at the guy’s predicament and the potential consequences of his actions. There is a comic tension, formed by the anticipation of what the guy might do.
The guy mulls it over for a moment, then mashes the pie into his boss’ face. The audience laughs. Why? Not, I posit, because a guy got a pie in the face, but because his boss got a pie in the face. (Loss of dignity is a form of comedy.) They are laughing because he threw a pie in his boss’ face. (Turned tables is a form of comedy.) They are laughing because the thought of hitting his boss in the face with a pie was less scary to him than the thought of hitting his wife in the face with a pie. (Marital disharmony is a form of comedy.)
See what I mean? That simple scenario breaks down into three distinct forms of comedy — none of which are actually about pies.
But let’s return to the all-out pie fight, where you have a whole room full of guys and pies and total chaos. Again, the pie fight itself is not funny, but many movies mistake it as being funny. They include a pie fight, and you get the vague sense that you should be laughing, but you’re not.
But there are great pie fight scenes in the movies, which is presumably how the pie fight became popular enough to become a cliche in the first place. One of the best examples I can give you is the wonderful Blake Edwards film The Great Race (1965). This is the perfect example for this post, because not only does it contain a pie fight, it contains a saloon brawl as well. If you see the movie, you’ll know why: it’s a mass parody of pulp adventure serials and would be horribly incomplete without them. Its pie fight works because it knows the fight itself isn’t funny. What’s funny are the numerous jokes set within that environment. One (of many) is that the hero, who is dressed all in white and has (literally) gleaming teeth and eyes can casually mosey through the surrounding chaos and not get hit — because he’s simply too good and glamorous and suave and cool for pies to hit him.
The joke mirrors the way the saloon fight, earlier in the film, is made to work. As the throng of cowboys beat each other up and throw each other across the room into tables and mirrors, Natalie Wood, the purdy lady, can walk nonchalantly through the chaos. The men will cease their brawling just long enough to tip their hats and let the li’l lady pass. Once again, the fight is not the point: it’s what happens within the fight that counts.
So far, I’ve just been talking about comedy, but modern action directors could learn a lesson here. Car chases and explosions are not in and of themselves exciting or suspenseful. But if, in the environment of car chases and exploding things, characters we care about are in peril, well, now you’ve got something.