Joe Mendenhall – Sketch Comedy in Vaudeville and Today

Caleb City’s “The first plant to become a venus fly trap”

Crafton’s Pie and Chase: Gag, Spectacle and Narrative in Slapstick Comedy speaks partly about vaudeville sketch comedy, and how it informs early slapstick films. Crafton remarks that a sketch should not have plot or narrative. Caleb City’s sketch, The first plant to become a venus fly trap, however, serves as a sketch that contains a narrative. The story structure of Caleb City’s sketch is simple, it seeks to explain the origin of the Venus Flytrap. In the sketch we explicitly see the first Venus Flytrap recognize his need to consume flesh, and then realize that need. We can imply from the sketch that the result of the plant’s actions is the birth of the Venus Flytrap. Thus, the sketch provides us with a full narrative story- need, acquisition, and then change. This is seemingly at odds with what is discussed in Pie and Chase. In the essay, Crafton quotes Brett Page who says “The purpose of the sketch is not to  leave a single impression of a single story. It points no morale, draws no conclusion….”[1] It may be important to note here that Page is specifically talking about performed vaudeville sketches, not filmed ones. Crafton himself, however, refers to filmic sketches as “an assembly of nonverbal gags.”[2] And while the Caleb City sketch does contain nonverbal gags, blood pouring from the plants mouth, the use of zoom, the cheap costumes, it also contains definite story structure. The main question proposed by this apparent contradiction is whether or not Crafton’s dissection of early filmic comedy is an appropriate match for contemporary online comedy, which of course is inspired by earlier forms of comedy, but does not necessarily follow the same rules.

[1] (Brett Page’s essay, cited by Crafton) Crafton, Donald. “Pie and Chase: Gag, Spectacle and Narrative in Slapstick Comedy.” In Classical Hollywood Comedy. New York, 1995, pg. 109.

[2] Crafton, Donald. “Pie and Chase: Gag, Spectacle and Narrative in Slapstick Comedy.” In Classical Hollywood Comedy. New York, 1995, pg. 109.

 

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