The Rascally Young Boy & The Mischief Gag (Brooke Daley)

In Mischief Gags and the Origins of American Film Comedy, Tom Gunning explores the idea of the ‘mischief gag’.[1] The mischief gag refers to a comedy sequence that was very popular in early film history. The gag involves a ‘rascal’, often a young boy, causing mischief to a victim. A sitcom that heavily relied on a mischievous rascally young boy was Malcolm in the Middle (2000-2006).

Many gags in Malcolm in the Middle can be classified as mischief gags. Gunning believes that there are two phases to the mischief gag. First the preparatory phase where the mischief or prank is set up followed by a second phase where the action takes place. In some gags there might be a counteraction, which would result in punishment for the rascal. The preparatory phase is key to this sort of gag because it wins the audience over to the side of the rascal, not the victim.

The basic structure of the mischief gag is clearly at work in Malcolm in the Middle. In this clip the preparatory is Malcolm changing the time on his father’s alarm clock. This sets up the action and allows the audience to appreciate the gag. The second phase is Hal running around trying to get ready for work as the boys watch him and laugh to themselves. The humour of the gag is reminiscent of slapstick. Hal’s over the top physical comedy is shown as he pours hot coffee on himself. The counteraction in this gag is unusual as Malcolm breaks the fourth wall to justify his actions and allows the audience to anticipate his future punishment. Even though this clip is much more complex than the single shot mischief gag of early films, the humour is the same.

Malcolm in the Middle uses the mischief gag as a basic element of the show. This type of humour is universal because we all have witnessed mischief as children and the mischief gag allows us to experience nostalgia for our youth.

[1] Tom Gunning, “Crazy Machines in the Garden of Forking Paths: Mischief Gags and the Origins of American Film Comedy.” In Classic Hollywood Comedy. (New York: Routledge, 1995) p.89.

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