Context not Required: Vine and Slapstick Shorts (Harriet Pollard)

The modern invention of new short formats for comedy videos means that in many cases the humour of the clip is reliant on a lack of context or real narrative. Vine is the most notable example of this. It creates a new template for comedy – can you present and deliver a successful gag or joke in seven seconds? The appeal of these universal formats is their restrictions. People want to be included in the canon of popular Internet comedy, and the somewhat contradictory challenge then becomes finding a way to make something funny that is unique but also widely relatable.

The Vine format in many ways recalls the humour of early slapstick comedy shorts. In the example I have chosen the humour fits this classic, non-narrative format: The cameraman (“Adam”) ruins his friend’s smoke trick, prompting an outraged, single-word reaction that provides laughs for the viewers. In the clip, barely anything happens – the humour comes from one simple action and its reaction, a reaction that is emphasized by the perfectly timed zoom. This simple, self-contained joke is reminiscent of early slapstick routines, such as the hose gag seen in The Sprinkler Sprinkled (Lumiere Brothers, 1895).

In his chapter Pie and Chase Donald Crafton defines early gag-driven cinema. He argues that in this type of comedic film, narrative takes a backseat and the film simply moves from laugh to laugh. [1] Modern video platforms like Vine and YouTube fit with this description, allowing viewers to advance through an endless supply of short, unconnected videos without the need for context or narrative. I would argue that a lot of funny online videos, including my chosen clip, actually rely on this lack of wider narrative. The engagement and the humour come from the anticipation and eventual payoff of some sort of unexpected disruption or punch line.


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

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