For National Pie Day: On Pies in the Face

January 23 is National Pie Day, and so I thought I would, rather grudgingly, address a topic that may be of some interest to some classic comedy fans, and one I have sort of danced around in different posts: the pie fight.

It’s the sort of topic one gets asked about, but one I find dreary and even infuriatingly boring. Why? Because it’s a comedy cliche, the sort of thing that signifies the END of something, not an expression of a form that is vital and growing. I happen to love comedy and clowning, and believe those arts have infinite potential. I’d rather see comedians throw a supermarket full of groceries at each other than the one millionth pie. Also, Google it — you will find no shortage of existing articles on the topic, most of them pretty long-winded and many of them missing some fundamentals. So I thought it would be useful to give you something short and sweet, and will help you navigate my existing articles which are related to the topic. Bullet points seem the best way to tell it:

  • To the best of anyone’s knowledge, or at least, according to tradition, the screen’s first pie in the face was in the 1909 Ben Turpin comedy Mr. Flip. “Who did it first?” is just the sort of question that doesn’t interest me in the slightest, because the true answer is probably a caveman. I have little doubt that there were precedents on stage, possibly with the Fred Karno company. But I don’t know what it matters, something as trivial and frankly unknowable as this. To be honest.
  • Mack Sennett had the occasional pie in the face in his comedies, but as with his famous Keystone Kops, far fewer than people assume. Ironically, the best known pie fight associated with Sennett is in the 1935 Vitaphone short Keystone Hotel, which Sennett didn’t produce, but reunites him and many of his old performers. The still above from the film shows Chester Conklin, Hank Mann, and Jimmy Finlayson in action.
  • The most epic pie fight in history is in the 1927 Laurel and Hardy comedy Battle of the Century, which we wrote about here.
  • I’ll confess that I love the pie fights in Three Stooges’ comedies, mostly because it’s far from all they do, and when they do include one, it’s usually a well-constructed sequence, with a plausible initiation, and then a build, taking us to a level of absurdity not unlike L & H’s Battle of the Century. It’s especially rewarding to see rich people in evening clothes become reduced to the indignity of the Stooges who serve them at table.
  • The pie-in-the-face’s greatest mid-century champion was Soupy Sales, who again made it palatable by virtue of the scale of absurdity. When EVERYBODY is getting it from out of nowhere, it becomes something else, something new.
  • In 1977 anti-gay celebrity Anita Bryant was pied in the face by activists and that was pretty glorious!
  • In recent times, the pie fight was revived by our friends at the Brick’s Clown Theatre Festival, and in the Sisters Plotz movies, and we wrote about both of them here.

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