Ladies and gentleman, I have uncovered one of the great secrets of that dark and twisted world we know as comedy. Lengthy treatises have been written on just what makes people laugh, and entire tomes are devoted to the debate over whether high-brow or low-brow humor is funnier. The answer to the latter is both, obviously, but for my money, nothing makes me laugh so instinctively and delightedly as a well-executed pratfall.
What makes a pratfall well-executed, you may ask. (As I hope you might, since this is the great secret I promised to share with you. If you did not ask, then you probably already know the secret but shh, don’t ruin it for the rest of the class.) I’m glad you asked! A pratfall can take many forms, but its basic definition is someone taking a fall in a way that makes people laugh. Someone falling down the stairs in a Lifetime movie = not funny. Someone falling down the stairs in a Three Stooges movie = funny. You hear “pratfall,” you think “banana peel.”
And that’s funny, of course it is. People falling down is inherently funny. I don’t know if it appeals to me so much because my natural grace and style manifests in tripping over invisible objects and walking into doorframes, but I love it when a casual conversation or stroll down the street on stage or in film is interrupted by a sudden slip-n-slide. Much of the humor comes from the unexpectedness of the fall (at least unexpected to the person falling), but even when we in the audience know it’s coming, we love watching the norm literally upended.
Which brings me to Chevy Chase, whose weekly (and therefore very expected) cold open pratfalls on SNL elevated the act to a whole new level. His genius? He never stopped falling down. He didn’t just trip and land on his butt. He tripped, windmilled his arms, fell on his knees, reached wildly for support from whatever was handy, took down an entire bookshelf in the process, and landed on his butt. He could fall from any height and still find something to destroy on his way down, all with the most dignified look on his face, like, “I am not falling, I am momentarily off-balance.” The dignified look is part of it; he was playing straight man to the funny man of the fall, almost making the few moments of falling into a double act starring himself and gravity.
This insight struck me as I was watching Season 1 of “Community,” in which Chevy gets to perform a couple of his patented Neverending Pratfalls(TM). He trips over an instrument in a band room, and sure enough, the entire jazz combo setup comes crashing down in a glorious rain of cymbals and drums. He trips in a dorm room with a giant bowl of popcorn in his hands, and next thing you know, he’s grasping at the door handle, the desk, anything, while popcorn rains down on him and his friends laugh hysterically. He’s still got it!
SNL and NBC in general keep a tight grip on their video content, so I was unable to find either of those “Community” clips online or some of Chevy’s more classic how-are-you-still-falling moments from the ’70s. But this clip below is still excellent, with a festive fall as performed by Gerald Ford. (For the young kids in the audience, President Ford was portrayed in the media as clumsy and kinda dim, and Chase regularly played Ford as a bumbling buffoon on SNL. This clip is no exception; we don’t get the fall til the end of the 2:30 minute video, but all the record playing and tree trimming before it is wonderful to see as set-up.)