The phrase comes from the battacchio—called the 'slap stick' in English—a club-like object composed of two wooden slats used in Commedia dell'arte. When struck, the battacchio produces a loud smacking noise, though little force is transferred from the object to the person being struck. Actors may thus hit one another repeatedly with great audible effect while causing very little actual physical damage. Along with the inflatable bladder (of which the whoopee cushion is a modern variant), it was among the earliest forms of special effects that could be carried on one's person.
In recent times, some have criticized representations of violence in a belief that they encourage actual violence, a claim supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics. Slapstick comedy has not escaped negative attention, though its lengthy presence in performance history and obviously fictitious nature usually protects it from efforts meant to censor video games and action films. Slapstick continues to maintain a presence in modern comedy that draws upon its lineage, running in film from Buster Keaton to Mel Brooks to the Farrelly Brothers, and in live performance from Weber & Fields to Jackie Gleason to Rowan Atkinson.
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