The “New” Sounds of the Slap-of-the-Stick
Termite Terrace (1937-1943) and the Slapstick Tradition

by andres lombana



This thesis argues that slapstick is a mode of comedy that has become a tradition because its basic principles of physical violence and disruption, and its conventions of grotesque movement and of mockery and abuse of the body, have been developed across media, cultures, and eras. Accordingly, this thesis examines the comic routines or lazzi —independent and modular micronarratives— where the slapstick principles and conventions have been formalized, and explores their different reinterpretations: from Commedia dell’ Arte to American Vaudeville to American live-action comedy to American animation. Since sound plays a major role inside the lazzi, the analysis focuses on the sound practices and technologies that have been used across media to produce comic effects.

In addition, this thesis claims that the theatrical animated cartoons —Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies— made at Termite Terrace between 1937 and 1943 embody the slapstick tradition, reinvigorate it, and transform it. The thesis explains the production processes (technologies and practices) that led up to the creation of an energetic audiovisual rhythm and the sophisticated orchestration of all the sound elements (music, voices, sound-effects) in complex soundtracks. Finally, an audiovisual analysis of seven animated shorts reveals a sonic vocabulary for depicting the cartoon body and shows the schizophonic mimesis that takes place when using it. All in all, the study of the Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies of this time period reveals the interplay between convention and innovation that characterizes the slapstick style of Termite Terrace, a style that years later became the trademark of Warner Bros. animation.

Thesis Supervisor: Henry Jenkins.
Thesis Commitee: Stefan Helmreich, Martin Marks.

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Cambridge, Spring-Summer, 2008