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What does it take to be a 21st century slapstick comedian? We talk to Jon Bittman of Släpstick at Home, Manchester

Home » People » What does it take to be a slapstick comedian? We talk to Jon Bittman of Släpstick

Prepare for flying violins and speed skating ballerinos as Netherlands’ comics Släpstick bring their unique mix of virtuoso live music and energetic physical comedy to Home, Manchester.
Winners of the 2017 Edinburgh Spirit of the Fringe Award, Släpstick are an ode to the timeless comedy of Charlie Chaplin, Marx Brothers, Spike Jones and Laurel & Hardy – with a very modern twist.
We caught up with New Jersey saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist, Jon Bittman, one of the five world-class performers in the show, who have mastered more than 100 instruments between them.


Can you tell us about the show?

Släpstick is indeed a series of musical (as in “with music”, not “Musical”) sketches, with a loose to non-existent narrative. There are plenty of recurring characters and themes, and a general 1920’s/1930’s fairground feel to the whole thing.

What do you think is the timeless appeal of slapstick comedy?

I suppose the fact that many of the great slapstick acts are textless makes them instantly relatable to all, since language barriers are irrelevant. It’s also truly a craft – the greats worked on their timing and precision the way a concert pianist practices scales, or a world class athlete prepares for a competition. That level of dedication is universally appreciated. That, and a man with a tiny moustache, falling off a ladder, will never not be funny. That’s just a fact.

How do you become a slapstick comic?

If you’re like us, then you were always the one at the music school trying to balance a trombone on his chin while your peers were diligently studying their etudes. I suppose it’s a natural progression. If you have that innate silliness, the diligence to work on your craft in great detail, and the willingness to fling your body around the stage, you’re well on your way.

How does Släpstick fit with the history of clowning? Do you consider yourself to be a clown?

Two branches of the same tree, I guess? Or maybe a square and rectangle kind of thing? All slapstick artists are clowns, but not all clowns are not slapstick artists? The Swiss clown, Grok is a great example of a clown and slapstick artist in one. I don’t know if we consider ourselves to be clowns, but we use a lot of elements from clowning in our acts.


How long did it take you to learn to fall over convincingly without getting hurt?

Oh, we still get hurt! But it’s all about damage control. I’m not sure how long it took us, but we were coached by several different people from various disciplines: clowning, acrobats, dancers and stuntmen.

What makes you laugh?

Everything, just about. YouTube Cat Videos. Buster Keaton falling down a hillside. South Park. Pretentious classical musicians. The A-Team and Chuck Norris movies. The way Charlie Chaplin’s eyebrows take over an entire scene. Monty Python. Kenny G album covers from the 80’s. Groucho Marx seducing a rich blonde, etc. etc…

Which slapstick comedians inspire you?

The Marx Brothers were my father’s favourite and will always have a place on the slapstick pedestal for me. Obviously, Charlie Chaplin. His craftsmanship is second to none, an absolute master of timing and physicality, and a brilliant musician as well. Buster Keaton has to be up there too, for his moxie and absolute daring! The man must have been completely fearless!

If you could ask your hero any question about his work, what would it be?

I think I’d ask Buster Keaton how many bones he’s broken over the course of his career!


What is your favourite ever slapstick sketch?

I’d have to say it’d be the scene from the Marx Brother’s “A Night At The Opera”, where Chico Marx is playing the piano for a small crowd of children. What he’s playing is absurdly virtuosic, yet he still manages to throw in his little finger gags, silly subtle movements, and make faces at the kids. It’s perhaps a bit less “slapstick-y” than Buster Keaton jumping off the roof, or Charlie Chaplin getting tossed through the giant gears of the factory in Modern times, but it captures golden combination of silly and melancholy that makes slapstick so endearing.

Have you incorporated any of this routine into the show?

Not that one, no. If we had to incorporate something from every slapstick scene we love, the show would be about 10 hours long!

What can audiences expect from the show? Is there any audience interaction?

They can expect first and foremost top-class musicianship. Music is our background after all, and as clown-esque as we may be, the music is always at the forefront! Otherwise they’ll get a rowdy and raucous night, filled with lots of gags, nostalgia, mild stuntman-ship and original and exciting music! And yes, there’s lots of audience participation – prizes to be won, ladies to be romanced, and glory to be had! And no, you’re not safe even all the way in the last row!

Is your show suitable for all ages?

Absolutely! The gags range from erudite classical music references, to trouser-dropping, violin throwing silliness, and everything in between. There really is something for everyone here, and I don’t say that flippantly! The music genres cover everything from Balkan to Jazz to Classical to Rock to Prince to Michael Jackson to Peruvian Folk and back. There is physical humour, subtle nuances, and even some touching moments. Hope to see you there, people of Manchester!

Släpstick is at HOME from 13- 22 December 2018 visit homemcr.org for details.

Visit Jon’s website to find out more about his work. 

Släpstick is a perfect blend of dazzling musicianship, lung-bursting physical comedy and heartfelt nostalgia in the true ‘slapstick’ tradition.
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Written by
Carmel Thomason
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Avatar photo Written by Carmel Thomason