The act of throwing a pie in someone’s face has become a comedy classic, along the same silly lines as slipping on a banana peel. Some unfortunate person gets a pie thrown directly in their face and is left to wipe away the remnants. Whether it is due to the surprise of the attack, the recipient’s reaction, or the seeming innocence of it all, people find it hilarious.
From movies and TV shows to political protests and charity events, pie-throwing is everywhere. Where did this comedic act come from, and how has it changed over time? To find the answer, we’ll have to take a look at a slice of early Hollywood history.
The birth of a classic
The origins of the ‘pie in the face’ gag likely came from the stage as part of Vaudeville shows. In 1909, the first pie gag appeared onscreen. The silent film Mr. Flip depicted a man, played by Ben Turpin, bothering various women until he is finally stopped when a pie is pushed into his face. There is some debate about whether the act was truly a pie-throwing and no copies of the film are known to exist.
In 1912, Mack Sennett founded Keystone Studios. The following year, Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle and Mabel Normand threw the first pies in a Keystone film. The trope quickly became a staple of the studio. In fact, so many pies were used that they required their own bakery.
Across the street from the studio was the answer. Sarah Brener owned a store that would provide pies for the studio. Keystone ordered so many desserts that the studio eventually became her main customer. The pies from Brener’s shop were apparently delicious, and according to Charlie Chaplin, they were the best in town. Perhaps having a pie thrown in your face isn’t so bad after all.
‘A mother never gets hit with a custard pie’
The pies used for these films were preferably custard pies, mainly for their appropriate messiness. The topping was also specific to the person getting hit with the pie. For someone wearing dark clothes, whipped cream might be chosen. For someone in a lighter outfit, a chocolate or another dark topping was added. This was all done to better illustrate the chaos on screen.
As innocent as the act was, Sennett created rules on who could, and couldn’t, get hit with a pie. Since the person getting hit was being humiliated and was seen as the antagonist, he set the rule that “a mother never gets hit with a custard pie… Mothers-in-law, yes. But mothers? Never.”
Sometimes more is better
If seeing one person being hit with a pie is funny, then seeing many people being hit with many pies must be downright hilarious, right?
This seemed to be the thought pattern of Hollywood writers and directors as pie-throwing scenes turned into all-out pie battles. The first such battle was shown in the 1916 Charlie Chaplin film, Behind the Screen.
In 1927, the largest pie battle yet was shown in the Laurel and Hardy film, The Battle of the Century. Before filming, Stan Laurel said “if we make a pie picture–let’s make a pie picture to end all pie pictures. Let’s give them so many pies that there will never be room for any more pie pictures in the whole history of the movies.”
The comedic duo did just that. Before the scene was shot, the studio purchased custard, banana, blueberry, cherry, coconut, raspberry, and lemon cream pies from the Los Angeles Pie Company. The total came to 4,000 pies.
$18,000 pastry bill
Despite making a “pie picture to end all pie pictures,” the pie battle scenes showed no signs of stopping. Comedy films weren’t complete without the odd pie flying through the air.
The Great Race, released in 1965, showed another of the great pie battles. With a budget of $200,000 for the pie fight scene, including a pastry bill of $18,000, the scene took five days to shoot. It used over 1,000 pies and one comically large cake.
For all this work, the pie fight takes up four minutes and twenty seconds of the movie.
Pie throwing off-screen
Off-screen, pie-throwing seems to be just as funny and humiliating as Hollywood has led us to believe. In addition to having words thrown at them, politicians and other public figures have become the target of these flying pastries.
In a more entertaining way, pie throwing has become a staple for charity fundraisers and local fairs.
The future of pie-throwing
Since 1909, the ‘pie in the face’ trope has been used in countless movies and television shows. From The Three Stooges to Bugs Bunny, no one is safe from the flying pastry. For some, it’s a hilarious act, while for others, it couldn’t be any less funny. But no matter what you think about the stunt, it doesn’t look like pie-throwing is going anywhere, anytime soon.