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In Your Face: The History of Pie Throwing in Comedy

Photo Credit: David Levenson / Getty Images
Photo Credit: David Levenson / Getty Images

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.

Three actors, portraying chefs, prepare to throw pies in a 1947 movie still.
Three actors prepare to throw pies in a still from ‘The Perils of Pauline,‘ 1947. (Photo Credit: Paramount Pictures / Getty Images)

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.   

Stan Laurel, wearing a dress, looks at Oliver Hardy and another actor covered with pie in a movie still.
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy covered with pie in a movie still. (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Getty Images)

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

Poster for the 1927 film, The Battle of the Century, depicting a woman preparing to throw a pie at Oliver Hardy.
Poster from the 1927 film The Battle of the Century. (Photo Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

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. 

Photo showing Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy preparing to throw pies at each other as other cast members look on.
Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy throwing pies at each other in a scene from the short film ‘Their Purple Moment‘, 1928. (Photo Credit: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer / Getty Images)

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

A Nixon supporter receives a pie in the face,
Tybie Paul shoves a banana cream pie into the face of Georgiana Walker at the corner of Hollywood and Vine. Miss Walker holds a sign that reads “I Voted For Nixon.” (Photo Credit: Bettmann / Contributor / Getty Images)

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

John Belushi pushes a pie into Bull Murray's face in a skit, satirizing the assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald, on Saturday Night Live. The scene is depicted in the same way as the real assassination.
Pie throwing as satire. John Belushi ‘assassinates’ Lee Harvey Oswald, played by Bill Murray, with a pie in a Saturday Night Live skit. (Photo Credit: Owen Franken / Getty Images)

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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. 

Ryan McLachlan

Ryan McLachlan is a historian and content writer for Hive Media. He received his Bachelor of Arts in History and Classical Studies and his Master of Arts in History from the University of Western Ontario. Ryan’s research focused on military history, and he is particularly interested in the conflicts fought by the United Kingdom from the Napoleonic Wars to the Falklands War.

Ryan’s other historical interests include naval and maritime history, the history of aviation, the British Empire, and the British Monarchy. He is also interested in the lives of Sir Winston Churchill and Admiral Lord Nelson. Ryan enjoys teaching, reading, writing, and sharing history with anyone who will listen.

In his spare time, he enjoys watching period dramas such as Murdoch Mysteries and Ripper Street and also enjoys reading classical literature and Shakespeare. He also plays football and is an afternoon tea connoisseur.