The word farce derives from old French, meaning ‘stuff’ or ‘stuffing’ and may have originated in the comic interludes of medieval French religious plays serving as light-hearted stuffing in between more serious drama. Historically, the term meant a literary or artistic production of little merit.
Farce is a type of comedy that uses absurd and highly improbable events in the plot. Situations are humorous because of their ludicrous and often ridiculous nature. The choice of setting is a key factor in farce, as the protagonist is sometimes at odds with the environment. Often the central character in a farce does not (or should not) belong in the place of the action. The audience will only accept the situation if they follow the conventions previously established. But characters in a farce can also quite logically belong in the setting they are placed in.
Examples of farce can be found in the ancient Greek comedies of Aristophanes, the plays of Shakespeare and the operettas of Gilbert and Sullivan. Farce in film includes the works of Charlie Chaplin, Keystone Cops and the Marx Brothers. On television, the best examples of farce surround British actor John Cleese. Ridiculous situations abound in the 1970’s television series Monty Python’s Flying Circus and later in the wonderful, but short-lived series Fawlty Towers. There are also several Monty Python films that are excellent examples of farce. Few actors possess the ability to create pure farce better than Cleese.
It is important to note that farce is both a verbal and physical humour, using deliberate character exaggeration by the actor. The Marx Brothers were renowned for using their bodies in such a way as to exaggerate the situation, thus making it even more farcical. Whether it was using on-screen props or simply their arms and legs, this famous team made farce a very physical form of comedy. Similarly, John Cleese also uses his body to extraordinary effect. By nature a very tall man, Cleese manipulates his body to create silly walks by simply extending his legs outward and exaggerating his movements for extreme comic effect.