Physical comedy as we know it today traces to the commedia dell’arte in Seventeenth-Century Italy. These were the guys with the big masks playing stock characters. One of their chief contributions to physical comedy was inventing the slapstick, essentially a two-by-four with a shorter two-by-four attached by a hinge, which allowed you to hit somebody lightly but create a sound as if you’d hit somebody very hard, an early special effect.
They also established four principles of physical comedy that have been further developed and refined from film’s early masters like the Three Stooges and Buster Keaton to modern geniuses like David Hyde Pierce and Julia Louis-Dreyfus. On Opening Day this year, all four of these principles were executed to perfection by the greatest comedy duo working in baseball today, Matt Brash and José Ramírez.
Comedy relies on timing, on building tension and then releasing it. Physical comedy is just a bigger version of this, where the release becomes more literal. Here, we see a tie game in the late innings. Any pitch could be a lead-changing, potentially game-winning moment, and on Opening Day, no less, a game people have waited for months to watch, expectations building and building. Unsatisfied with that, Matt Brash and José Ramírez decide to work a full count, maximizing the tension to what is literally called “the payoff pitch.” Falling down on a 2-1 count simply does not have the same impact. There has to be finality to it, a release of all that anticipation.
And Ramírez executes the fall brilliantly. It doesn’t happen right away. There’s a delay, as his feet turn in a direction that his ankles can’t support. It allows us that split second where he doesn’t know what’s happening, but we do. Somebody who already knows how this moment ends doesn’t reach out to grip where there’s nothing there. Perfection.
Subversion of expectations
The best physical comedy comes as a surprise. Verbal comedy often has a cadence to it, a rhythm, which allows you to know that once there’s a setup, you’re about to get a punchline. Usually, physical comedy doesn’t work like this. You don’t realize that the setup is even a setup.
Here, we see this manifested in the batter’s identity. As Dave Sims put it on the broadcast, “That’s not some dude off the street—that’s José Ramírez.” Last year, he ranked in the 94th percentile in whiff rate. The same the year before. From 2016 to 2019, he was in the 95th percentile every year. He has perhaps the most bat control of any player in baseball, which is what allowed him to transform into a power hitter, changing his swing to hit the ball in the air and pull the ball with alarming consistency. And from both sides of the plate, no less.
You may be thinking, well sure, but it was Matt Brash, a Pitching Ninja darling. Well, even for Matt Brash, this pitch was exceptional. The spin on that slider clocked in at 3130, the eighth highest out of 363 sliders Matt Brash has thrown in his career. And this is from a guy whose average slider is elite.
Here’s where that pitch was about halfway to the plate.
And now here’s where it ends up over the plate.
Joey Gallo might have embarrassing swings from time to time, but it took something special from Matt Brash to get José Ramírez to do a pratfall.
It’s no wonder that after Brash’s offseason work, Chris Langin said, “I think you could pretty realistically say his slider is maybe the best pitch in terms of pitch movement and velocity in major league history.” To paraphrase Dave Sims, that quote’s not from some dude off the street—that’s from Driveline’s Director of Pitching. It’s scary to think Matt Brash might be getting better.
One of Britain’s great physical comedians, Fawlty Towers and Monty Python alum John Cleese says that when it comes to physical comedy, “The minute you hold back, it’s disaster.”
Physical comedy, and slapstick in particular, allows us to laugh at someone else’s injury without the guilt of someone actually getting hurt. But the execution has to be believable. The embarrassment must be total. José Ramírez knows this. His legs must go all the way out. He can’t catch himself. Like a pro, JRam commits, and allows himself to tumble all the way to the ground, a model pratfall, literally falling to his prat.
Action and reaction
Any good physical comedian will tell you that the laugh comes not from the action, but from the reaction. It’s not the stooge’s antics, it’s the straight man’s reaction that sends audiences into an uproar. José Ramírez falling down is great, but it’s our hero, Matt Brash, with the killshot. Watch him strut off the mound.
Now, I want to make one thing perfectly clear: Matt Brash saw what was happening.
But this is not a man who gives one solitary fudge. Some might call 911 to get José Ramírez a doctor, but Matt Brash called 811 ‘cause he was about to dig a hole. Call him Captain Slapstick. I haven’t decided yet whether every player featured in this column will get a Sun Hat Award, but you better believe Matt Brash gets one for this.
And there’s even a button from one of modern comedy’s most underrated supporting players, the person I want you to pay attention to: home plate umpire Mark Carlson.
He’s staring right in the face at one of the most embarrassing moments in the career of a future Hall of Famer. And what does he do next?
That’s the good stuff. That fist clench to signal that Ramírez was out: so unnecessary, and yet I can’t imagine this moment without it. Buster Keaton could never.