The name "slapstick" originates from the Italian batacchio or bataccio — called the "slap stick" in English — a club-like object composed of two wooden slats used in commedia dell'arte. When struck, the batacchio produces a loud smacking noise, though little force transfers from the object to the person being struck. Actors may thus hit one another repeatedly with great audible effect while causing no damage and only very minor, if any, pain. Along with the inflatable bladder (of which the whoopee cushion is a modern variant), it was among the earliest special effects.
Slapstick comedy's history is measured in centuries. Shakespeare incorporated many chase scenes and beatings into his comedies, such as in his play The Comedy of Errors. In early 19th century England, pantomime acquired its present form which includes slapstick comedy, while comedy routines also featured heavily in British music hall theatre which became popular in the 1850s.
In Punch and Judy shows, which first appeared in England on 9 May 1662, a large slapstick is wielded by Punch against the other characters.
British comedians who honed their skills at pantomime and music hall sketches include Charlie Chaplin, Stan Laurel, George Formby and Dan Leno. The influential English music hall comedian and theatre impresario Fred Karno developed a form of sketch comedy without dialogue in the 1890s, and Chaplin and Laurel were among the young comedians who worked for him as part of "Fred Karno's Army". Chaplin's fifteen year music hall career inspired the comedy in all his later film work, especially as pantomimicry. In his biography Laurel stated, "Fred Karno didn't teach Charlie and me all we know about comedy. He just taught us most of it". American film producer Hal Roach described Fred Karno as "not only a genius, he is the man who originated slapstick comedy. We in Hollywood owe much to him."
Building on its later popularity in the 19th and early 20th-century ethnic routines of the American vaudeville house, the style was explored extensively during the "golden era" of black and white, silent movies directed by figures Mack Sennett and Hal Roach and featuring such notables as Charlie Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy, the Marx Brothers, the Keystone Cops, The Three Stooges, and Chespirito. Slapstick is also common in Disney's Goofy shorts, MGM's Tom and Jerry, Warner Bros. Looney Tunes/Merrie Melodies, MGM's Barney Bear, and Tex Avery's Screwy Squirrel. Silent slapstick comedy was also popular in early French films and included films by Max Linder and Charles Prince.