Philadelphia Secret Admirer, September 2018
By Reecy Pontiff
No matter how you throw it, an explosion of custard and whipped cream stimulates something deeply embedded in the American psyche. From Charlie Chaplin to political activism, the impact of the pie in the face on our culture is undeniable.
This gag likely made its first splash on the vaudeville stage around the turn of the last century, though it’s hard to pin down its exact time and date of birth. From vaudeville the pie probably flew into silent films and then the circus; performers often moved seamlessly between the three.
“A dancing pig, acrobatic performers, or women disrobing on a trapeze would be taken straight from vaudeville and recorded,” says Dr. Maggie Hennefeld, author of Specters of Slapstick and Silent Film Comediennes. “If you couldn’t make it to the vaudeville theater, maybe you could catch a recording of the show at the fairgrounds or the community club.”
Before the big arenas were built, circuses generally toured from spring through late fall. The cast took on other jobs in the off-season, which could include vaudeville shows, says Dr. David Carlyon, a circus historian and former professional clown. In many instances these performances were “straight-up circus acts” like a strong-man or contortionist, presented as “variety” in a vaudeville show. Vaudevillians like Charlie Chaplin were featured in early films—the medium that gave us most of the famous pies we know.
Though eventually a staple of the silver screen, the first-known cinematic pie transpired in a 1909 slapstick silent short called Mr. Flip, according to Hennefeld.
This film is in a common sub-genre of its time, wherein a man sexually harasses women and is rebuked with mild acts of violence, like an umbrella over the head, a face full of beer, or a slop bucket over the head, she says.
Hennefeld believes that part of the popularity of pie in film has to do with aesthetics. “As much as shoe polish is an archetypal racist gag, the pie-in-the-face is sort of an innocuous version of that… especially in black and white cinema,” she says. “There’s something inherently comical that just registers well visually about the pie.”
Because a pie has a limited delivery distance—best done from less than eight feet in Carlyon’s professional opinion—he believes the pie is better on-screen than in person.
“In movies it works really well because you can make the cuts,” he says. “You can have somebody standing there being pompous, say, a clown/historian who’s prattling on about all sorts of things… and suddenly SMACK! The pie! That would be funny.”
The pie gag would be refined over the years—there’s no fanfare or anticipation to Mr. Flip’s pie, and the lecherous recipient isn’t even facing the camera for the money shot.
Over-the-top pie fights flew from the films of Charlie Chaplin, the Little Rascals and the Three Stooges. The Oxford Companion to Food mentions a special, ballistic custard pie that was created just for Fatty Arbuckle’s films. Laurel And Hardy’s The Battle of the Century gives us a legendary pie fight in which over 3,000 pies fly through an epic street battle.
In the 50s and 60s, sketch comedy host Soupy Sales built an entire career on 20,000 televised pies slapped in the face of greats like Frank Sinatra and Jerry Lewis.
After the jump to color film, Tony Curtis shared the screen with Natalie Wood and 4,000 custard pies of Technicolor fuscia, purple and royal blue, according to the Warner Film Archive. The trope is twisted when a man falls into a giant cake, from the likes of which one might expect a stripper to emerge.
In the 70s, Mel Brooks paid homage to the pie fights of yore in Blazing Saddles, and Monty Python wrote an entire skit around the mechanics of the gag. More recently, Noel Fielding donned a pie-decked face for his interpretation of the Man in the Moon on the surrealist musical comedy show The Mighty Boosh.
So what is it about the pie that sticks with us?
“I think it’s very ingrained in American national identity: the joyful spectacle of waste and harmless violence,” Hennefeld says.
“When people are going hungry, there’s the comfort of hoping that at some level, we have so much that we can waste food,” she says, citing the abundance of pie gags in films during the Great Depression. “We see where that food-waste mentality has gone.”
In that vein, most of the pies seen live in the past hundred years are likely made of shaving foam. It’s easier to clean off of costumes, and more importantly in times of economic hardship, does not waste food.
“In the 19th century, you’re not going to waste food—food was not abundant, people were skinny,” says Carlyon. People may have thrown rotten food like eggs and tomatoes, “but a pie that somebody has gone to the trouble of baking?” He finds that to be unlikely.
The pie in the face likely jumped to the circus from silent film.
“At the core, the clown is the anarchic impulse, doing and saying what people know they are not supposed to do or say. That’s the clown’s job,” says Carlyon, who clowned for Ringling Bros. in the 1970s. “The pie in the face is the perfect example of that: it’s mess, it’s food, it’s inappropriate, it upsets people.”
During the Vietnam War, the pie oozed into a different circus: politics. The first documented pie of its kind was thrown in the face of Otto Larson, Chairman of the President’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography in 1970. The activist pie-er was Tom Forcade, founder of popular pot periodical High Times.
Forcade’s friend Aron Kay took the tin and ran with it, successfully pieing a dozen notable political figures, often in front of the press for maximum impact. Kay was a member of the far-left Youth International Party, aka the Yippies (think Abbie Hoffman), and styles himself as a “Jewish, anarchist road warrior.”
“I call it committing an assassination without a bullet, in the grand tradition of the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges,” Kay says. “It brought attention to the issues.”
Kay pied figures from both sides of the aisle, including conservative writer William F. Buckley, Democratic candidates, Watergate conspirators, a retired head of the CIA, and even Andy Warhol after his dinner with the Shah of Iran.
Kay considered the flavor used when time allowed. For “father of the hydrogen bomb” Edward Teller, Kay chucked a tofu pie. For NYC mayoral candidate Abraham Beame, it was “apple crumb, because he was the Big Crumb in the Big Apple.” After Democratic Senator Pat Moynihan released a report suggesting that African-Americans continued the cycle of poverty through the dysfunction of their families, he threw a mocha crème, because the senator “needed a change of complexion for his then-racist attitudes.”
The political pie has continued across the Western world. Ralph Nader and Rupert Murdoch were both targets. Pundit Ann Coulter narrowly escaped a face full of meringue from a group called al-Pieda. Internationally, the Scandinavians, French and Canadians have all taken to the “pastry uprising.”
The San Francisco Biotic Baking Brigade (BBB) famously nailed Microsoft founder Bill Gates, the sitting mayor, and the CEOs of Monsanto and Chevron in the late 90s.
“Wealth has perverted our political process and our society. The media has failed to do its job and we’re forced to resort to these tactics to have any voice whatever on these critical issues,” a BBB member called Agent Warcry said on a call-in show. “This is the first thing that’s eased my sense of despair at the futility of social activism, which is so often just dismissed and ignored.”
“Pieing is still happening,” says Aron Kay. “Did you hear about these clowns [in the Trump administration] going to restaurants and getting called out? That’s akin to a pie. Because you can’t touch them with a pie, but you can tell ‘em off.”
In more innocuous incidents, a victory pie became popular in major league baseball in the early 2000s.
Yankees player AJ Burnett is widely credited for triggering the tradition, but his tactic of pushing a towel full of shaving cream into a smiling face is more bro than sideshow. The Baltimore Orioles did it with proper pastries, pieing each other with such regularity that a bakery sponsor began to supply them with ammunition.
The recent popularity of the family game Pie Face may spur from a shot at fifteen seconds of fame. Essentially Russian Roulette with a large dollop of whipped cream, the game was originally created in the 1960s. Later it was revived due to its viral video potential as a game that sells itself, according to Sarah Halzack in her poignant Washington Post piece “What Hasbro’s Pie Face signals about the future of fun.”
“Its mega-popularity has helped fuel a flurry of action from toymakers to create games that offer a ‘shareable moment’ —a brief visual morsel” that can be posted to social media, she continued. “It’s a new breed of toy that can’t just be fun for players in real time. It has to be demonstrative. Performative, even.”
And so it’s come full circle. Americans love to be part of the show. Anyone can be Charlie Chaplin, their favorite MVP, or get pied just like the 1%. The pie looks good on everyone. The pie brings us together. The pie is American as American can be.