If you know Kaitlin Olson at all, you know her as barmaid and failed actress Dee Reynolds in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the best show on television. The only comedy actress on television in the same league as Kaitlin Olson is Julia Louis-Dreyfus of Seinfeld and Veep, and in a better world, their rivalry would be the Emmy story of the past six years. We’d all hold our breaths right as they announce who’s won Outstanding Lead Actress in a Comedy Series – is this Julia’s year or Kaitlin’s? Everyone would politely clap for Lena Dunham and Edie Falco and the other nominees, but we’d know it came down to Julia or Kaitlin, and if anyone else won, it would be the biggest upset of the night, like when Jeff Daniels won Outstanding Lead Actor in a Drama Series for The Newsroom, a show that I like way more than the average person and which I would definitely never give an Emmy for anything.

Instead, we’ve had five years of Julia Louis-Dreyfus waltzing away with the award because her one true rival wasn’t there to challenge her.

I’m not the first person to despair of the lack of recognition Kaitlin Olson has received for her brilliance. Her performance as Dee Reynolds is an all-timer, one of the most complex characters on television. She plays hideously vulnerable in one scene, like her stand-up set in “Dennis Reynolds: An Erotic Life”, but in the swing of a scheme or a self-improvement plan, she’s just as blithely overconfident as the rest of the Gang, like when she and Dennis attend a spin class in “Sweet Dee Has a Heart Attack”. Dee is possibly the best fictional representation of that strange feature of human life where people are simultaneous egomaniacs and puddles of insecurity. More than any of the other main characters, Dee works as a character on the strength of her actor’s performance, which is all the more incredible because Kaitlin Olson is the only member of the original cast who’s not part of the show’s creative staff. Rob McElhenney, Glenn Howerton and Charlie Day all write and produce the show, and so get three times the opportunity to craft their characters, while Kaitlin Olson does it all with her acting, in scenes like this one from “The Gang Gets Analyzed”:

Kaitlin Olson is also one of the finest physical comedians of her generation. She wields her long limbs like Mary Tyler Moore and squirms like Molly Shannon. But there’s a curious trend in profiles of Kaitlin Olson to praise her as a physical comedian in a way that glides over so much of what makes her exceptional. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is also a great physical comedian (as noted in many Kaitlin Olson profiles, for some reason), but physical comedy is a broad tent. Both Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Kaitlin Olson are masters of physical comedy. They know how to use both the broad gesture and the subtle twitch of body language to get a laugh. They know on some base level of pure instinct how a person can move around an environment in relation to other actors and the camera in a way that just makes us crack up for no logical reason. Just watch Kaitlin Olson dance with a wacky waving inflatable arm-flailing tube man, or the way Julia Louis-Dreyfus moves through a rant. But what Kaitlin Olson does and Julia Louis-Dreyfus doesn’t, what almost no other actor on television or in film does anymore, is pure slapstick at a level that honours great masters of the form.

Slapstick just doesn’t get the respect it used to, which is shocking for an art form that dates back to the dawn of professional theatre in the 16th century. It persisted up through the development of pantomime, musical hall and vaudeville, where it entered film via icons of early cinema like Fatty Arbuckle, Harold Lloyd, the Marx Brothers and the Three Stooges, and later television through the likes of Jackie Gleason and Monty Python. Some of the fade in slapstick’s reputation is just the wear and tear of time and the inclination of artists to set their eyes on the horizon of possibility rather than mine the treasures of their past, but a lot of it is a result of few great artists opting to use slapstick while lots of terrible artists continue to do so, tainting the form through association. Slapstick used to be for all-time great film auteurs like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, but now we’re more likely think of direct-to-video National Lampoon films or terrible spoof films like Vampires Suck or Epic Movie.

But if we’re honest with ourselves, we all love slapstick. We love pratfalls and faceplants and tweaking noses. We love pies in the face and tacks in the ass and tumbling down stairs. We love when Charlie Chaplin turns around suddenly and smacks someone in the face with his bindle. We love when someone runs into a door.

The smartest slapstick manipulates our laugh response in subversive ways. When down-on-their-luck characters like Chaplin’s Tramp fall over, we laugh at the physical event, but feel a twinge of guilt because of our sympathy for him, which we redouble to salve our guilt, and so slapstick is used to bind our sympathies to characters of lower social status even as we laugh at their misfortune. Later, we’ll find it even funnier when the policeman trying to lock him up for loitering gets smacked in the face, because our sympathy lies with the Tramp. Dumb slapstick gives no thought to how its targets manipulate our laugh response, like the elderly Mexican woman who’s repeatedly knocked over in the Adam Sandler film Jack and Jill. There’s no further context here that makes the punchline less cruel, in fact, it’s partially a setup for a mildly racist joke about waking her up with hot peppers. The thing that’s supposed to be funny is that an old lady gets knocked over, and it’s neither shot in a way that the physical event is funny regardless of context, nor does it have any context to supply it with comic meaning. The joke is that she gets knocked over. That’s it.

Over the past twenty years, slapstick on the screen has become ever more concentrated in the work of people who are inept at it, like Adam Sandler’s Billy Madison Productions, post-90s National Lampoon and the entire genre of stoner comedy, and so we’ve ceased to adequately credit those who do slapstick well. Scrubs and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia are critically-acclaimed TV shows but their use of slapstick is rarely singled out for praise despite being a core part of their comedic vernacular. Minions got mixed-to-negative reviews (partially as a result of an over-the-top backlash to their popularity) and though it’s hardly a masterpiece, its wonderful pure-hearted slapstick was the best part of the movie, yet received scant attention. These shows and films do a good job at something we’ve come to associate with bad art, so they may as well be doing nothing. But if we can admit to ourselves that good slapstick is funny, like good fart jokes are funny, then we can more fully see how extraordinary Kaitlin Olson is as a performer.

Just like the great slapstick performers of bygone days, Kaitlin Olson avoids using stunt doubles where possible. “I don’t want the stunt double to do it, unless it’s like a quick thing, because that’s part of the acting… There’s a lot of acting that happens in between the running out and the head-hitting,” she said in regard to the iconic scene from It’s Always Sunny where she rams her head into a car door.

The physical event of Dee ramming her head into a car door is just funny, but the emotions it evokes are anything but straightforward. Dee is a bad person who’s just caused one of the show’s recurring characters to fall off the wagon by making her drink a cosmopolitan, and she falls while stealing a pair of expensive shoes she refuses to admit are too small for her feet. We have plenty of material here for schadenfreude, but we also know that everything Dee does in this episode is a desperate attempt to escape her small, miserable life by trying to live like the women of Sex and the City. She stole the shoes because she’s poor and that makes it a sympathetic moment, but she falls because her ego won’t let her accept the shoes are too small.

I could go on with all the layers of this single moment, because It’s Always Sunny uses slapstick in a more nuanced way than probably anything that came before, but what’s important is how grounded it is in Dee’s character and Kaitlin Olson’s performance. Dee is the most pathetic member of the Gang, the one that the rest of the Gang consistently gangs up on, because no matter how pathetic their lives are, at least they’re not Dee. Partly it’s because Dee is a woman, and the guys rate all her ideas and jokes and actions less than their own. But it’s not entirely that – the Gang respects Artemis far more than Dee, regardless of her gender. Dee lacks a conviction in her own delusions shared by the rest of the Gang, which makes her more vulnerable, and therefore weak, and therefore pathetic. When Dennis’s self-image is truly shaken by the events of an episode, the result is one of the darkest and most affecting scenes in the entire series, as the rest of the Gang divert him from (it’s implied) kidnapping and torturing alumni at their high school reunion. Almost nothing in the world could make Mac reckon with the fact his father doesn’t love him, and Charlie and Frank both live deep in a fringe reality that resists any attempts at understanding, let alone rebuttal. But Dee cracks under pressure, and that means the guys get to mock her. No matter how well she matches the viciousness and cruelty of the rest of the Gang when it comes to other people (and she does), inside the Gang, Dee is the Tramp. The fully-committed slapstick performance of Kaitlin Olson is the purest expression of how the show blurs sympathy and schadenfreude in ways that really challenge the viewer to consider what their reaction means.

For twelve years now, Kaitlin Olson has played one of the best female roles in TV history with almost no mainstream recognition. There’s something horribly sad about the idea that even a masterpiece of television like “The Gang Broke Dee” couldn’t wake enough people up to nominate her for the Outstanding Lead Actress Emmy in a year when no one else came close to deserving it. It’s Always Sunny will probably never be nominated for Emmys outside the technical categories – there’ll never be a critical mass of Academy members who catch up on it and even if there was, it seems unlikely they’ll all appreciate its brilliance. But earlier this year, a new show started to air, co-created by ex-Sunny writers Dave and John Chernin, with Kaitlin Olson as both the lead and an executive producer. If ever proof was needed that Kaitlin Olson is no one-trick pony, but definitively one of the greatest comic actresses of all time, you’ll find it in The Mick.

Kaitlin Olson plays Mackenzie “Mickey” Molng, a working-class slacker who finds herself responsible for the spoiled children of her wealthy estranged sister. Mickey resembles Dee on a superficial level – they’re both poor women with a slovenly dress sense who are perceived (fairly or unfairly) as crass due to a lack of social grace – but they’re not really alike at all. Where Dee is brittle and insecure, Mickey is genuinely confident, and though they’re both feckless and self-absorbed, Mickey proves to have a heart where Dee’s withered away long ago. Mickey’s casual acceptance and encouragement of her nephew Ben’s gender non-conformity was one of the sweetest things that happened on television so far this year. Mickey is the kind of person who probably bullied Dee in high school, but who’d kick Dee’s ass now for messing with her kids.

The Mick isn’t great television yet – though it’s very good – but Kaitlin Olson has already made Mickey her next great performance. Much like Glenn Howerton’s performance as Dennis in It’s Always Sunny, the easy confidence that Kaitlin Olson brings to Mickey makes the moments she loses her shit all the more impactful. And of course, there’s the slapstick, whether it’s Mickey tackling a vacuum cleaner at a casino in “The Heater”, running into a door in a failed dine and dash in “The Implant”, or getting smacked over a table in “The Wolf”. 

Mickey is a more sympathetic character than Dee, though she does some pretty awful things in the first season, and the extensive use of slapstick shows the Chernins and Kaitlin Olson are both still interested in using the laugh response to make viewers to reflect on our schadenfreude. Kaitlin Olson is so committed she got her co-star Scott McArthur to smack her in the face with windshield wipers because she thought it’d be funny, and it didn’t even end up in the episode. It’s Always Sunny has probably hit the ceiling on contemporary recognition from peers in the industry, but The Mick will hopefully give Kaitlin Olson a second chance for some long overdue praise. She’s one of the last people keeping high-calibre slapstick alive since Mel Brooks stopped directing and Jim Carrey turned into a lunatic, and that’s a great thing because good slapstick is like nothing else in the world. The hat scene from Duck Soup is still one of the funniest things ever put to film, and it has absolutely nothing to say, no agenda beyond the simple joy of watching Chico Marx kick a guy in the butt. Somewhere along the way, the care and craft that went into well-constructed slapstick fell by the wayside and we entered an age of slapstick that doesn’t understand the rhythm of a physical beat or how to visually compose a scene of physical injury in a way that makes it funny, not distasteful. The bathroom scene from Liar Liar was the last time someone dared to take slapstick as seriously as Kaitlin Olson and that was twenty years ago.

Kaitlin Olson understands both the inherent funniness of mild physical violence and its potential to be thoughtful and challenging better than almost anyone else working in comedy today. She is one of the true giants of comic acting and the last slapstick artist with a real dedication to the form. We can’t do enough to acknowledge her, but it’s about time we gave it our best shot.

Give Kaitlin Olson her damn Emmy.

6 thoughts on “The Last Slapstick Artist

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s