Most comedy must at least be partially based in reality to work. An audience unable to relate to a subject is usually an audience that isn’t going to laugh because they can’t make a connection to the joke or story being told.
For that reason, most people under the age of, say, 85, have had a hard time relating to the idea of slipping on a banana peel. Yet, it has remained a comedy staple practically since the invention of motion pictures.
This seems as counterintuitive as the French love of Jerry Lewis.
Apparently, though, slipping on banana peels was once a very real concern; hence, their role in comedy.
Consider this 1918 story, under the headline “Banana Peel Gets Verdict,” taken from the Greenwood Index, a South Carolina newspaper:
We note that some days since a suit was brought against the city of Columbia (S.C.) by a party who had received a severe injury as the result of a fall on account of having stepped upon a banana peeling that was thrown on the sidewalk.
This verdict should be a warning to every town to enforce more rigidly the ordinance against throwing these peelings on the sidewalks. We suppose that there is not a town that has not such an ordinance, and yet there is a great deal of unconcern about enforcing it. It is a common thing to see these peelings on the sidewalks of Greenwood, and numbers of persons have had accidents on account of it.
There used to be an ordinance against spitting on the sidewalk, but we seem to have thrown it down, too. It might not be a bad idea to let it be known that more attention will be given to it, and the one prohibiting banana peeling on the sidewalks.
Believe it or not, the banana peel was considered a genuine public hazard at one time, writer Laura Turner Garrison wrote in Mental Floss explained when examining how the banana peel gag became so popular in comedy.
“In the mid-19th century, a man named Carl B. Frank began importing Panamanian bananas to New York City,” according to Garrison. “The fruit quickly became a popular street food throughout America, but the surge in urban migration and lack of sanitation regulation posed a major problem in cities. People often tossed their garbage into the streets, leading to a general foul stench and public waste buildup. A fresh banana peel might seem non-threatening, but a rotting banana peel was a slime-covered booby trap.”
Around 1880, Harper’s Weekly rebuked those who tossed their banana peels on a public walkway, as this would likely result in broken limbs, and some Sunday Schools warned children that an improperly discarded peel would not only definitively lead to a broken limb, but that the individual unfortunate enough to suffer the broken would inevitably end up in the poorhouse due to this injury, Garrison added.
The banana peel gag has been a fixture in comedy since the beginning of the 20th century, with the routine widely accepted to have originated on the Vaudeville stage.
“The gag first appeared on the silver screen in the Harold Lloyd silent film The Flirt,” Garrison wrote. “While sitting in a restaurant, Lloyd’s character diligently peels a banana then tosses the skin on the floor. A snooty waiter walks by with a full tray, slips and falls. Chaos ensues.”
Buster Keaton employed the gag in his 1921 film The High Sign, and Laurel and Hardy used it in The Battle of the Century (1927).
It’s continued to be a regular feature in both comedies and cartoons over the decades through to the present, even though most viewers today likely can’t recall ever seeing a rotting banana peel on a sidewalk.
Perhaps the reason the banana peel gag remains viable is that while few of us have experienced slipping on a rotten peel, we have all slipped and fallen. And, like most things, when it happens to someone else it’s pretty funny.
(Top: New Yorker Cartoon by Liam Francis Walsh.)