Day 475: A Brief History Of Face-Pieing

originally published April 19, 2013

Ah, the pie. You fill us full of chocolate cream, hot apple or key lime goodness, make even the most intolerable meal redeemable with the promise of dessert, and your mere scent has lured cartoon creatures into physics-defying floating reveries, led by their hungry noses. But you can do so much more. You provide us with classic comedy, a means of political protest, and an angry (but somewhat playful) voice for the voiceless. Well, the voiceless who can bake.

From a young age, I think most of us come across some classic case of pieing, in a vintage black and white Three Stooges short, a Bugs Bunny cartoon, or maybe on an episode of Monty Python. A pie in the face is a fully rounded punchline. It says, “I have bested you” with a harmless, non-permanent snicker. It delivers potent humiliation without a lasting repercussion. No one is ruined, they are merely inconvenienced, forcibly disheveled, inescapably uncomfortable and sticky.

If they’re lucky, they may enjoy the small portion of pie that flies into their mouth too.

The first comedic trope to leap off movie screens and into the humor centers of its audience’s brains was the pie-in-the-face gag. It showed up in the 1909 silent film by Essanay Studios called Mr. Flip, starring Ben Turpin. In just four minutes, the hapless protagonist wanders from location to location, flirting with girls. He must have the worst pick-up line in history, because he gets thrown out, stabbed with scissors, electrocuted by a phone operator, slapped with shaving cream, and finally when he flirts with a waitress, he ends up with a pie in the face.

Mack Sennett, whose Keystone Studios was the launching point for Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle and Harold Lloyd (and who has his very own article here), loved the pie gag. Starting in 1913, Sennett found a way to integrate pie-throwing into a number of his short comedies. He had rules about who could get a pie – a mother-in-law could, but a mother couldn’t. It could be the hero or the bad guy, but never the lovable old person. No babies.

Though I do think pies in babies’ faces would make for an effective viral video today. Times have changed.

The Charlie Chaplin film Behind The Screen was notable for two things: an overt joke relating to homosexuality, which was incredibly rare in 1916, and the first on-screen pie-tossing battle. There is little more invigorating than a battle in which pie plates are the lone weapons and creamy frosting the sole source of ammunition. It is among my limited (and admittedly bizarre) life goals to one day participate in a genuine melee of the pie variety.

For the pinnacle in pie fight mayhem, I highly recommend devoting four minutes of your day to watching this, a clip from Laurel & Hardy’s 1927 classic The Battle Of The Century. This not only features a frantic battle of pure pie-soaked lunacy, but also a banana peel gag that hardly ever gets used anymore. Blake Edwards also steered Jack Lemmon, Tony Curtis and Natalie Wood into a brilliant pie fight in 1965’s The Great Race. I once spent a class period at school watching pie fights as part of the curriculum. It was then that I decided I had chosen the right major.

How could you watch that clip and not want to experience a pie fight of your own? The scene took five days to shoot, cost over $200,000 and made use of more than 4000 pies (and one massive cake).

This is Thomas King Forcade, underground journalist, founder of High Times magazine in 1974, and believed to be the originator of the pie-in-the-face as a political act. In 1970, Forcade unleashed his dessert-oriented tactics (actually, I believe this particular pie was made of cottage cheese) upon Otto N. Larsen, the chairman of the President’s Commission on Obscenity and Pornography. This either worked or else it was unnecessary, as the Commission dismissed fears that pornography was ruining America and recommended further sex education in schools.

Now, I would never condone throwing a pie in someone’s face. It is technically an act of assault, and could have some serious consequences on the victim. What if a piece of delicious graham cracker crust crumbles into the eye and scratches his or her cornea? What if the victim is lactose intolerant, and your act of passing on the Cool Whip in favor of real cream for the pie results in abdominal pain and agonizingly intense poops? What if you were careless enough to sprinkle toasted coconut on top? That shit can be dangerous.

That said, sometimes a political pie-in-the-face can warrant some applause.

When former Miss Oklahoma and notorious hater of homosexuality Anita Bryant got thwacked in the face in Des Moines in 1977, it was hard not to root for the comeuppance of such a loathsome slab of human vermin. Other notable recipients of creamy dairy justice include failed burglar G. Gordon Liddy, anti-feminist Phyllis Schlafly, and rhetoritician William F. Buckley. Every so often an artist gets hit – Andy Warhol and French New Wave filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard have both been publically pied.

The left-wing Bionic Baking Brigade considers their acts of pie-dom to be the modern-day equivalent of the Boston Tea Party. They have targeted economist Milton Friedman, Swedish King Carl Gustaf, and noted minister of hate Fred Phelps, who may be the first recorded case of a human made up of literally of nothing but sewage. They also nailed Bill Gates, which led to a video game based on the event.

“Journalist” Ann Coulter (CNN messed up here and forgot the necessary quotation marks) was nearly hit by a pie, which was either tossed by the BBB or another pie group who calls themselves Al Pieda. Seriously – that’s really inventive. We should let these people pie whoever they want.

A pie can lead one to digest the dessert of their deed behind bars, though. When Canadian Prime Minister Jean Chretien got pied, his attacker received a conditional sentence. When Alberta premiers Ralph Klein and Ed Stelmach were hit, it cost their assailants thirty days. When Rupert Murdoch was dessert-trayed in England, his attacker got six weeks. Some people have a sense of humor about it – Godard laughed and cracked a joke in response. Others – and these are probably the ones who have a reason to fear the pie might be laced with something lethal – will press charges.

A pie as a statement isn’t quite as fun as a pie for the sake of a pie. But in a world that is seriously lacking in quality slapstick, I guess I’ll take what I can get.

But I still want to organize a massive pie scrum someday. Who’s in?

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