Playwright Anton Chekhov once observed that, in theater, if a gun appears in the first act, it’ll inevitably go off in the second or third. Similarly, comedy fans know that if a pie appears on screen in a movie or TV show, it’ll inevitably be thrown at—or smashed into—someone’s face.
Along with slipping on a banana peel, the pie fight is one of the most famous comedy routines of all time. It appears in cartoons, TV shows, and movies dating back more than one hundred years.
According to Hopes&Fears, the first known pie fight appeared in 1909’s Mr. Flip, in which an obnoxious general store manager gets his comeuppance in the form of a pie to the face. Though the film itself is forgettable, other filmmakers of the time were inspired by the pie throwing scene—a visual gag perfectly suited to the then-soundless medium. Almost instantly, the pie fight became a staple of silent films. Just like the police chase (made famous by the Keystone Kops), an epic pie fight was an easy way to end a film.
By the time sound films came along in the 1930s, the pie fight was fully canonized—it was almost a requirement that comedy groups like the Three Stooges or the Little Rascals make at least one pie-oriented film. The Three Stooges, in fact, made two: In the Sweet Pie and Pie (1941) and Pies and Guys (1958).
Jumping forward to the ‘60s and ‘70s, filmmakers were still directing pie fights, though they tended to be a little more tongue-in-cheek. After half a century, the pie had become a symbol of a certain kind of silly, outdated, or unoriginal comedy. The pie fight in Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles (1974), for instance, is simultaneously fun slapstick and a satire on Hollywood’s reliance on the pie fight in comedy.
It’s also interesting to note that Mel Brooks wasn’t the first filmmaker to satirize the pie fight—Charlie Chaplin’s film Behind the Screen, which goes behind the scenes at a made-up film studio, also made fun of the trope way back in 1916. Chaplin’s film introduces a group of actors practicing their pie tossing with a sarcastic intertitle that reads, “The comedy department—Rehearsing a new idea.”
Today, the pie fight seems to be waning in popularity—even making fun of pie throwing has gotten a bit old—but it certainly hasn’t disappeared. In last few decades, pie fights have continued to appear sporadically in movies and TV shows, though they’ve largely been relegated to the world of children’s TV.