How Did Slipping on a Banana Peel Become a Comedy Staple?

It is now a deadly weapon in Mario Kart and a slapstick comedy staple, but how did the banana peel gets its reputation as such a threatening object?

A Danger to Society

Before the discovery of its comedic potential, the banana skin was considered a real public hazard. In the mid-19th century, a man named Carl B. Frank began importing Panamanian bananas to New York City. 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.

Whether or not people frequently slipped on the rotten skins, the banana peel came to symbolize poor manners. Around 1880, Harper’s Weekly admonished anyone who tossed their banana peels on a public walkway, as this would likely result in broken limbs. In the book Bananas: An American History, author Virginia Scott Jenkins describes how Sunday Schools warned children that an improperly discarded peel would not only definitively lead to a broken limb, but that the person with the broken limb would inevitably end up in the poorhouse due to this injury. In 1909, the St. Louis city council completely outlawed “throwing or casting” a banana rind on public thoroughfares.

During the 19th century, cities relied heavily on wild pigs that roamed the streets to dispose of rotting organic matter. This method was not wholly effective. According to the book Banana: The Fate of the Fruit That Changed the World by Dan Koeppel, the banana peel epidemic in New York City was ultimately solved around the turn of the century by a public agency headed by a former Civil War colonel. Col. George Waring organized a fleet of uniformed workers, known as the “White Wings,” who swept the streets in shifts and disposed of the waste in public composting facilities. Koeppel cites this as the “first large-scale recycling effort in the United States.”

The Pratfall

Today it’s quite rare to see a discarded banana peel on the sidewalk, but it is still ingrained in most Americans the perils of crossing paths with one. Since the beginning of the 20th century, slipping on a banana peel has been a fixture in physical comedy. The slipping-and-falling gag is widely accepted to have originated on the Vaudeville stage. The AV Club points to Vaudeville comedian “Sliding” Billy Watson – not to be confused with competing Vaudevillian Billy “Beef Trust” Watson – as the self-proclaimed inventor of the banana-peel pratfall. Supposedly, Watson witnessed a man struggling to maintain his balance after slipping on a peel. This inspired the “sliding act” which brought him great fame in the 1900’s.

Vaudeville comedian Cal Stewart often told many banana peel jokes as his copyrighted stage persona “Uncle Josh.” A 1903 recording of the bit “Uncle Josh in a Department Store,” features many references to banana peel-laden sidewalks.

The gag first appeared on the silver screen in the Harold Lloyd silent film The Flirt. 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 heightened the gag in his film The High Sign (1921). Walking down the street, Keaton encounters a banana peel on the sidewalk. He proceeds to walk over it, but contrary to the audience expectation, he does so totally unharmed. Keaton puts his hands to his mouth and mocks the peel, only to slip on a second peel he didn’t see.

Though the traditional gag became very commonplace in silent cinema, comedians continued to find ways to improve the wheel, if not reinvent it. In their 1927 picture The Battle of the Century, Laurel and Hardy use the banana peel trick as an impetus for a full-scale pie fight.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XDgnqfepRfI

The silent film era may have cemented the comedic potential of an improperly discarded banana peel, but the gag has continued to hold a place in popular culture to this day. Even Woody Allen fell victim to the slippery effects of an oversized peel in his early film Sleeper.

Scientific Proof?

In the 1800’s, a banana peel achieved its gooey state only after several days or weeks of rotting. However, the gag proposes a freshly peeled banana skin is equally threatening.

Back in 2009, Discovery Channel’s Mythbusters decided to test the slipping-on-a-banana-peel theory. In their experiments, a singular banana peel did not yield any slippage. However, when they filled a concrete surface with many different banana skins, Mythbuster Adam slipped a total of 6 times in one minute while trying to traverse the peel-covered surface. While this particular experiment confirmed banana peels are indeed slippery, it did not guarantee that stepping on a banana peel would definitely lead to a fall. Thus the myth was considered disproved.

How Stuff Works proposed that friction determines the actual likelihood of one slipping on a banana. The less friction between a foot and the peel in question, the more likely one is to slip. The author points out that the soles of today’s shoes are designed with risks like these in mind. So the likelihood of you actually slipping on a banana is pretty slim.

However, TV Tropes noted that in 2001 Great Britain reported over 300 banana-related mishaps – the majority due to peel-slipping. In 2011, a woman in California sued a 99 Cent Only store in which she suffered a herniated disk from allegedly slipping on a banana peel left in the middle of an aisle.

So remember, if you ever encounter a freshly shed peel in your path, it’s probably harmless. Then again, if you want to avoid becoming a punch line, it’s probably best to sidestep it.

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Big Questions
Why Does Asparagus Make Your Pee Smell Funny?
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The asparagus has a long and storied history. It was mentioned in the myths and the scholarly writings of ancient Greece, and its cultivation was the subject of a detailed lesson in Cato the Elder's treatise, On Agriculture. But it wasn't until the turn of the 18th century that discussion of the link between asparagus and odorous urine emerged. In 1731, John Arbuthnot, physician to Queen Anne, noted in a book about food that asparagus "affects the urine with a foetid smell ... and therefore have been suspected by some physicians as not friendly to the kidneys." Benjamin Franklin also noticed that eating asparagus "shall give our urine a disagreeable odor."

Since then, there has been debate over what is responsible for the stinky pee phenomenon. Polish chemist and doctor Marceli Nencki identified a compound called methanethiol as the cause in 1891, after a study that involved four men eating about three and a half pounds of asparagus apiece. In 1975, Robert H. White, a chemist at the University of California at San Diego, used gas chromatography to pin down several compounds known as S-methyl thioesters as the culprits. Other researchers have blamed various "sulfur-containing compounds" and, simply, "metabolites."

More recently, a study demonstrated that asparagusic acid taken orally by subjects known to produce stinky asparagus pee produced odorous urine, which contained the same volatile compounds found in their asparagus-induced odorous urine. Other subjects, who normally didn't experience asparagus-induced odorous urine, likewise were spared stinky pee after taking asparagusic acid.

The researchers concluded that asparagusic acid and its derivatives are the precursors of urinary odor (compared, in different scientific papers, to the smell of "rotten cabbage," "boiling cabbage" and "vegetable soup"). The various compounds that contribute to the distinct smell—and were sometimes blamed as the sole cause in the past—are metabolized from asparagusic acid.

Exactly how these compounds are produced as we digest asparagus remains unclear, so let's turn to an equally compelling, but more answerable question:

WHY DOESN'T ASPARAGUS MAKE YOUR PEE SMELL FUNNY?

Remember when I said that some people don't produce stinky asparagus pee? Several studies have shown that only some of us experience stinky pee (ranging from 20 to 40 percent of the subjects taking part in the study, depending on which paper you read), while the majority have never had the pleasure.

For a while, the world was divided into those whose pee stank after eating asparagus and those whose didn't. Then in 1980, a study complicated matters: Subjects whose pee stank sniffed the urine of subjects whose pee didn't. Guess what? The pee stank. It turns out we're not only divided by the ability to produce odorous asparagus pee, but the ability to smell it.

An anosmia—an inability to perceive a smell—keeps certain people from smelling the compounds that make up even the most offensive asparagus pee, and like the stinky pee non-producers, they're in the majority.

Producing and perceiving asparagus pee don't go hand-in-hand, either. The 1980 study found that some people who don't produce stinky pee could detect the rotten cabbage smell in another person's urine. On the flip side, some stink producers aren't able to pick up the scent in their own urine or the urine of others.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Legal Authority Does Judge Judy Have?
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While Judith Sheindlin was a real, live judge—New York City Mayor Ed Koch appointed her to family court in 1982 and then made her Manhattan's supervising family court judge in 1986—she's not acting as one on her show. Neither are any of the other daytime TV judges (whether they passed the bar and served as actual judges or not).

TV court shows don't take place in real courtrooms and they don't feature real trials, though they are usually real cases—the producers often contact parties who have pending litigation in small claims court and offer them the opportunity to appear on TV instead. What you're seeing on these TV court shows is really just arbitration playing dress-up in small claims court's clothes.

Arbitration is a legal method for resolving disputes outside the court. The disputing parties present their cases to a neutral, third-party arbitrator or arbitrators who hear the case, examine the evidence, and make a (usually binding) decision. Like a court-based case, arbitration is adversarial, but generally less formal in its rules and procedures.

The power that Judge Judy and the rest of the TV arbitrators have over the disputing parties is granted by a contract, specific to their case, that they sign before appearing on the show. These contracts make the arbitrators' decision final and binding, prevent the disputing parties from negotiating the terms of the arbitration, and allow the "judges" wide discretion on procedural and evidentiary rules during the arbitration.

TV judges make their decision on the case and either decide for the plaintiff, in which case the show's producers award them a judgment fee, or with the defendant, in which case the producers award both parties with an appearance fee. This system seems to skew things in favor of the defendants and gives them an incentive to take their case from court to TV. If they have a weak case, appearing on the show absolves them of any financial liability; if they have a strong case, they stand to earn an appearance fee along with their victory.

If one party or the other doesn't like the arbitrator's decision, it can really only be successfully appealed if it addresses a matter outside the scope of the contract. In 2000, Judge Judy had one of her decisions overturned for that reason by the Family Court of Kings County. In the case B.M. v. D.L., the parties appeared in front of Sheindlin to solve a personal property dispute. Sheindlin ruled on that dispute, but also made a decision on the parties' child custody and visitation rights. One of the parties appealed in court, and the family court overturned the custody and visitation part of the decision because they weren't covered by the agreement to arbitrate.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

This post originally appeared in 2012.

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