CLOSE

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.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
iStock
arrow
Big Questions
What Makes a Cat's Tail Puff Up When It's Scared?
iStock
iStock

Cats wear their emotions on their tails, not their sleeves. They tap their fluffy rear appendages during relaxing naps, thrash them while tense, and hold them stiff and aloft when they’re feeling aggressive, among other behaviors. And in some scary situations (like, say, being surprised by a cucumber), a cat’s tail will actually expand, puffing up to nearly twice its volume as its owner hisses, arches its back, and flattens its ears. What does a super-sized tail signify, and how does it occur naturally without help from hairspray?

Cats with puffed tails are “basically trying to make themselves look as big as possible, and that’s because they detect a threat in the environment," Dr. Mikel Delgado, a certified cat behavior consultant who studied animal behavior and human-pet relationships as a PhD student at the University of California, Berkeley, tells Mental Floss. The “threat” in question can be as major as an approaching dog or as minor as an unexpected noise. Even if a cat isn't technically in any real danger, it's still biologically wired to spring to the offensive at a moment’s notice, as it's "not quite at the top of the food chain,” Delgado says. And a big tail is reflexive feline body language for “I’m big and scary, and you wouldn't want to mess with me,” she adds.

A cat’s tail puffs when muscles in its skin (where the hair base is) contract in response to hormone signals from the stress/fight or flight system, or sympathetic nervous system. Occasionally, the hairs on a cat’s back will also puff up along with the tail. That said, not all cats swell up when a startling situation strikes. “I’ve seen some cats that seem unflappable, and they never get poofed up,” Delgado says. “My cats get puffed up pretty easily.”

In addition to cats, other animals also experience piloerection, as this phenomenon is technically called. For example, “some birds puff up when they're encountering an enemy or a threat,” Delgado says. “I think it is a universal response among animals to try to get themselves out of a [potentially dangerous] situation. Really, the idea is that you don't have to fight because if you fight, you might lose an ear or you might get an injury that could be fatal. For most animals, they’re trying to figure out how to scare another animal off without actually going fisticuffs.” In other words, hiss softly, but carry a big tail.

nextArticle.image_alt|e
AFP, Getty Images
arrow
Big Questions
What Happened to the Physical Copy of the 'I Have a Dream' Speech?
AFP, Getty Images
AFP, Getty Images

On August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. stood on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial and gave a speech for the ages, delivering the oratorical masterpiece "I Have a Dream" to nearly 250,000 people.

When he was done, King stepped away from the podium, folded his speech, and found himself standing in front of George Raveling, a former Villanova basketball player who, along with his friend Warren Wilson, had been asked to provide extra security around Dr. King while he was speaking. "We were both tall, gangly guys," Raveling told TIME in 2003. "We didn't know what we were doing but we certainly made for a good appearance."

Moved by the speech, Raveling saw the folded papers in King’s hands and asked if he could have them. King gave the young volunteer the speech without hesitation, and that was that.

“At no time do I remember thinking, ‘Wow, we got this historic document,’” Raveling told Sports Illustrated in 2015. Not realizing he was holding what would become an important piece of history in his hands, Raveling went home and stuck the three sheets of paper into a Harry Truman biography for safekeeping. They sat there for nearly two decades while Raveling developed an impressive career coaching NCAA men’s basketball.

In 1984, he had recently taken over as the head coach at the University of Iowa and was chatting with Bob Denney of the Cedar Rapids Gazette when Denney brought up the March on Washington. That's when Raveling dropped the bomb: “You know, I’ve got a copy of that speech," he said, and dug it out of the Truman book. After writing an article about Raveling's connection, the reporter had the speech professionally framed for the coach.

Though he displayed the framed speech in his house for a few years, Raveling began to realize the value of the piece and moved it to a bank vault in Los Angeles. Though he has received offers for King’s speech—one collector wanted to purchase the speech for $3 million in 2014—Raveling has turned them all down. He has been in talks with various museums and universities and hopes to put the speech on display in the future, but for now, he cherishes having it in his possession.

“That to me is something I’ll always be able to look back and say I was there,” Raveling said in the original Cedar Rapids Gazette article. “And not only out there in that arena of people, but to be within touching distance of him. That’s like when you’re 80 or 90 years old you can look back and say ‘I was in touching distance of Abraham Lincoln when he made the Gettysburg Address.’"

“I have no idea why I even asked him for the speech,” Raveling, now CEO of Coaching for Success, has said. “But I’m sure glad that I did.”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER
More from mental floss studios