Yum! Pie!

Posted by on July 21, 2011

British comic Jonnie Marbles tried to hit Rupert Murdoch with a pie—‘or rather, “a pie plate of foam,” as an Associated Press story unfancifully labeled it—during the media magnate’ s testimony in the News of the World phone hacking scandal.
Marbles was deflected by Murdoch’ s wife Wendi Deng before the pie—for theatrical purposes, this was clearly a pie—could hit its target.

The news item sent me scurrying to the bookshelves, in two directions: to my film books, for studies of pie throwing in silent movies, and to my collection of radical lit which bring the satiric craft of pastry flinging into the modern era.

The funniest thing in the world is for one person to hit another with a pie. Crude as this may sound it has made more people laugh than any other situation in motion pictures. It was first discovered twelve years ago and has been a constant expedient ever since without, so far as be discovered, any diminution of appreciation. It has made millions laugh and tonight will make a hundred thousand more voice their appreciation in laryngeal outbursts. It is the one situation that can always be depended on. Other comic situations may fail, may lapse by the way, but the picture of a person placing a pie fairly and squarely on the unsuspecting face of another never fails to arouse an audience’s risibilities. But the situation has be led up to craftily. You can not open a scene with one person seizing a pie and hurling it into the face of an unsuspecting party and expect the audience to rise to the occasion; the scene has to be prepared for. There must be a plausible explanation of why one person should find it paramount to hurl a pie into another’s face. He must have been set on by the other—preferably by somebody larger than himself—and then suddenly the worm turns and sends the pie with unerring accuracy into the face of the astonished aggressor. To this an audience never fails to respond.
—From “The Five Funniest Things in the World,” Photoplay Magazine, September 1918. Anthologized in Photoplay Treasury (Bonanza Books, NY, 1972)

The “pie-in-the-face” prank has a lengthy history with manifestations in popular and folk culture. Like most pranks, pies are acts of ritualized inversion and humiliation. They draw on the power of laughter to unsettle and disrupt. Political pie-throwers carefully craft the symbolism in their pranks, something evident in both the enactment and in the subsequent discussion and documentation of the pie.
Any successful prank is a nuanced and well-crafted event, executed with strategic planning and with anticipated results. When combined with elements of parody and political wit, a prank can offer an entertaining act of social criticism. Pranks operate on and through power dynamics, inverting structures of status and convention. According to journalists V. Vale and Andrea Juno, a prank connotes “fun, laughter, jest, satire, lampooning, making a fool of someone”—all light-hearted activities. Thus do pranks camouflage the sting of deeper. More critical denotations, such as their direct challenge to all verbal and behavioral routines. They undermine the sovereign authority of words, language, visual images and social conventions in general. Regardless of the specific manifestation, a prank is always an evasion of reality. Pranks are the deadly enemy of reality. And “reality”—its description and limitation—has always been the supreme control trick used by a society to subdue the lust for freedom latent in its citizens.

—From “The Theory of Pie” by Audrey Vanderford, contained in Pie Any Means Necessary: The Biotic Brigade Cookbook (AK Press, 2004)

It’s well known that Stanley Kubrick intended to end Doctor Strangleove with a pie fight. The scene was even filmed.

Wendi Deng’s intervention adds a new staging innovation to the pie-throwing dynamic, that of the protective, involved third party. The humor is usually found in a disinterested interloper inadvertently getting in the way of a pie-throw, or trying to avoid getting involved but receiving overflow cream nonetheless.

But the most extraordinary aspect of Rupert Murdoch’s (nearly) getting hit with a pie was that it’s apparently never happened to him before. The BBB’s Pie Any Means Necessary book contains as authoritative a list of well-heeled real-life recipients of pies-in-face as has been compiled, and Murdoch’s not on it.

Jonnie Marbles has explained himself in an article for the Guardian: “I knew it was a tall order: a surreal act aimed at exposing a surreal process was never going to be an easy sell.”

Well, what’s he selling? Revolution, or pie?

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