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What is a Sight Gag?

Throughout filmmaking the use of various elements visually and audibly create a level of comedic excitement. In fact, sight gags are commonly used in filmmaking and have a variety of comedic purposes. But, what is a sight gag and how is this visual element used in filmmaking to produce the desired comedic effect?

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What is a Sight Gag?

A sight gag is a visual element, sometimes referred to as a visual gag. In which the vision produced conveys humor for comedic purposes. The sight gag is used in comedy, usually without words, to produce the desired humorous outcome.

The term “sight gag” or “visual gag” is used to describe the outcome. Because what the viewer is seeing is typically physically impossible or completely unexpected.

Sight gags cause humor through the alternative interpretation of what’s happening on the screen. Sight gags are common in films, plays, and in magic tricks.

In fact, the use of a sight gag in film dates back to the 1930s. When Alfred Hitchcock incorporated visual gags into the film The 39 Steps. 

Types of Sight Gags

Several types of sight gags exist in filmmaking. In fact, according to Noel Carroll, there is a taxonomy of sight gags which can be broken down into 6 types.

They are:

  1. The mutual interference or interpenetration of two or more series of events or scenarios.
  2. The mimed metaphor.
  3. The switch image.
  4. The switch movement.
  5. The object analog.
  6. The solution gag.

Each of these different types of sight gags has been seen in films and videos over the nearly 100 years since the first visual gag was used in film by Alfred Hitchcock. 

Why are Sight Gags Used in Film?

Part of understanding the answer to a common question, “What is a sight gag?” is to know how sight gags are used. In filmmaking, sight gags are used as a way of showing more than just what is actually occurring on the screen but also showing how events can be visually supported as an alternative with conflicting interpretation.

Sight gags are found in films of all types, but are most common in comedies. The use of the sight gag to elicit comedic effect is incredibly common.

In fact, sight gags are used to presuppose visual interpretation of an image in multiple ways and can be used to celebrate ambiguity of appearances as well as to distort reality. 

So, what is a sight gag? It’s a form of visual humor that is used in filmmaking to generate a play of alternative interpretations that can be projected by an image or series of images which cause the viewer to question reality. And most of all, they’re incredibly funny!

Numerous sight gags we laugh at today originate from a common source: Buster Keaton. Check out this video from Every Frame a Painting that shows a number of examples that poise Keaton as the founder of sight gags!