It was a regular Thursday.
I needed to get to the Howard Music Building as soon as possible; My jazz combo was waiting.
I kept my head down and my hands in my pockets, trying to beat Michigan’s harsh and unyielding weather. My mind began to wander.
“Why is it so cold around here? I swear, it hits temperatures like this all the time in Washington, but this feels ridiculous. I wonder if it’ll clear up by Satur…”
Time stopped. I lurched forward, grasping for traction on the icy sidewalk. This was it. My life flashed before my eyes. My mind raced to decide what people would remember me by. One second felt like an eternity as gravity ceased to apply. I flung my arms out like a drunk condor, grasping for balance.
And with that it was over, I was still on my feet and still very much alive.
I whipped around, ready to do battle with whatever brought me so close to death.
And there, solitary and proud, sat a banana peel.
Historians debate who exactly brought the banana to the United States, but they usually agree who caused banana mania.
In the late 1800s, businessmen Andrew Preston and Minor Cooper Keith began shipping bananas from Jamaica to the United States. Preston dedicated his life to making the banana “more popular than apples,” and through targeted and incredibly aggressive marketing, Preston and Keith made this promise a reality.
Street carts all over cities like New York and Boston sold to populations convinced of the banana’s superior health benefits and taste.
The previously placid streets of the East Coast became a battleground between man and plantain. People threw their used banana peels on the ground without thinking twice, a cultural staple in an era with incredibly lax sanitation laws. Rotten banana peels piled up, and citizens became increasingly wary of their latent destructive power.
Publications like Harper’s Weekly warned of banana peels as a public health risk and admonished those who failed to dispose of their used peels. Cities soon joined in the fight, with some releasing wild pigs into the streets to eat the peels. Cities like St. Louis outlawed throwing banana peels on public walkways.
In the way only comedians can, the giants of vaudeville mined the public crisis for jokes. The genesis of the banana peel slipping gag came from the comedian “Sliding” Billy Watson who earned his moniker from his famous “sliding act.”
The joke was simple enough. Watson started on the edge of the stage, preparing himself both physically and mentally. He then walked across the stage, blissfully unaware of a waiting banana peel.
The audience held their breath.
Did he not see the banana?
What would become of our hero?
The air was thick with tension and dramatic irony, and when the audience reached their limit — Watson reached the peel. He slid across the stage on the banana, flailing his arms.
The audience lost it.
Comedy would never be the same.
Watson’s success gave rise countless imitators trying to cash in on America’s new obsession with “sliding.” This success transferred to the silver screen, with the first use of the gag appearing in the Harold Lloyd silent film “The Flirt.”
Film did little to improve on the joke, as directors chose instead to simply adapt it. “Sliding” entered a dark age, with very few comedians bothering to improve on the formula. Then, without warning, Buster Keaton blew America’s collective comedic mind.
In the 1921 film “The High Sign,” Keaton came across a banana peel and avoided it, only to slip on a second peel waiting slightly off screen. This simple improvement to the gag added a whole new dimension of broken expectations and comedic timing. The floodgates flew open, as the banana peel cemented itself in film.
Charlie Chaplin, The Three Stooges, and Woody Allen mark only a few of the talents who gave their unique spin to the now well-established trope.
And there I stood, the unaware victim of over a century of comedic development.
That banana traveled far to meet me, sailing across oceans and through the crucible of America’s unyielding humor mill.