Fools and Jesters in Literature, Art, and History: A Bio-Bibliographical Sourcebook

By Vicki K. Janik; Emmanuel S. Nelson | Go to book overview

George Burns and Gracie Allen The Jewish Vaudeville Tradition

( United States: Burns, 1896-1996; Allen c. 1906-1964)

Marcia B. Littenberg


BACKGROUND

Vaudeville offered a venue for many Jewish comics, allowing them to transplant the irony, verbal incongruity, wit, timing, and comic delivery of Yiddish humor into American theaters. To put a "vaudeville shine" on a story is to exaggerate its comic potential, to lie a little bit, to emphasize the ironic incongruities of a situation through the retelling of those comic moments when everything seems awry. American vaudeville attracted many Jewish comedians who simply transplanted a long history of Jewish verbal humor onto the American stage and added physical gestures and exuberant silliness to the more cerebral comic irony of shtetl humor. Jewish actors and comedians also gravitated to vaudeville because they could find work there. When they went for a job in vaudeville, what mattered was what they could do, not who they were or where they were born. As Irving Howe writes in World of our Fathers: "In every gang of kids spilling into the streets of the ghettos of 1900 or 1905, kids whose mothers hoped they would grow up to be manufacturers, accountants or doctors, there was bound to be one who dreamed of breaking in with a comic act or vaudeville troupe" (556).

Youngsters like Nathan Birnbaum (who would try out a number of names before he settled on George Burns), Eddie Cantor, Milton Berle, Jack Benny, Fannie Brice, and Sophie Tucker were lured by the promise of vaudeville because it represented the fastest and seemingly the easiest, most glamorous way off the streets and onto the highway of American success. It helped that the managers of New York vaudeville theaters and national vaudeville circuits were

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