Academic journal article MELUS

Humor and Ethnic Stereotypes in Vaudeville and Burlesque

Academic journal article MELUS

Humor and Ethnic Stereotypes in Vaudeville and Burlesque

Article excerpt

The halcyon days of the American vaudeville and burlesque theater, roughly from 1890 through 1910, compose the period in which ethnic humor on stage was most manifest. These decades were also years in which American humor changes significantly, moving away from the familiar literary and journalistic pseudo-folklore, the Yankee and Southwestern wise fools, commonsense philosophers, tricksters and con men, to the more universal "little man" of the twenties and the modernist and post-modernist comedy which would develop after the "golden age" (roughly from the end of the first World War to the early 1930s) (see McLean, Jr., chapter 3, Pinsker). The period was also one in which two other genres, film comedy and comic strips, as well as the popular theater, emerged to compete with the published word and to a lesser extent the platform lecture, as the forum for American humor.

While it is easy to see the differences in the humor of the nineteenth century with the emerging "modern" forms, it is important to note similarities and continuities as well and to be reminded that cultural changes take place neither suddenly nor absolutely. All of the familiar characters of earlier American humor can be located throughout twentieth century sources, in all genres, and many important motifs recur as well. In his recent book, American Laughter: Immigrants, Ethnicity, and 1930's Film Comedy, Mark Winokur presents. the interesting argument that American literary comedy was always, in a sense, "ethnic," in its contrasting of immigrants to the new land with Europeans and immigrants to the western frontier with more established easterners (23-73, for reference to vaudeville, see esp. 63-73). Ethnic humor in the popular theater has a lot in common with the dialect humor of nineteenth century writers, and it reaches forward as well as backward in the literary humor of writers such as Roth, Heller, Malamud, Bellow and Reed, among others, though not always overtly.

Ethnic humor itself is not a uniquely American phenomenon of a specific historical period or particular form of popular entertainment. There are examples from the classical theater and folk theater worldwide which would be included under any reasonable definition of ethnic humor, and in our own theatrical tradition ethnic humor is to be found in the pre-Civil War minstrel theater, the rural tent theater circuit, the urban popular theater, and other popular stage entertainment vehicles from the late eighteenth century. Ethnic humor is present from the earliest days of the variety theater (I use the term "variety theater" here generically to embrace minstrel theater, vaudeville, burlesque and the revues), for instance in the "Double Irish" acts of McNulty and Murray in 1865 or of the Russell Brothers, John and James, as early as 1876.

Though stage expression of ethnic humor faded by the end of the 20s, along with the decline of vaudeville and burlesque, it did not die out entirely, surviving if not thriving in the Broadway revues such as George White's "Scandals," Earl Carroll's "Vanities," and Florenz Ziegfeld's "Follies," in the standup comedy of resorts and nightclubs, and in the mass media of film and television situation comedy. It is also manifested in American popular literature and journalism, appearing in the voice of Finley Peter Dunne's Mr. Dooley, Leo Rosten's Hyman Kaplan, Langston Hughes's memorable Jesse B. Semple aka "Simple," in Milt Gross's Nize Baby' pieces, and elsewhere in America's newspaper columns, magazine features and popular books.

The ethnic humor of the variety theater is easy to describe. It consists of comic monologues, two-acts, and comic sketches. The core of the humor is the construction of caricatures based on familiar ethnic stereotypes and linguistic humor -- puns, malapropisms, double entendres, and accent-play, including broad exaggeration and misunderstandings which result from faulty pronunciation. The two-acts and the sketches provided, as we will see, a bit more thematic content and complexity, but for the most part, the ethnic humor was formulaic -- pretty basic stuff. …

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