Comedy is Serious Business: An Interview with Rick DesRochers (Part One)

Last spring, I was asked whether I might be willing to blurb a book called The Comic Offensive, From Vaudeville to Contemporary Comedy. This was something of a blast from the past for me! My  dissertation book, What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic, was also focused on the ways that vaudeville had influenced other forms of popular comedy. My story remained focused in the 1920s and 1930s, where-as Rick DesRochers has brought the vaudeville tradition into the 21st century through the imaginative pairings between different comic performers – for example, Will Rogers and Stephen Colbert or the Marx Brothers and Larry David — in order to show how certain styles of comedy have persisted over time. DesRochers contends that 20th century American comedy has always allowed the expression of critical and often minority perspectives before a more mainstream audience.

Since reading The Comic Offensive, DesRochers has shared with me his other new book, The New Humor in the Progressive Era, which provides more of the historical context for how this style of comedy emerged and what roles it played in the early 20th century.

The two books, together, complete a historical framework for thinking about popular theatrical performance and humor across the span of the 20th century, the ways it differed from 19th century predecessors, the ways it responded to social, political, economic, and technological change, and the ways that it has often challenged the way the culture saw itself. DesRochers does all of this in a fashion that is grounded in original source materials, including perhaps the fullest discussion to date of the theatrical work of the Marx Brothers before they went to Hollywood, and is presented in a vivid, engaging, style that would be highly accessible to undergraduate students.

I invited DesRochers to do an interview for my blog, and I am delighted to share it with you today. His substantive responses, his reflections on comedy — both past and present — should give you plenty to think about and may even provide some encouragement to seek out comic performers who might have escaped your attention before. I hope you will enjoy the experience of forgotten laughter.

 

What was “New” about the “New Humor”? How did it differ from more established traditions of humor and comedy in American culture?

The playwright and librettist Edward “Ned” Harrigan, co-author of the popular Mulligan Guard series of light comedy revues, warned in 1900 that “there’s been a great change in the sense of humor in New York, the great influx of Latins and Slavs—who always want to laugh not with you but at you—has brought about a different kind of humor. Vaudeville historian Albert MacLean Jr., called this notion of Harrigan’s “the new humor.” What was “new” about the new humor was that it challenged Anglo-American authority and the belief that the ruling classes’ notion of highbrow culture could be made fun of and even defied. You could laugh at the abuses of authority and Anglo-American dominance, as well as with the attempts of southern and eastern European immigrants trying to assimilate into the Anglo-American way of life. The irony of this xenophobia of Harrigan’s was that the Irish, German, and Scandinavian immigrants were discriminated against in the very same way only two decades earlier, and now Harrigan, along with Tony Hart, was affectionately writing musical revues that featured those same Irish immigrants that were once perceived as morally inferior and culturally lowbrow.


The contemporary version of the new humor can be witnessed in the work of comedian and writer and co-creator of Seinfeld, Larry David, when he discusses with Ricky Gervais, “We all have the bad thoughts. We just think them and don’t say them. But the bad thoughts are funny.” In Dave Chappelle’s comedy, being offensive through the new humor becomes necessary to create meaningful conversations that cannot happen otherwise. His interview with James Lipton of the Actor’s Studio concludes with “I’m a comedian, man. That’s how I look at the world. . . . The only way to know where the line is, is to cross it. What is life if nobody’s crossing the line?” This notion of crossing the line by laughing at authority and mocking hegemonic ideology and culture was known as the new humor. The new humor is still very much with us in the work of Chappelle, Larry David, Stephen Colbert, Tina Fey, Louis C. K., Sarah Silverman, and Jon Stewart.

One of the ways that the New Humor pushed back against older standards of taste and decorum was through its emphasis on emotional immediacy, on provoking overt displays of emotion from the audience. You devote a chapter to the concept of “putting it over.” What did that mean to the vaudevillians? What kind of relationship did they seek to establish with their audiences?

“Putting it over” was the comedians’ way of saying that they had a connection with the audience, and that their comedy was getting over the footlights as a form of dialogue between audience and performer. You could put it over by singing, dancing, telling jokes, playing comic characters, or combining any number of these performance skills, but the real talent lay in understanding how the comedian related to the audience and made them feel as if they were complicit in the subversive nature of humor. I am very interested in the vaudeville notion of “putting it over” as a way of getting jokes across to audiences as a coded way of telling the audience that they are in on the jokes, and share something that the world outside the theater isn’t in on. This is very much in the spirit of the sixteenth century Italian commedia dell’arte where servants like Arlecchino would “put one over” on their masters like Pantalone, not just to make fun of them, but as a means of survival. If I can trick the master out of food and money, and at the same time make him look like a fool all the better, and there are those in the audience going through circumstances. In The New Humor in the Progressive Era (2014), I see it as a class conflict where comedians from impoverished immigrant backgrounds were able to make a living by putting over their act and therefore making money to survive, and in some cases actually rise to the upper classes (at least economically) themselves.

You argue that vaudeville humor “brought unconventional ideas and the rejection of conformity to middle-class audiences, who were sheltered from and fearful of new concepts, cultures, and ethnicities at the beginning of twentieth century America.” What were they afraid of and how was comedy used to address their “bogeys”?

I think the central fears or “bogeys” – a term I appropriated from Walter Lippmann – were very much centered around the idea of keeping the working poor in their place; to stifle creativity, innovation, and radical sociopolitical notions of equal opportunity for all, at bay. By insisting that the underclasses conform to middle-class standards of morality –  for example, women get married and take care of children; school as a place of assimilation and conformity to middle-class Anglo-American values of patriotism and duty to ones superiors; and simply fear of sex and other vices that the middle class felt the new immigrants brought with them from their presumably “uncivilized” peasant backgrounds –the middle class could stem the bogeys that the new immigrants were trying to take their jobs and their daughters away from them through infectious immoral behavior. The idea of “association” – in other words who you associated with – would influence you in either a good way with strong middle-class values, or in a bad way through vice and sin that was perpetrated on the comic stage. The bogeys of “foreignness” still permeate the US today; the fear of immigrants from say Mexico and the Middle East.

The rhetoric of Vaudeville’s promoters emphasized the notion that they were offering “refined entertainment,” yet it is not hard to find contemporary critics who were shocked and outraged by what they saw being performed. You cite, for example, an American Magazine author who proclaimed that Vaudeville had “done more to corrupt, vitiate and degrade public tastes in matters relating to the stage than all other influences put together.”  This has led to debates about the cultural status of variety entertainment during the period. How have you approached this question?

I think the idea that Lawrence W. Levine promotes in Highbrow Lowbrow: the Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (1988) and David Savran more recently put forward in Highbrow/Lowdown: Theater, Jazz, and the Making of the New Middle Class (2010) about the 1920s jazz era, that there was a real effort on the part of cultural critics like Sime Silverman at Variety or later George Jean Nathan with the canonization of American playwrights like Eugene O’Neill to create an American stage literature that rivaled that of the Western European theater, influenced cultural critics as tastemakers to consciously create a consciously “highbrow” theatrical culture in the US. Therefore the critics and upper-class patrons of the performing arts promoted forms of American culture that would emulate and be considered of cultural significance, especially on the stage through plays as literature that has still remained with us to the present day. Popular entertainments were considered by critics and progressive reformers alike as leading to degeneracy, immorality, and ignorance of the value of high culture with vaudeville in particular. The idea that the unwashed masses would be corrupted by simply being in the presence of vaudeville comedians, jazz musicians, and musical theater performers, was something to reject and ultimately correct through the fine and performing arts like ballet, symphonic music, and plays. Ultimately “refined” vaudeville was promoted by mangers and entrepreneurs like B. F. Keith, that took “high class” acts from the legitimate theater, opera, and classical music to include in vaudeville bills in order to “clean up” vaudeville; this was known as “the Sunday School circuit.”

Rick DesRochers is an Associate Professor of Theatre at Long Island University Post.  He has served as the Literary Director of New Play and Musical Development for the Joseph Papp Public Theater/New York Shakespeare Festival and The Goodman Theatre of Chicago, as well as the Artistic Director of the New Theatre in Boston. He holds an M.F.A. in stage direction and dramaturgy from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, and a Ph.D. in theatre from the City University of New York, Graduate Center. He is the author of The New Humor in the Progressive Era – Americanization and the Vaudeville Comedian for Palgrave Macmillan, and The Comic Offense from Vaudeville to Contemporary Comedy – Larry David, Tina Fey, Stephen