You spend a good deal of time discussing the Marx Brothers, who remain perhaps one of the best known of the comedy teams to emerge from the Vaudeville stage and go to Hollywood. What might contemporary audiences be missing when they watch the Marx Brothers’ movies if they do not understand their roots in vaudeville?
Since my late teens when I became aware of the Marx Brothers I have always enjoyed their movies and their perspective of the underdogs who get the better of those in authority. As a working class kid from New Hampshire, I was inspired by the fact that they could break down the doors of the powerful and elite by mocking them and creating chaos in the halls of respectability; a place I never thought I certainly could ever access or influence personally.
When I started to research the Marx Brothers more in depth as performing artists, I became aware that many of their plots and gags were taken directly from their twenty-plus years in vaudeville. They had not made their first picture until they were in their early forties. This was a revelation to me. The Marx Brothers movies were translations of the vaudeville stage and the Broadway musical revue on film. Not films in and of themselves, but stage shows and routines that had been honed and crafted over many years on the road on the third-tier vaudeville circuit.
The seemingly improvisational feel of the films was not improvisational at all. But they made it seem as if it were happening in the moment for the very first time, and I think this still resonates with me each and every time I watch these films. How fresh, accessible, and alive they feel in that relationship between audience and stage (that notion of “putting it over” as mentioned before), seen in the asides that Groucho makes to the camera as if he were talking to a live audience. This still works for me and that feeling of the servants putting it over on the masters even after I know that it was well rehearsed and staged over many years of their careers, always amazes me.
Once the Marx Brothers let go of the formality of their vaudeville act in the 1910s of a singing and dancing act, and started in on their special brand of comic subversion through making nonsense out of authority and the rules of upper-class decorum, then they began to thrive as a comedy act both on stage and screen.
The status of women in comedy remains a controversy today, despite the fact that female comics have been disrupting gender roles on stage since at least the turn of the last century. What would we understand about today’s female clowns, such as Tina Fey or Sarah Silverman, if we traced their roots back to the “rank women” of the early vaudeville stage?
The notion that female comedians are somehow dirtier and more obscene simply because they are women is still an issue in contemporary comedy. In my book The Comic Offense From Vaudeville to Contemporary Comedy (2014), I cite an incident that Tina Fey writes about in Bossypants (2011), Fey’s memoir, when she recalls a story in which fellow Saturday Night Live alum Amy Poehler was in a meeting with a predominantly male group of writers and cast members, doing a “dirty and loud and ‘unladylike’” comic bit. Jimmy Fallon, the de facto male star of the moment, mocked Poehler for her crudeness saying, “Stop that! It’s not cute! I don’t like it.” According to Fey, “Amy dropped what she was doing, went black in the eyes for a second, and wheeled around on him. ‘I don’t fucking care if you like it.’ Jimmy was visibly startled. Amy went right back to enjoying her ridiculous bit.”
This notion that Poehler was offending her fellow male comedians simply because she was a woman telling an offensive story is ironic given the fact that this is what the male comedians admire in each other; the notion of crossing the line.
A female student of mine who is studying comedy and wants to be a comedian, was shocked that Christopher Hitchens wrote for Vanity Fair in 2007 an article titled, “Why Women Aren’t Funny.” The institutionalization of comedy by men in the early twentieth century was an attempt to marginalize women as comedians and comic writers in a self–created “boys’ club.” And this “boys club” is alive and well today. Hitchens thought women didn’t have to be funny because women didn’t need to attract men, and humor according to him, was necessary for men to attract women. Of course this is overly simplistic and Victorian in its outlook on male/female relations (not to mention the fact that it discounts lesbians entirely), but it persists in the twenty-first century.
And although Tina Fey was the first female head writer in the thirty-nine year history of Saturday Night Live, she is still the only female head writer in their history even after her leaving the show eight years ago in 2006. Personally I think men are threatened by funny women since they appear to relate it to masculinity and some kind of mating ritual. Admittedly humor is attractive, but certainly men are attracted to funny women, and women are attracted to funny women as well, no?
I think the main problem is that women being considered “dirty” or “obscene” or “crossing the line” somehow puts them in the category of being what the turn of the twentieth century reformers saw as “rank ladies.” Mae West, May Irwin, Marie Dressler, Eva Tanguay, and Kate Elinore were seen as “tough girls” who were too aggressive physically and verbally and lacked the demur refinement of middle-class women of “respectability.” Sex jokes in particular somehow signaled to the primitive male mind that women are sexually available and promiscuous, and ultimately morally bankrupt. And this brings us back to the virgin/whore binary that women still can’t seem to shake.
The vaudeville tradition fed film and television comedy for generations, but there are few if any performers with roots on the variety stage who are still working today. Today’s clowns come from the standup circuit, Improv comedy troops, and television sketch comedy programs. In what ways do these newer forms of comedy mirror the traditions of earlier forms of popular entertainment?
It was very surprising to me when I was researching these books that the techniques used all the way back to the commedia dell’arte of the sixteenth century Italy have always been inspirational to comedians. Comedians sincerely study and are influenced by performers from comedy history. There is a real respect for the craft and for those comedians who came before them.
The term slapstick itself, as an actual noise maker that emulates the slapping and punching associated with Punch and Judy puppets, was used in silent film shorts – giving it the name slapstick comedy – and of course is still used in the comedy films of Judd Apatow and Mike Judge – look at The Hangover franchise as a prime example. But just the notion of pain and getting into trouble as being funny, watching someone slip and fall or get hit by various objects as in the Three Stooges, never seems to get old.
Also the idea of improvisation—of being in the moment and making jokes that can be tailored to the audience is fascinating to me and embraced by comedians. You can change the jokes according to who is in the audience and whom you want to offend (or not) as the case may be. This is very important to the notion of “putting it over” as well. Knowing your audience and what is “killing” and what is “dying.”
The stage is the only place where this immediate response and in-the-moment improv is possible. Even though there are improv television shows, they can be edited (and are certainly) after the fact in case there is anything said in the moment that offends or satirizes advertisers or the television network. SNL and other “live” shows have that two-three second delay just in case someone crosses the line. You can’t censor or edit a live performance, or let me correct that, you can shut it down, or stop the act, as in the case of Lenny Bruce, who was literally arrested onstage, but that in itself made a statement that couldn’t be edited from the minds of the audience.
The notion that comedy is and was dangerous, and threatening to authority figures, governments, corporations, and the ruling classes, is truly what connects the vaudeville generation to contemporary standup and improvisational comedy. To paraphrase Moliere who has been quoted as saying about his incendiary play Tartuffe, which the Catholic church of the seventeenth century was attempting to ban and threatened to imprison its author, “Those who are offended by the characters onstage must be seeing themselves in those characters.”
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