Cast & Characters Part II: Character Types

The Comic

The Comic is typically an outsider of some sort.  In the 19th century and early 20th century, ethnic characters predominated, reflecting the patterns of European immigration and regional differences.  Characters spoke in dialects.

The Comic drew on traditional comic types that circulated in the popular culture.

Performers took the negative stereotypes and made them a source of ethnic or regional pride.  Such was is the case with the Yankee character, the first native comic character to become popular.  The term Yankee was originally a term of disparagement, and the song Yankee Doodle was originally sung by British soldiers making fun of American’s disheveled and disorganized colonial troops.  The term “doodle” was a German word meaning fool or simpleton.  Macaroni was a term for foppishness.

The song was quickly appropriated by Americans as a source of ethnic pride, in much the same way that African-Americans appropriated the term “black” and gays and lesbians embraced the name “queer.”  Both were terms of disparagement.

The most celebrated member of the company was the Comic.  He was generally paid more than the other members of the cast, including the Straightman.  A 1934 Fortune Magazine broke down the payroll of a burlesque house – the two comics shared $150, the Straightman received $50, the Juvenile $35, a Prima Donna $50.  Three strip women shared $240 and 26 chorus girls made about $20 a week.

In developing their character, comedians had a lot to draw on.

They drew on standard character types that circulated in the culture.

In the U.S., these often reflected regional and ethnic stereotypes.

Ethnic Types

Immigrants and outsiders have been the basis of stock comedy types throughout the history of American clowning.  The first native comic types reflected regional differences – the Yankee, the Black and the Backwoodsman.  (They are drawn from the fringes of society.)

The term “Yankee” was originally a term of abuse.  We forget that the song Yankee Doodle originally sung by British soldiers making fun of a local yokel who “stuck a feather in his hat and called it macaroni.”  New Englanders embraced the stereotype and infused it with humanity, transforming a figure of ridicule into a clever trickster.

Find out more about the use of ethnic and regional types by consulting Constance Rourke’s classic work, American Humor: A Study of the National Character.

Yankee Comics

Constance Rourke writes that “his costume hardly varied: he wore a white bell-crowned hat, a coat with long tails that was usually blue, eccentric red and white trousers, and long boot-straps.”  This costume eventually became the basis of Uncle Sam.

American’s took the character to heart, contrasting an honest, plain American and a silly, foppish, infamous Englishman.”

“Half bravado, half cockalorum, this Yankee revealed the traits considered deplorable by the British travelers; he was indefatigably rural, sharp, uncouth, witty.”

The term Yankee, which was originally a term of reproach, became a source of pride, as comedians like George “Yankee” Hill and David “Yankee” Locke, took on the stereotypical character to comment on current events.

Outsiders as a Source of Comic Characters

Constance Rourke: All these figures possessed certain simple traits in common with the comic trio. Like the Yankee, the backwoodsman, the Negro, they sprang from humble life; like the trio they represented contentious elements in the American scene. They were all on the off-side; all were looked down upon or scorned by some one, often by whole sections of society, as the Yankee had been scorned by the backwoodsman and the backwoodsman by the Yankee.

Note that the contrast between stupid and canny outsiders is mirrored in the relationship between the comic and the straightman.

Evolution of Comic Characters: Knave and Dummy

Comic characters inevitably go through an evolutionary or maturation process. The character originates as a rustic outsider. Over time, the character undergoes a transformation, evolving from a dummy to a knave and, in some cases, to a romantic figure.

M. Willson Disher noted how this worked for European clown types:

“Arlecchino, the butt, changed to Arlequin, the parodist in every shape imaginable, to Arlequin the swain of Marivaux, to Harlequin the magician, adventurer and dancer, and finally to a symbolic character. Pierrot, before he became mystic and pale as the moon, was a butt or knave. Clown, who also began as a butt, changed to knave, then to bully, and then to a symbol of pathos.”

Once such a transformation takes place, a new “dummy” character has to be created, a new yokel is needed, and this character usually comes from marginal groups within the society. In the U.S., these new yokel types have been provided by racial and ethnic outsiders.

For more on the construction of comic types from ethnic minorities, see Christie Davies’ Ethnic Humor From Around the World.

Irish Comics

An Irish Comic, sometimes called a “tad” comic, was immediately identifiable by a distinctive fringe of whiskers along his jaw. There were no moustache attached to the beard, and the upper lip remained bare, even whitened with greasepaint. The hair and beard were usually red, and the hairline was often receding.

Clothing tended to be rustic. “The shirt had no collar; the vest, most likely, was either too big or too small; the pants, tied about the waist with a piece of rope, were old and roomy; and a battered hat topped off the outfit. Green was used as a dominant color in the costume,” Paul Antonie Distler observes.

The comic Irishman played on the stereotypes of the Irish character that still circulate. “Because of his supposed love of the bottle, the stage Irishman was often depicted as a rough, crude, loud individual; there was a swagger to his walk, a cocksure tilt to his head,” Distler adds.

Important to the characterization was the dialect. The tad comic spoke in a sing-song stage Irish associated with Pat O’Brien in his Irish cop roles, and frequently utilized Irish slang and epithets.

As time went on, the rustic outfit became more elaborate and stylized. In 1908 article for Atlantic Monthly, Robert Lynne Hartt observed an Irish comic whose costume was wildly exaggerated:

“What with crimson face, whited upper lip, green Galway whiskers, a tiny mirror adhering to the end of his nose and scintillating as he moves; what with an alarm clock doing duty as a shirt stud, a cabbage as boutonniere, and a shillelagh stout enough for a newel post, there’s not an inch of him, from infinitesimal stovepipe to fantastically elongated feet, but screams with absurdity, – plaided coat seven sizes too big, trousers cut from a horse-blanket, waistcoat an Irish flag. Indeed, he is so terrifically funny that you gaze upon him with mute solemnity.”

Irish comics were popular from the 1840s to the 1910s. By the 1930s, however, the Tad comic had all but disappeared from the burlesque stage.

Dutch Comics

Dutch Comics exaggerated the characteristics of German immigrants, the term “Dutch” being a corruption of German word Deutsche.

Their hair, often blonde, was cropped in a bowl shape, and they wore a characteristic square-cut beard that came off the end of their chin.  They dressed in the middle-class fashions of the day, but the patterns and cut of the clothing was exaggerated and ostentatious.  “The lapels were too wide, the checkered patterns too garish, and the ties and vests are too showy,” writes Paul Antonie Distler.  The vests were often flowered, with a double row of pearl buttons.

“The German immigrant seemed to project the image of a slow-thinking person….the immigrant seemed constantly to be surrounded by an air of befuddlement.  This was, of course, further complicated by his inability to express himself in his new language.”

The comedy played off of their confusions with the language. Dutch Comics played with a thick German accent, and mangled the language by applying German syntax to English, reversing word order and combining words in ridiculous ways.

Jack Pearl revived the Dutch comic character as Baron Munchausen. “In any case, a state of befuddlement was added to the generally accepted image of the sturdy, reliable and industrious middle class citizen, to produce a stage figure who was genuinely friendly and trustworthy, but who got himself entangled in language mazes to the point of exasperation.”

The popularity of Dutch comics fell during the First World War, when hostilities undermined the comic image of the German. It was later revived by radio comics such as burlesque veteran Jack Pearl. In the late 20s and 30s, a fair number of Dutch comedians worked in burlesque, but like the Jewish comics, they had toned down the stereotypical wardrobe.

 

The Jewish Comic

The Jewish or Hebrew comic was frequently paired with the Irish Comic, and was the victim of the Irishman’s abuse.  Hebrew comics had a closely trimmed beard and a derby hat, pulled down over the ears.  In the early part of the century, they dressed in black frock coats, imitating the stark outfits seen in European ghettoes and still worn by men in certain Orthodox sects.  Some used putty to exaggerate the nose and applied crepe hair to the face to simulate a week’s growth of beard.

Like other ethnic comics, the Hebrew Comics spoke in dialect, used a distinctive Yiddish-based dialect, that replaced “w’s” with “v’s.”  Jewish comics frequently worked in Yiddish-dialect, while eliminating the stereotypical costuming of the early part of the century.

What About Blackface?

There was not much use of blackface characters in burlesque – not because of any enlightened attitudes on the part of the audience but because of the bawdy nature of the burlesque show, got into issues of racial mixing that white audiences would not tolerate.  A few African-Americans worked in burlesque, mostly as part of a black-and-tan show, which featured an all-white cast in the first half of the show, and an all-black cast in the second half.

Two African-Americans appeared in white burlesque shows – Eddie “Coffee” Green and Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham each worked for the Minskys in the 20s and 30s.  Both had important careers outside of burlesque – Pigmeat Markham is well known for his many comedy albums (which utilize traditional sketches) while Eddie Green became a regular on the radio comedy, Duffy’s Tavern.

The scenes that circulated in burlesque also circulated in the black vaudeville houses on what was known as the TOBA circuit.  Markham’s signature “Here Come De Judge” sketch is based on a standard courtroom sketch.  A number of other burlesque scenes made their way onto Markham’s comedy albums.

For more on African-American comedians and the TOBA Circuit, consult Mel Watkin’s On the Real Side.

Generic Character Types

About the beginning of the twentieth century, anti-defamation groups began to criticize comedians who relied on ethnic stereotypes.

Burlesque, because it was primarily a working-class theatrical form, preserved these ethnic types longer than vaudeville and musical comedy, which responded to middle-class audiences’ desire for better portrayals.

As the ethnic representations became less acceptable, other character types became more prominent.  In the twenties, we see a more generic or more native view of the comic “outsider” with the spread of the “tramp” and “boob” comics.  These characters retained an outsider quality, while not offending any particular ethnic minority.

Tramp Comics

The comic tramp figure goes back to the late 19th century, but became especially popular just after the turn of the century.  “In the first decade of the 1900’s, tramp comics swarmed through vaudeville almost as a national symbol; legit musical stages were heavy with them; and joke magazines and newspaper strips (a few are left) detailed their haphazard lives with jesting abandon,” Douglas Gilbert writes in American Vaudeville: Its Life and Times.

The tramp character sported a putty nose, often reddened to signify drunkenness, a heavy beard, either made with crepe hair, tobacco or burnt cork.  Usually an area around the lips was left white.  This makeup was essentially half of the blackface minstrel.

The tramp character is familiar today principally from the work of Charlie Chaplin and Emmett Kelly.  Ralph Allen observes that “the comic, despite his putty-nose and baggy-pants, is never a pathetic figure in Burlesque.  He is not in any sense the tearful tramp of Chaplin.  In most bits, he is a child of nature—the slave of stimulus and response…  The burlesque show tramp represents man stripped of his inhibitions, stripped of restraints of all kinds—free of moral pretense, innocent of education and, above all, lazy and selfish.”

Rubes and Boobs

Two other characters that figured prominently in burlesque in the 1920s and 30s were the rube and boob comics.  Both were versions of the “silly kid” character that is now identified with Mad Magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman.

Rube is the show business term for rural audiences.

The Toby character typically wore a red fright wig and freckles.  “As a stock character, he was subject to the style and comic eccentricities of the individual actors who portrayed him.  He took on manners of the regions in which he appeared; with some companies he was a mid-western farm boy, with others he was a western cow-hand or lackadaisical hill-billy,” William Slout writes in Theatre in a Tent.

The Boob character was essentially the Toby character transferred to an urban environment.  The term “boob” derives from the English term “booby,” referring to a rustic fool.

Boob comics emerged around the beginning of the twentieth century.  They were an adaptation of the “silly kid” character, and are loosely related to the Toby character that was popular in rural tent shows.

The Boob character is often outfitted in glasses, particularly large round glasses.  The Boob character is often outfitted in glasses, particularly large round glasses.

For more on the rube comics: Neil Schaefner’s The Fabulous Toby and Me (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1968) and William Slout’s Theater In A Tent (Bowling Green University Press, 1972).

Eccentric Comics

By the 1930s, an increasing number of burlesque comics were identified merely as “eccentrics.”  These were more individualized comic portrayals.  Some worked with putty noses, but they largely toned down the makeup, limiting it to a moustache and doing something to alter their eyebrows.

The 1932 edition of Dennison’s Make-Up Guide suggests how actors developed an eccentric make-up: “Watch the make-up of some of the moving-picture comedians, and you can get good ideas.  You will find they use a straight make-up and depend upon a comedy mustache and a slight change of the eyebrows, to get their effects.” 

In addition to the eyebrows and mustache, they often wore (or painted on) comedy glasses, and added a ridiculous or ill-fitting hat.

The eccentric comic was a more individualized portrayal.  In addition to physical attributes, they often worked with vocal inflections, using lisps, letting the voice crack, and other comic effects.  Many of the leading comics of the era, from Ed Wynn to Bobby Clark worked as eccentrics.  Some toned down their look even further.  Some, like Scurvy Miller, worked with makeup into the 1960s.  By that time, however, most comedians worked without much makeup.

The Straightman

The straightman has always been the underappreciated member of the team.  Usually paid less than the comic, his responsibility was to set up the comic, and he was often called the “feeder.”  Hugh S. Fullerton eulogized a straightman in the New York Evening Mail

      “He was the best ‘feeder’ I ever saw on the stage.

   “Riding back I thought of the remark.  It was true; he had been a ‘feeder’ all his life.  On the stage his work was to ‘feed’ his partner, to make his acting bear toward one end, which was that his partner could ‘get over’ the point of the jest to best advantage.  And in life off the stage he had been a ‘feeder,’ sacrificing himself always for others, helping one to get a job, aiding another with money, rushing half dressed, from the ‘show show’ after his turn to visit someone who was sick.  Only a ‘feeder,’ sacrificing himself, effacing himself, letting the other have the laugh, the applause, the reward.

     “Yet somehow, when the curtain of clods went down for him, being a ‘feeder’ seemed to be something a bit finer, a bit better, than being a star.”

As Joe Laurie Jr. observed: 

“The straight man or ‘feeder’ was never really given enough credit by audiences, although actors recognized his great contribution to the comic.  He was as important as the comic to the success of the act.  A good straight man could make a fair comic look good and a great comic look better!”

The Straightman functioned as the antagonist in the scenes, filled the authority figure role, criticizing the comic and often brutalizing him.

Roland Barber writes that:

“In the burlesque ritual the straight man was the universal fast-talking sharpie, swindler and con man who, in at least two bits out of three, had to be outsharped, swindled and conned by his victim.”

 

In the nineteenth century, many straightmen also played ethnic characterizations.  Lew Fields, the straightman of comedy team of Weber and Fields, also wore outrageous clothes and spoke in a thick German dialect.  Fields found that when he began working in front of more middle-class audiences, he had to put on evening attire.

Beginning in the early 1900s, the style of the two-man act changed.  Instead of both members of the team dressing outrageously, a distinct line was drawn between the comic and straight man.  “The straight man began to dress in street clothes, if you can call a flashy suit, gray derby, two-toned button shoes, and stock tie ‘street clothes!’  The comic would wear ‘funny’ misfit suits, etc. so you couldn’t mistake him being the comic,” writes Rowland Barber.

The burlesque straightman played the “high” culture to the comic’s “low.”  He was generally well-dressed, even something of a fashion plate, sometimes making costume changes between each scene.  The straightman always wore a hat onstage, at a time when well-dressed men never went outside without one.  There may be some sense in which the straightman is above the audience, while the comic is below.

He often contrasted physically from the comic.  Bud Abbott is tall and slender, while Lou Costello was short and fat.

In his biography of Abbott and Costello, Bob Thomas wrote:

“As straight man, Bud Abbott evinced the manners and morals of a carnival grifter.  He was the swift-talking, brass-hearted rogue, often the victim of his own chicanery.  Lou Costello, the comic, portrayed the victimized Everyman, an innocent in a mendacious world.  Together they worked with the harmony of a Heifetz-Pitaigorsky duet.”

Aggressive and Suave Straightmen

There were two types of straightmen – aggressive and suave.  The aggressive straightman was an authority figure, who browbeat and brutalized the comic.  Joe Laurie Jr. described the straightman as “the scolder” because “he scolded the comics with such lines as ‘I’m ashamed of you–what you did when I introduced you to that lovely lady…’”

The suave type was more low-key, more along the lines of a light comedian in a drawing room comedy.  This type of straightman “knew his way around women, and was easily exasperated with the comic’s ineptitude.”

In actual practice, the straightman often combined qualities of both the aggressive and suave types, as different scenes called for different approaches.  The straightman was something of a con man, taking advantage of the comic with fast talk and glib promises.

The Juvenile

Like the comic, the straightman served an apprenticeship, starting out as a “juvenile straightman” or Juvenile.  The Juvenile often doubled as a singer or a dancer in the shows.  He would often be cast in bit parts which required a second straightman, frequently appearing as a cuckolded husband or a suitor.

The Juvenile was most identified, however, with the “Nance” role.  The Nance was an effeminate or gay character and the Juvenile, with his youth and good looks, was frequently called on to play the part.

Talking Ladies

A woman who worked in the scenes was referred to as the “talking lady” or “the talking woman.”  The term was applied to any woman who performed in the scenes, whether it was a chorus girl picked for a brief walk-on or to an experienced sketch performer.

While many scripts refer to female characters simply as “Girl” or “Woman,” most distinguish between three different female roles – the Ingenue, the Soubrette and the Prima Donna.

They corresponded closely to the male characters.  The Ingenue was an innocent, pretty but unschooled in the ways of the world, and easily taken advantage of.  The Soubrette was the smarter sister – the conniving figure – who knew the power of her allure and used it.  The Prima Donna was generally the austere and authoritarian woman (think Margaret DuMont in the Marx Brothers movies).  She was a large and imposing figure who corresponded to the Straightman.

The Ingenue

The principal talking woman was the Ingenue, as such she functioned as the main object of lust for the male characters.  In some cases the Ingenue was a young chorus girl, brought on to play a walk-on part.

The Ingenue was often a parody or over-the-top depiction of the naive young girl.  Roland Barber noted that “She was “given to ‘cute’ faces and baby talk.  She stepped tiptoe-toe up the runway while singing ‘Oh, Johnny!’ or strewing daisy petals as she recited ‘He loves me, he loves me not.’”

The Ingenue came to refer to the principal talking woman in a show.  She was the woman who really knew the scenes, and was the equal of the comic and straightman.

It was not unusual for a comic to team up with a talking woman – often his wife or girlfriend.  Comic Maxie Furman worked with his wife for much of his career – playing scenes specifically geared for a man and woman.

A number of other husband-and-wife teams toured burlesque, most notably Mike Sachs and Alice Kennedy, and Bob Ferguson and Mary Murray.

Generally, the talking woman played straight for the comic, but Bud Abbott partnered with his wife, Betty, for a several years before teaming up with Lou Costello

The Soubrette

When not working opposite the comic, the Ingenue often appeared with the Soubrette.  The Soubrette was the featured dancer in the show, and many shows employed two or more soubrettes.  Roland Barber characterized them as “semicoquette-semitomboy free spirits who whooped out blues and “pep” songs, and twitted the men along the ramp about their baldness and virility.”

In the scenes, the soubrette was a party girl, who used her sexuality to get what she wanted.  Paired with the Ingenue, the Soubrette was the more experienced woman of the world advising the inexperienced youngster.

The Prima Donna

The third female role was the prima donna.  Typically tall and statuesque, the prima donna was the principal singer in the show.  She was inevitably well-dressed, modeling high fashion.

In the scenes, the prima donna usually played figures of authority, often appearing as the comic’s domineering wife.  In her function within the show, she corresponded to the straightman, as the well-dressed embodiment of the social order

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