- Historic Sites
Its last impresario tells why it is the most American of all entertainments. (It’s not because of the strippers.)
June/July 2002 | Volume 53, Issue 3
FIRST COMIC It was a queer choir.
STRAIGHT A queer choir?
FIRST COMIC Yes. We weren’t even sure about the man who played the organ.
STRAIGHT What do you mean?
FIRST COMIC He played nothing but hymns.
STRAIGHT Let’s sing out of these books [ passing out song books ].
FIRST COMIC What page shall we sing on?
STRAIGHT Sing on page 14.
SECOND COMIC [ looking at book ] There’s no page 14 in my book.
FIRST COMIC Sing on page seven twice. [ Second comic sings a few bars of an operatic aria .] What are you singing?
SECOND COMIC [ showing first comic the page ] See. It says right here Paganini.
FIRST COMIC You damn fool. That’s page nine.
These jokes may seem a little pale on paper, but as performed by a Billy Hagan or a Bert Carr, they have a slyness that makes them irresistible. “Meet Me Round the Corner” is silly and resolutely unsentimental.
The clown in burlesque was never a pathetic figure. He was not the tearful tramp of Chaplin. In most sketches he was represented as a child of nature, the slave of stimulus and response. A girl with obvious attractions appears. He is obviously attracted. The straight man attempts to demonstrate love-making techniques to the comic by massaging the latter’s stomach, whereupon the comic forgets the girl and kisses the straight man. The burlesque-show tramp represents man stripped of his inhibitions, of restraints of all kinds, free of moral pretense, innocent of education, and above all lazy and selfish. He frequently appears to be a victim, but never a pathetic one, because in 9 scenes out of 10 he blunders at the end into some kind of dubious success. Of course, on some occasions he does fail, but even when the comic is left with egg in his hat or pie on his face, the audience feels no pity for him, because it senses his infinite resilience.
I was among the last of a long line of audiences that rooted for the comic in the bloodless and fantastic battles of the burlesque skit and not for the straight man. But ours was a partisanship in which the emotions were not engaged. The burlesque show appealed to our inner passion for anarchy. It encouraged our desire to renounce the painful effort of intelligence and behave as creatures of instinct, not of will.
In addressing itself to all these temporary antisocial childlike inclinations, this most American of all entertainments dramatized the fantasies of a society that thought and still thinks of itself as classless. But the celebration of disorder was contained in an orderly, predictable—indeed, highly conventional—structure. As a result, in sharp contrast with the avant-garde absurdist drama that was becoming popular on Broadway about the time those old comics were playing their last shows, anarchy in burlesque seemed always exhilarating, never threatening.
Of course, there were silly, unsentimental comic forms long before American burlesque was invented. One day in the bar next to the Troc, Billy Hagan showed me a newspaper column that compared him to Aristophanes. He was upset. “Is that a knock at me?” he asked. I assured him that it was the greatest of compliments. Still, while Billy’s scenes might have exhibited certain Aristophanic elements, his humor had no topical social message and was resolutely American in tone and style.
And what a style it was. Most modern comedy is either sentimental (like “Friends” or “Frazier”) or cynical and bitter (like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? ). Burlesque steered a course between the shoals of sentiment and the rocks of harshness and despair when most twentieth-century comedy has been beached on the one or battered by the other.