I linked to a vaudeville site below, which in turn links to many other vaudeville sites. I thought the Edison cylinders of old routines to be a particular find, and clicked on all of them in turn, waiting for some classic bit of hilarity to unfold in front of me.
Not one of them was that funny. One representative short film was a miller, carrying a bag of flour, bumping into a chimney sweep carrying a bag of soot. They got angry and threw black and white powder at each other. That’s it. I can construct in my mind how gifted physical comedians could make even that funny, with fakes, delays, false truces, agile ducks and leaps, and the like, but even at its best it wouldn’t be promising. And, this was not the best. They just threw powder.
A second routine involved a banjo playing country boy making fun of a city slicker looking for directions. Lame jokes. Poor timing. Camp skits as I remember them from the 1960’s were funnier. Even though those sucked.
Vaudeville carries a mystique that even the evidence before me would not dispel. Vaudeville is where Hope and Durante perfected their comic timing. Bert Lahr. Jack Benny. Thus I decided, in the way that we preserve our myths, that this was early vaudeville. Later vaudeville was much funnier. Discussing this with a friend at work, he remembered how excited he was to rent a couple of Marx Brothers movies to watch with his son, and how flat they had fallen. I recalled a similar incident of showing some 3 Stooges episodes to my own sons. There were moments of humor, but mostly, it just wasn’t that funny.
But I had loved those as a kid. Most guys of my generation did.
Okay, so maybe it was humor especially geared to children…except vaudeville was for adults. This was painful for me to absorb, for personal reasons. My father was a gifted actor and physical comedian. My mother had divorced him when I was 6. I sought him out when I was 18 and had a good relationship with him for the rest of his life – he would have been 80 next month. He told stories of old vaudeville routines he had learned and done regionally. He had particularly admired Ben Blue doing the classic silent routine of a man trying to light a cigarette and hold a cup and saucer at the same time. Well into his 60’s Al Wyman would emcee local shows and do his Flo The Flea routine.
I could never decide whether it was an inspiration or a discouragement when I saw him play Mortimer the Indian in The Fantastiks. His death scene was magnificent, and gave me an echo of what vaudeville must have been. I knew I could never be that good. I was better for having seen it – my acting improved immediately – but I wandered out of acting soon after, tried directing and was only moderately good at it. I left the theater and have done little since. What talent I have is residual.
We did carry on the family tradition. I did a minstrel show with my Dad in blackface in 1959. It’s a rather dubious honor to be one of the last people to do that. My son Ben learned “Who’s on first” and performed it with his friend Tim when they were in 5th grade. He’ll be one of the last. I could still do “Sawing a Man in Half” and “Cleaning and Dyeing” without rehearsal. I’m not sure they would be funny, though. They would have an amusing nostalgic air about them, but not be gut-busting. I have scripts from old burlesque routines. Most of them don’t draw a smile.
I am seeking other rationalizations. Humor takes place in its own moment and era, and looks less funny in another period. My father loved the comic strip Pogo in college; I found it mildly amusing. I found Garfield uproarious when it was new, and find it irritating now. I loved The Far Side and would even imagine which panels people from other eras would find humorous. My father-in-law fails to see the humor. He loved Abbott and Costello, which come to think of it, also never seemed funny to me. It may be that the newness and immediacy of vaudeville gave it its life and was necessary for its humor. As nostalgia it just may not work, except as an evocation of an earlier era. The stylistic differences, especially the exaggeration of gesture and expression, may not translate to an audience trained to the subtlety of movie faces and underplayed humor.
I don’t know if I dare watch Dick Van Dyke’s “Why Slapstick Isn’t Funny” again. My stomach used to ache from laughing watching that – but humor may have improved so greatly that it wouldn’t seem so impressive anymore.