February 19, 2016

WATCH ME IF YOU CAN | Shifting from the Vaudeville Aesthetic to Comic Realism

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As ideals changed in American society, trends in what Americans considered entertaining changed as well.  A shift from a vaudevillian aesthetic to a narrative one of comic realism was necessary in order to sustain an audience.

The vaudeville aesthetic dominated comedy.  It was a variety show of short units, commonly called a “revue.”  Success in comedy depended on personality, along with a rapidfire number of jokes.  There was no time for exhibition, or a plot.  The narrative was suppressed and condensed, eliminated even.  Comedians relied on an immediate response and side gags.

The audiences of vaudeville was predominantly immigrants.  There was little knowledge of the english language or thinking involved in order to find these antics funny.  Eggs would be thrown at each other, and hecklers were often planted in the audience to intensify the antics.

Usually, a joke requires formal closure from a punchline, which cannot serve as a springboard for the next joke.  The story would always be subordinate in vaudeville.  In order for the joke to work, the desired resolution cannot serve as the ending of the joke.  It must be subversive and undercut something.

In the 1900s, the humor attitudes changed, as the aspiring middle class viewed themselves as respectable and above vaudeville.  Belly laughs were viewed as a loss of bodily control and a sign of how ignorant the masses were.  Crude humor was savage.  People rejected the vaudeville aesthetic in search for a more visceral reaction.

Entertainers wanted to replace the humor of immediate gratification with an aesthetic comic realism and comedic incongruity.  It placed a higher value on distance and emotional control.  This emerged in motion pictures and entertainment.  Films began to tell stories, as a narrative was invented.

Many hoped that movies would have more to them than slapstick.  Filmmakers wanted to tell stories that would stay with us.  Realism in films was preferred over humor.  The 1910s, 20s and even into the 30s saw a competition between the vaudeville aesthetic and comic realism. Filmgoers wanted both, and a balance needed to be reached in order to satisfy them.  Hollywood hired many vaudevillians, but tried to tell more stories with them.

Courtesy of Disney

When trying to create films the brought the two genres together, there was conflict in deciding what to and what not to include.  For example, in the 1934 movie Hollywood Party, an animated Disney number called “Hot Chocolate Soldier” was meant to be a part.  The film was considered “a succession of bits and numbers” that was basically “evidence that the narrative of comic realism is winning.”  “Hot Chocolate Soldier” was so good that including it took away from the rest of the film, and caused audiences to believe that vaudeville was hard to keep alive.

The 1930s saw comic realism in films start weaving in thematic concerns of how to act in proper society in the form of screwball comedies.  They are mainly about romantic relationships, usually two people who want to be together but are of separate social classes.  They end with celebration and romantic commitment bridging society and comedy together.

Even though comic realism took over the entertainment world, some anarchist vaudevillians stayed big stars.  For example, the Marx Brothers (in my opinion) were the most flexible and successful entertainers during this shift in genre.

None of them abided by the Victorian Era ways, and each did their own thing without regards to any societal standards and circumstantial rules put in place.  They started their career on Broadway stars, as Chico oversaw which direction they should go in, and Groucho oversaw the more creative matters.  They became wildly popular theater acts with their organic improv.  I’ll Say She Is was the first show they starred in, which was a musical review.  Their other two onstage hits were The Cocoanuts and Animal Crackers, which both were adapted to film.

The Marx Brothers were able to adapt to different cinematic circumstances in a world where the vaudeville stars became less and less significant.  In order to see how subversive their characters are (namely Chico, Groucho and Harpo), you don’t need to think too much.  Their comedic style is the opposite of immediate gratification, and their films also offered the Hollywood ending, as order was restored and couples were appropriately paired off.  Marx Brother films appropriately responded to the narrative of comic realism, even though the majority of their gags were reminiscent of the vaudeville aesthetic.

At the end of the day, the vaudeville aesthetic didn’t completely die.  It reappears in cartoon characters such as Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse (for a short while) and Betty Boop.  Movies did tell stories from that point on, but still draw on the vaudeville aesthetic.  Most people will say now that vaudeville comedy is not funny, as audiences either get it or they do not.  There is now more of an emphasis on irony over sentiment.

Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Marina Caitlin Watts is a senior studying Communication. In addition to writing for The Cornell Daily Sun, she has also been published on various film websites along with The Daily Beast. She loves Frank Sinatra and hates decaf coffee. If you need her, she is waiting for Godot. Watch Me If You Can appears on alternate Fridays this semester. She can be reached at [email protected].