Original research, ideas
Sample chapter from...
WANNA MAKE SOMETHING OF IT?
The Secret of Stand-up Comedy
THE HISTORY OF STAND-UP COMEDY
Whoever writes history will probably get it wrong, especially in the eyes of the actual participants. For every news item ever broadcast, there's probably some Jo who was on the spot with a clear view, saying, 'Well it didn't look like that from where I was standing.
Writing history out of your own time is a matter of diligent research unless you're lazy like me. Then it's mostly about interpreting previous interpretations and the occasional first-hand subjective account.
Modern history is a bit different. I can make up my own mind about how important I think Lenny Bruce or Max Miller is to the development of stand-up comedy, because I can listen to the tapes of live gigs and watch some ragged film footage. I can check the dates, research the context and read several contemporary accounts. Then I can write my own interpretation. But it's harder to go back 100 years and do that with Dan Leno and the development of 'patter' in the Music Hall, because there's less to go on. There are no recordings performed in front of a live audience, only some very primitive studio stuff and a few selected scripts, reviews and photos. Meanwhile, some of Leno's contemporaries have been left out of the more recent interpretations and the context is getting mistier. 200 years back in the fogs of time, only the performances of Joey Grimaldi are documented. And four hundred years back?
The Storyteller, the Fool and the Shaman
Taking a stroll through the camping area of a summer festival around dusk, you'd be hard-pushed not to find a storyteller sat in front of a fire surrounded by kids gradually nodding off in their sleeping bags. Not all performers have to go for the big finish. But then not all storytelling audiences lie down with their eyes closed or sit staring into the flames of an open fire.
For the storyteller, part of her art lies in selecting the right story for the occasion. The rest is in the telling. A good storyteller will rarely repeat the same story word for word, and the same story from a different storyteller can often be unrecognisable to the lay listener.
The storyteller / writer, as a general rule, selects the bare bones of an existing story and then customises it to suit her own style. The process can involve describing and interpreting each scene and character through all five senses and in terms of a choice of passing or pervading moods. The whole text can be enriched and decorated using a personal repertoire of mnemonics, schematic sequences and structural devices. In the actual telling, she can inhabit and personify just about anything she chooses, investing every detail, every phrase and every word - verb, noun and adjective, every vowel and syllable, with energy or meaning. She can do sound effects, sing, sniff, snort, spit and gargle. Characters and their actions can be described in their own particular language, rhythm and sentence structure.
A purest-strain storyteller has no first person voice and expresses herself through all the creative choices she has made in the 'writing', and continues to make in the telling. She is a cipher but does more than simply serve the text; she becomes it; she is the text. Her story exists not so much in her physical performance, but more in her ability to feed the imaginations of the listeners. There are no moments in between - the radio's on - there is a version of the fourth wall in place but it mainly concerns the soundscape. If it is broken, then the story embraces the intrusion. At a festival a story can include:
The traditional fool operates with a similar set of creative options to the traditional storyteller, except that with the fool there is no text being served because none exists. While the fool can call on a vast repertoire of technique and comic business, his performance serves only the moment. Like the storyteller, the fool avoids the first person. He expresses himself through selfless play. Beyond that there are no rules and the options are endless - it's playtime.
Ask a fool to express an opinion; he will play at expressing opinions. Ask a fool to make a choice; he will play at making choices. Ask a fool to tell a story and he'll ask you for the plot and the characters.
In the tarot pack, the fool is card Zero of the Major Arcana - the beginning and the end. We start off as a fool knowing nothing and we end up as a fool knowing nothing.
The shaman is a storyteller fool.
The shaman serves the tribe. He has a similar creative toolbox to the storyteller and the fool, plus a few extra options of his own.
He serves the story but there is only one story. He serves the moment and the moment goes back a long way and that's the story.
The shaman takes risks and investigates the dark side. He speaks in the first person only as a cipher to serve the tribe. The shaman can be outrageous and provocative. He may even be feared.
The shaman asks the audience:
The First Joke
It's a good bet that the first joke was a combination of schadenfreude and toilet humour. When the first group of punters gathered around the original village idiot and started laughing at him, it was probably because he was exposing himself or eating turds or bellowing obscene nonsense.
The first inter-action was probably mimicry - them pointing at him and laughing, and him excitedly pointing back at them and imitating their laughter. It escalated from there - shameless behaviour and mimicking the peculiarities of his tormentors, sometimes earning him a scrap of dinner and sometimes landing him in the stocks for the afternoon.
To cut a long story very short: soon his uninhibited antics and complete lack of guile gained a modest reputation and he attracted the attention of the local chieftain who came riding up and said, 'That is funny! Hose him down and bring him back to my place, I've got the King coming to dinner at the weekend.' And so it was that eventually the village idiot, with his innocent lewd show and untutored piss-taking, gibbered, dribbled and masturbated his way to the table of the monarch and eventually into the job of Court Fool.
Didn't last long of course: 'Is that all he does - insult my guests, fart and play with his dong?'
'He pisses himself occasionally.'
'Get me a different one. One that doesn't smell quite as bad.'
Soon the word was out that you could get regular board for the night and eat at the King's Table and all you had to do was pretend to be interestingly deranged.
The Fool became the Feigned Fool, cleaned up his act and became Court Jester with his own regular chat show. Meanwhile, back on the village green, a new grotesque was learning three-ball juggling using two cowpats and a small child.
May 3rd 1993
The Danga to Archy
The parasites of Ancient Greece also blagged a free meal at the table of the great and good in exchange for their provocative and witty banter. Buffoons, wits and fools, with varying degrees of license and success, have done much the same across most cultures and throughout history.
The first recorded mention of a fool is of an all-singing all-dancing African pygmy, the Danga, in the Pharaoh's court in ancient Egypt, 2000 BC. He was said to have mimicked the 'Dance of the Gods' - probably tagged on the end of the chorus line and by pure juxtaposition, rendered it ridiculous.
The rich, famous, and powerful throughout ancient history appear to have surrounded themselves with unusual and eccentric specimens of humanity. Although many of them were kept simply as freak show exhibits, they were part of a culture of otherness that included everything from philosopher fools to half-wits and contortionists.
The best documented is the cult of wise fool dwarves who served the warlords of ancient Ireland. The Celtic tradition is full of the exploits of a broad spectrum of dwarf fools versed in the creative arts, many of whom were warriors, all vested with alleged magical powers, and if not, then at least the talent to trick, amuse and mesmerise.
One suicidal performance by a warrior fool probably changed the course of history. Taillefer was a joculator of William the Conqueror. The story goes that on the morning of the Battle of Hastings, when the two armies were lined up against each other, Tailleffer rode out into no-man's land singing a rousing song of French chivalry. He dismounted and began juggling a huge sword, throwing it high into the air and catching it in rhythm with his singing. The English frontline troops were gob-smacked and even more so when he charged them, making a killing before being killed himself. It is presumably quite difficult to defend yourself while applauding. The French, of course, were roused to great deeds and the rest is the cliché of history.
Much of the information relating to English fools comes from the writings of Christian clerics who were clearly unhappy with the irreligious feigned innocents who had the ear of the king. If fools were not 'the devils work', then what were they? In the cleric's interpretation of events, warrior fools in particular, even though they martyred themselves in battle with lateral behaviour that changed the course of history, were either demonised or left out of the official recorded story of the victors.
The idealised view of the jester is of a licensed fool - the king's eyes and ears in a potentially traitorous court; more pertinently, a confidante and personal playmate, a wordsmith-cum-psychotherapist skilled at reinterpreting the king's own words back to him and capable of inhabiting an alter-ego to mirror the man's folly. Such are the luxuries and necessities of absolute power.
In reality, medieval monarchs, just like modern cabaret audiences, probably got the comedians they deserved. For every jester who lived dangerously and dared to speak the truth, there were those who did little more than competently MC the royal command performance. Doubtless many more ended up in prison or what passed for the madhouse.
What is less well known is that the fool had no status whatsoever, and depending on the etiquette of the particular court or mood of the moment, may well have been ignored entirely by all but his lord or master. Existing only on the fringes of reality, the fool was officially non-existent - a nobody, with less actual status than a pet or even a piece of furniture.
In modern film interpretations of English history, the Monarch's fool is all but absent. Will Somer, the last of the English innocent fools, never features in the films depicting his master Henry VIII. Even Elizabeth I, who recognised and dignified her fools, is never seen with either her two female dwarf fools or her jester, Tarleton. Like most of their kind before them, they are still being written out of history.
In the paranoid court of James I, Archibald Armstrong was more than a jester to the King; he was James's closest friend and personal aide. When James fell seriously ill, he refused to see anyone other than Archy. The court jester was the only one privy to the seriousness of the situation, and for a period of 3 months, perish the thought, a fool probably ran the country. Archy is also credited with a string of outrageous stunts, including assuming the role of a foreign diplomat and ridiculing members of the Spanish court. He eventually had to be pensioned off and was given an estate in Ireland where he retired in colonial decadence with his own court jester. Or did he?
'Commedia dell'arte - comedy of the professionals - was an irreverent, knockabout style pantomime which evolved from the carnivals of Southern Italy and spread across Western Europe via France in the late sixteenth century,' it sez here.
It's hard to imagine a culture with the sort of artistic freedom and high concentration of talent that could give birth to something as elegant and as basic as the commedia dell'arte. But it clearly happened and without any perceptible interference. In fact it was initially sanctioned and sponsored by the wealthy courts
The actors involved were dedicated professionals who committed their careers to extending
the working archive of one character while exploring new riffs and licks in a tight ensemble set-up. These universally recognisable stock characters, with their deeply human flaws and foibles, provided the bedrock of the dramatic conflict. The flexible knockabout style with its fights, deceptions and intrigue was aimed directly at the common people. The plot always reflected the downtrodden servant's perspective of the perennial subjects of love, sex, wealth and power.
Imagine an improvised Goon Show (including women) performing unsentimental Charles Dickens scenarios in the theatrical equivalent of a live rock group format. It was a concept that toured Europe for 200 years.
Commedia was highly stylised theatre, strong on mime, with the actors wearing half masks that accentuated their physicality. They probably expressed themselves verbally in a pan-European theatrical pidgin language, and with every blow, bump and knockabout exchange accompanied by an ensemble backing of sound effects and music.
Any given commedia troupe would have a core group of actors playing the familiar stock characters; essential were two servants and their employer. Harlequin, the young male lead - tricksy, agile and often too clever by half, Columbine, sometimes his lover, torn between love and security or duty, and the wealthy Pantaloon, her sometimes suitor, husband or father, always cuckolded or robbed. There were also other rich and decadent characters: a Doctor-cum-Lawyer - greedy and lecherous, and The Captain - a swaggering boaster often revealed as a coward. But most important was the comic chorus of Zanni - various servants, mischievous oiks and scheming low life - notably Brighella, a wily wheeler dealer gang leader, Pedrollini a love-struck melancholic, Punchinello, a grotesque yobbo.
With an agreed rough scenario and denouement, and a disciplined code which allowed for plenty of spontaneous solos, they improvised their way through a sequence of scenes - the familiar stock character inter-action often having a stone - scissors - paper logic to the outcome.
A solo mime exercise used by modern commedia exponents illustrates the theatrical style and context of bottom-line street life survival perfectly. It's got the makings of tight ten-minute routines dependent on attitude. Every nuance and every thought process is played large and repeated to the audience:
The history is sketchy, but commedia companies could number anything from 10 to 20 and included several other women characters. The actors, who spent their lives playing one stock character, improvising speeches, reciting poems, quipping asides and customising their roles, need not have been playing themselves, but they certainly must have brought much of themselves to their roles. Consequently, throughout the two hundred years of commedia's existence, the stock characters gradually developed and subtly changed, as did their relationships and their status within the troupes. In various cultures across Europe, characters combined and new characters appeared, leading to the establishment of national variations under new names.
In France in the early 1800s the mime actor Debareau developed Pierrot, originally the melancholic Pedrollini, into a national institution. In Les Enfants Du Paradis, the classic French film about his life, Debareau too is portrayed as a deeply sad character hopelessly in love with an unattainable woman.
In 1642 when Oliver Cromwell's Puritan regime banned all theatrical performance, commedia companies must have scrubbed England from their gigging schedules. But the Punchinello character appears to have hung in. Cross-pollinated with the local Vice character - originally the trickster fool of the Mystery plays - Punch utilised Harlequin's slapstick bat, took a wife and resurfaced in the Punch and Judy puppet show.
In England commedia dell'arte eventually morphed into the Harlequinade and then the English Pantomime - but more of that later. First the Bard.
Robert Armin - a speculation
I've always wondered how Elizabethan actors dealt with the groundlings - the rough crowds who paid a half-groat concessionary rate to stand for hours, five feet immediately below the stage. The influence of the energetic commedia dell'arte troupes and how they worked the crowd can have only upped the ante further. My guess is that in both styles, the actors not taking part in a scene, must have remained on stage or at least within the view of the audience. Here they operated like any good performance ensemble - as a role-model for the audience: focussing on the action of the play, always taking part in, but never quite leading the general appreciation and, through their own 'performed' sense of occasion and expectation, subtly censured any disruption. It still must have been an awkward gig. There must have been tension between the serious actors and the comic performers, who had the skills to work the crowd. The temptation must have been irresistible.
Back around 1600, Robert Armin landed a residency as principal comic actor with The Chamberlain's Men - scriptwriter Will Shakespeare. Top of Armin's CV was the fact that Tarleton, Elizabeth's Jester, was once his mentor. He'd also played fool leads with the best theatre companies, had written a successful comic satire, and was publishing a book of jests. He was a top comedy attraction and took up his new post probably just in time to play the original first gravedigger in the original version of Hamlet plus some chorus bits.
Robert Armin was groomed as a fool and then as a comic actor / performer. His creative process must have involved a lot of working the crowds in big alfresco town centre venues. Then suddenly he's landed a ten-minute bit part in a four-hour tragedy. My interpretation of Armin makes him the subject of Shakespeare's irritation in a sub-plot of Hamlet's speech to the First Player. Still with me?
Forget the plot of Hamlet. What Shakespeare is indirectly saying to Armin (and the other comedians and of course to the audience) is...
Was Shakespeare censuring the early development of stand-up comedy? I think so. He wasn't stupid. He will have witnessed the commedia actors improvising long comic speeches and could see that his job, and the jobs of his twenty actors, could all be done by one comic performer and he wasn't taking any chances. If the Bard hadn't been so vigilant, Elizabethan theatre might well have gone the same way as the Edinburgh Fringe Festival - dominated by solo comedians.
If Armin did play the first gravedigger, what did he make of his lines in Act V Scene 1? He is required to pick up the skull of the royal jester Yorrick and utter the words, 'this skull hath lain in the earth three and twenty years,' and, 'a whoreson of a mad fellow...' and '...a pestilence on him for a mad rogue...'
Hamlet picks up Yorrick's skull and explains further with, 'Now get you to my lady's chamber, and tell her let her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must come; make her laugh at that.'
Someone, who knows about these things, once pointed out to me that the Bard was referring to Elizabeth, now an old woman, and her jester Tarleton, who had been dead 13 years. Tarleton was of course Armin's mentor. Why would the Bard put such words in Armin's mouth? Surely as a wind up.
Whatever the nature of the tension between them, and the plays of the Bard are peppered with clues, they continued to work together. Most notably Armin was the original Fool in King Lear. How much of Lear's Fool can be attributed to Armin and how much to Shakespeare is a question worth posing, but not one central to the history of stand-up comedy. There was other, darker stuff about to happen later in the seventeenth century that would match any tragedy the Bard could write.
Fools in High Places
During the English Civil War 1642-8, both the Royalists and Parliamentarians described their adversaries as 'fools'. The subsequent Puritan regime of Oliver Cromwell closed down all the theatres and banned public performances. During this dark period the word 'fool', which had previously been applied to a sympathetic comic innocent or comic performer feigning innocence, now had an ominous connotation. 'Fools in high places' was a phrase used only to describe politicians. A rhetorical question like 'what sort of a fool would ban comedy and laughter?' suggested a far greater madness than any comic pretence a mere fool show could offer. The appellation 'fool', like the fools themselves, was rendered redundant. The actual Fool performers with no professional identity and ostensibly nowhere to perform, had to re-invent themselves as Jack Puddings and Merry Andrews playing in illegal drolls (rough theatre farces) on the country fair circuit.
It was, however, very difficult to legislate against what went on in a market-place or a fairground. Descriptions of Bartholomew Fair at Smithfield make it sound like a long-running seasonal Glastonbury Festival in the middle of London's East End. The jester / cleric Rahere is said to have had the original idea in a vision in 1100.
Throughout the two decades of the police state, 1642-1660, Bartholomew Fair ran almost to schedule. The only time the Puritans did threaten to close it down, they were pre-empted and it opened early and, once up and running, was unstoppable.
For the previous fifty years many a fool performer had earned a living as one of the dupes and fool accomplices in a mountebank's medicine show. These shabby commercial ventures had evolved over the years into an entertainment form using the sale of the elixir only as a means of collecting an entrance fee to what had become a popular fairground attraction. From the 1640s, what was once the very lowest gig a comedian could play, became overnight one of the few shows in town.
It is difficult to comprehend the depth of the social upheaval during this period. The monarch was not only head of the Church and head of the English state, but had ruled (it was believed) with divine authority from God. In January 1649 when Cromwell beheaded Charles I, the political and religious radicalism that was already rife, increased. A year later he put down the leftist Leveller mutiny in the Army and this act unleashed a further spate of utopian sects. Most flamboyant were the Ranters, who eschewed all authority and believed that God existed in all creatures and that men and women were incapable of sin. Ranter prophets and their followers were reported to be roaming the countryside spreading heresy and endlessly partying. This early exotic blossoming of English anarchism was gradually hunted down and its exponents tortured and forced to recant at their trials before being imprisoned.
Meanwhile, and against this backdrop, there existed a sub-culture of professional comic actors and satirical pamphleteers touring the country fair circuit in small troupes, offering news bulletins and the medicine of raw satire to heal the body politic. There is understandably only scant evidence about the nature of these mountebank shows (or the droll shows, which also dabbled in satire). The fact that it did happen was revealed when a semblance of normality was reinstated in 1660 with the restoration of Charles II. Mountebanks with Jack Pudding (fool) assistants emerged as a popular satirical ensemble style doing the rounds.
The world of conventional theatre in England never quite recovered from the Puritan period. Actual spoken word became the designated prerogative of the serious actor and was confined to a handful of theatres, mostly in London. Other venues were required to produce various styles of musical entertainment. This code of niggardly censorship would remain in place with minor tweakings until the turn of the twentieth century. To this day England's licensing laws make it illegal to have three or more musicians on a stage in a regular pub. And as for closing times! What are we? 12 year olds? But I digress... In the decadent Restoration period, the law was arbitrarily administered and it barely extended to the popular theatre of the masses.
By the 1680s, a rogue actor, called Joe Haines, was getting himself a bad name as a comic mountebank by hawking a cure-all elixir of seditious satire aimed variously at the sickness of the church, the state, and certain of his fellow actors. Haines, as well as being an accomplished Harlequin and a comic actor, was also a prankster and practical joker - he was once imprisoned in France for impersonating an English peer. In fact Haines' career is better documented by magistrates' reports and the complaints of those whom he wronged or affronted, than by any theatre reviewers. He toured England with a Jack Pudding fool troupe in tow, masquerading as a professor of medicine, his satirical diatribes and spontaneous mock sermons often landing him in trouble with various authorities and on a number of occasions with audiences too. He explained himself on stage and from the dock, but invariably his pleading and recanting was tongue in cheek and designed to add further confusion.
The escapades of Joe Haines, with his delight in notoriety, suggest he was fearlessly satirising the blatant double standards of his time. In its short life as a stock comic character, the mountebank had always been tarnished by the deceptive show of its real life double-dealing counterpart, selling moody medicine. Haines' contribution deepened the crimes of the mountebank from minor hawking infringements to something close to treason.
The only 'recent' example of a mountebank talking witty social politics I gleaned from the biography of Bonar Thompson - Hyde Park orator. He sold pamphlets on birth control with his customary flair in the street markets of 1930s London, most notably in Electric Avenue, Brixton.
Joseph Grimaldi and English Pantomime
By the first half of the 18th century commedia dell'arte in its original form had spread very thin, although its influence was everywhere. Its harshest critics described it as 'an excuse for staging the spectacle of public brawling'. In the established theatres the Harlequinade pantomime became the English hybrid of commedia dell'arte, with the addition of Clown, a minor English stock character, to the line-up of fall guys for Harlequin to trounce and best. The influential mime actor and dancer, John Rich, silenced the character of Harlequin and moved him away from broad comedy into an eccentric mute romantic hero, and subsequent players continued the trend. The Harlequinade pantomime became a fantastical fairy story - an hour's entertainment at the end of a long evening in the theatre. Meanwhile, Clowns and Pierrots had discovered a little earner away from the theatres, and were developing their broad knockabout comedy skills in the new Equestrian tent shows (the beginnings of Circus) which started from 1770. This potted history is by way of introducing the idea of a comic void to what happened next.
By the end of the 18th century, a Clown of French birth, name of Dubois (the first performer in England to use white face in the circus), was influencing a Clown of Italian extraction, name of Joseph Grimaldi. The Clown character had been steadily growing in comic status with the work of various players, including Grimaldi's father. In 1806, at Covent Garden Theatre, Joey junior junked Clown's traditional rustic smock and ruddy face and dressed himself up in a customised version of servant's livery that also parodied the strutting peacocks of high fashion, and of Harlequin too, no doubt. He added wild startling make-up - white face, red contoured cheek triangles and exaggerated eyebrows. It was all designed to project his actions and expressions to fill the theatre. It would also fill the vacuum left by Harlequin's virtual abdication from the role of top comic lead.
Joseph Grimaldi must have been on a 'moment' at the turn of the 19th century. When his father had last played the role of Clown, he was a dummied-down bumpkin of a character, the bumbling butt of Harlequin's slapstick. Almost overnight Grimaldi Jnr had leap-frogged over and out of the part-time double act and landed Clown downstage centre as an all-knowing urban trickster, adding a tougher satirical edge to the content of his fooling.
Joey Grimaldi had become the first star of the new English Pantomime with customised vehicles written to display his talents. He developed various solo spots within the Panto plot-line and showcased what was generally acclaimed to be his comic genius. As well as establishing the comic song, he also performed high-energy acrobatics and performance stunts. Whatever it was he had, the impact was phenomenal. The next generation of clowns and funny men, particularly in the new circuses, were Joeys, not 'were known as' Joeys. This was beyond generic. They 'were' Joeys. They did him. The full tribute act. Every other Light Ents act in the biz was a tribute act to Joey Grimaldi. Long after his death, his influence was still felt beyond theatre and circus, in the robust satiric approach to costume, make-up, and comic song in the Music Halls.
Any description of Joey Grimaldi's varied talents always includes his unusual skill of lampooning popular figures of the day by apparently re-arranging fruit, vegetables and cooking utensils and other everyday items on a barrow. It wasn't a one-off joke; he was known for it and he rang the changes. For example: upper class dandies, King George III included, had made the hussar uniform high fashion. Now, just how Grimaldi arranged a coal scuttle, a muff and a full-length coat into a primitive cartoon sculpture that had a Covent Garden audience of 2500 rolling in the aisles night after night, was beyond me. I assumed that an allusion to royalty was dangerous and his comic genius must have been in the execution, leaving the joke, therefore, lost to us.
Then, in the early 1990s, I was sat in the middle of 2000 people in a tent at the Campus Festival in Devon watching the theatrical maverick and spoken word performer, Ken Campbell. He had brought a little shopping trolley on stage with him, holding several books which he referred to occasionally. He started talking about the meaning of life and took off his jacket and casually dumped it on top of the books. Then he read out something about physics, replaced the book, took off his glasses and placed them on top of his jacket. It was a hot day and, while he talked, he mopped his brow, took off his cap and put it with the rest of his stuff. He started talking about paying a visit to Prof Stephen Hawking to discuss Grand Unified Theory. He gave the trolley a half turn and started talking to it. No one saw it coming and no one expected it. But there, on stage, was the unmistakable icon of Stephen Hawking - his crumpled little body, with a book on his lap, and his face, lost as usual behind his glasses and under the peak of his cap. Uncanny? I think so. Grimaldi was clearly a comic genius. And Ken Campbell is worth a mention too.
A Brief History of Burnt Cork Minstrelsy
There were white actors blacking up and playing black comic characters in the British Theatre as early as the 1760s - Charles Dibdin, the actor who wrote Joey Grimaldi's first major Panto, Mother Goose, 1808, had toured England in his youth with a black-face solo comic recitation. It was an acquired taste of the English upper classes who also kept black servants as fashion accessories. The English 'comedian' Charles Mathews played Philadelphia in 1820 as a comic slave character performing a recitation.
In 1828, during an interval spot in a New York theatre, a white actor named Daddy Rice appeared as a black character, 'Jim Crow', and sang a song of the same name. His skin was darkened with burnt cork; he was dressed up as a crass black stereotype. The song and the man were an overnight success. Rice was touring Britain within two years.
In 1843 a bunch of white musicians did some serious ear-wigging and learned a whole repertoire of black songs and performed them under the name 'The Virginia Minstrels'. Their example was soon taken up and given a more theatrical format by the Christy Minstrels and very quickly the whole tawdry show was on the road. It became a national pastime and spread throughout America and Europe. While the blacks were still at work, many whites spent their leisure time blacking-up in hobbyist bands portraying blacks as all-singing, all-dancing, grinning hedonistic buffoons. We'd slipped back 4000 years.
While many of the early songs and music were stolen from the blacks by whites, and customised to suit their own style and prejudice, it was a white man who originated the format for the spoken word interludes. Steven Forster was the writer / director behind the Christy Minstrels. Not only did he write many of the original songs, he is also credited with the concept of the semi-circle of musicians with Mr Interlocutor the MC in the centre, and the two 'end men', Brudder Tambo (on tambourine) and Brudder Bones (on bones or spoons). These three players performed short comedy interludes of cross-talk repartee, riddles and jokes in between the song and dance numbers, plus an extended musical sketch where the stock characters, 'Jim Crow', a stupid country bumpkin, along with his skiving, work-shy urbanite counterparts, Jim Dandy and Zip Coon, explored and exaggerated the cross-talk further. In another context, this wholesale denigration of a defenceless race would have been the acceptable and familiar stuff of developing stock character foolery.
The terms 'Jim Crow', 'Dandies', and 'Coons' became used as racial slurs with a whole entertainment genre to perpetuate them and the bigotry behind them. Eventually, as the abolition of slavery became a major issue, 'Jim Crow' became the word applied to the laws and customs which oppressed blacks. By then the garish simplicity of the burnt-cork minstrel style and its oeuvre of often outstandingly catchy songs, energetic dance routines, and cross-talk comedy formats, had become endemic across the Atlantic in the Victorian Music Hall.
There had always been featured 'genuine Negro' minstrel performers working the English Halls and they had long since set a precedent for what seems in retrospect one of the bizarre ironies of 'emancipation'. For American blacks, it must have been a rare early equal opportunity to form their own minstrel shows and black-up with burnt cork (with a touch of white on the eyes and lips), pretending to be whites pretending to be blacks. By the time they got on the circuit forged by the whites pretending to be blacks, and toured the English Music Halls, they were blacks pretending to be whites pretending to be blacks, replacing whites pretending to be blacks. Had nobody heard of whiteface? It was that style of confusion (but not that one) that was the stuff of the cross-talk repartee of Minstrelsy.
There is still much denial and embarrassment around the documenting of Minstrelsy. I discovered more information on a website about the history of the banjo than on sites or in books devoted to the history of Pop music, Vaudeville, or Music Hall. I find it hard to believe, but supposedly the black minstrel troupes hardly deviated from the existing formats of their white predecessors and did little more than continue to confirm the stereotypes.
However offensive it appears to us now, the burnt-cork minstrel of the late 19th and early 20th century was an acceptable home grown American stock character - an available option for any performer, regardless of race, to inhabit and explore all manner of eccentricity.
When Al Jolson (previously an endman with Dockstader's Minstrels and, incidentally, Jewish) 'immortalised' blackface and sang 'Mammy' in the first talkie, The Jazz Singer, in 1928, he gave the solo Minstrelsy of Daddy Rice a new lease of life.
All the stock characters of fooldom had their battles with language, and it's a fair assumption that the fast cross-talk misunderstandings of Abbot and Costello and the Marx Brothers all owe much to the endmen of Minstrelsy.
Victorian Music Hall
Victorian Music Hall evolved from backroom tavern entertainment - so-called Penny Gaffs. The first customised Halls were built in the late 1840s and were licensed for smoking, drinking and music, but not spoken word dramas. So the modern history of stand-up comedy seems to have started in an institution where sustained talking to the audience was actually illegal. The comedians of the Music Hall sang mostly robust comic songs with a fair sprinkling of sentimental ballads and were devised for mass community singing and without a
PA system. It's no surprise that fragments still live on in the sing-a-long choruses and chants from the terraces of football grounds: My old man said, be a city / town / united fan. Fuck off! Bollocks! You're a cunt! being a particularly charming re-working of 'Don't dilly-dally on the way' which, had she heard it, Marie Lloyd may well have approved of. The song seems to be a variation on 'Polly Wolly Doodle' which was one of the very first songs of Minstrelsy and also has a range of football terrace adaptations.
The influence of Panto
Music Hall also had deep roots in Grimaldi-style English Pantomime which developed and occupied many theatres as well as most of the Halls for several months of the year. The convention of cross-dressing was endemic and the costume, make-up, and performance style of Panto all added to the projection of image to fill the room. There were as many solo women artists strutting around the stage in top hat and tails as there were men making the most of their pantomime dame routines. Panto was (and remains) predominantly a performer's, rather than an actor's medium, and long runs in Panto doing knockabout comic characters performing monologues with musical accompaniment was a major influence and training ground for the Halls.
While many of the wide range of skills and novelty acts in the general Music Hall melting pot were picking up influences and finding their own comic rapport with the audience, the singers of sentimental comic songs were developing in another way. Gus Elen was one of the leading 'Coster comedians', a sort of barrow boy-cum-pearly king, a popular London character 'type' of the time. He was less of a rowdy carouser than his contemporaries and the long lyrical verses of his songs resembled the reflective content of much later stand-up routines. Songs like 'it's a great big shame' and 'ouses in between' were rich in lines about poverty and textural jokes about the cockney dialect.
Dan Leno, Harry Champion and patter
A further advance came from Panto Dame and King of the Halls, Dan Leno, a cross-dressing clog-dancing expressive comic mega-talent, who was reckoned to be the first to introduce long sequences of patter tacked on to the verses of his songs. His contemporaries developed it further and it's hard to imagine now how this actually worked in practice. At the turn of the 20th century new customised Variety theatres were being built that held up to 3000 people, double the capacity of most music halls. The patter-style cockney bollocks verse to a music hall song like Harry Champion's 'Any old Iron' requires much the same motormouth delivery as a modern rap offering.
Without amplification, just how did the audience, sat in the back of the Hackney Empire upper circle, hear the jokes and appreciate the subtleties? My understanding is they were probably singing the chorus at the time and that patter started off and developed as asides to the front stalls and those within earshot. Either that or Champion had impeccable diction, excellent projection and the sort of charisma that demands total focus. He had none of these; he was a loveable blustering rabble-rouser.
This is no idle speculation. When I was in Rough Theatre in the mid seventies, I re-wrote several of his songs and while the choruses worked fine, I never managed to keep the rhythm and project the verse lines beyond the front few rows:
Patter became one of the comedian's creative options and although it may have been officially described as music, with regular piano chords punctuating the spoken word, it was undoubtedly the beginning of modern stand-up comedy. Patter's leading exponent, Dan Leno, was still ostensibly wedded to character comedy until the end of his career, and would tick the same box as Dame Edna Everage or Harry Enfield. Others used the costume and make-up of character only as a way of projecting their image.
Marie Lloyd needed no character costume to stamp her good-time girl identity on the back row. Although she may have exaggerated her make-up, she sang her bawdy songs, and doubtless worked the stalls, without the facade of character. She, like many others, was performing a bold and heightened version of herself.
After World War One, eccentric comedians, as opposed to character comedians, were more in evidence. George Robey (the Prime Minister of Mirth) wore a dark smock-like coat and had enormous eyebrows set against a tides-out receding hairline, and Billy Bennett (almost a gentleman) wore a crumpled dinner suit and hobnailed boots. Both recited set-piece rhyming monologues with accompanying patter, short sections of which were single idea jokes.
If it was only for want of a PA system to project their voices in the larger venues, what then was happening in the smaller venues? Did stand-up comedy actually get started away from the big Variety theatres? Audiences of the time were also listening to a range of alfresco public orators in parks and market places, many of whom were far from serious speakers and joked about everything under the sun. Alongside them was a sub-culture of racing tipsters - big characters who relied on entertaining crowds with prolonged mountebank-style witty spiel. It's hard to imagine that there wasn't some crossover of styles happening in the more intimate entertainment venues. It's an unfashionable thought, but maybe stand-up comedy, in terms of a sustained act of nothing more than just talking to the audience, first got going in the more up-market supper club circuit, where comedians like Arthur Askey learned his trade sharing the bill with after-dinner speakers.
By the time decent PA systems were eventually installed in the early 1930s, sustained joke-telling and short anecdotes were part of the comedian's options. The official restrictions on spoken word were now delegated to the theatre managements who enforced stringent codes concerning good taste. It became a matter of choice whether to cut out the songs, ditties, and monologues and go for a wholly stand-up set. It is Ted Ray who is credited with dumping his white suit and bowler hat, and walking on stage in much the same Saturday night togs as the other young blokes in his audience. He performed an act comprising jokes and short first person anecdotes, saving his violin solo only for the all-important big finish.
Max Miller - Comic Attitude and Beyond
I saw Max Miller play the Chiswick Empire in 1957 when I was twelve. My Dad took me one evening out of the blue - doubtless as a rite of passage. All I can remember is that there was this geezer, and I mean 'geezer' on stage wearing a suit made out of jazzy curtain material with the baggy trousers stuffed neatly into his socks - 'plus fours'. I asked my Dad afterwards. I'd recently become obsessed with clothes. On the way to the gig, Dad had said, 'So you wanna suit? I'll get you a suit like Max Miller's.' He said nothing else. I knew it was going to be a joke. That was my only expectation and my only lasting image of Max Miller. I can't remember any of his jokes, only my Dad's daft joke on me about Miller's suit.
Clearly I was bonding with my father and not paying attention, but what I did recall of Miller is fascinating: a packed darkened room, with the crowd hanging on his every word. The pervading mood was of something illicit happening, like at any moment we might be found out and all asked to leave.
Later, as an adult, listening to the tapes of his gigs, I seriously started to wonder what sort of repressed adolescent I must have been to have had a chance to listen to so many saucy jokes, and not to have taken it. Maybe I was simply embarrassed and chose not to hear. But that's not the point. Whatever else I missed, I clearly clued into what was going on.
When he was peaking in the late thirties, he must have cut the same sort of figure as Joey Grimaldi. Working class geezer dressed up like an over-the-top toff - on anyone else it'd look silly - but Miller's so full of himself, he's carrying it off. A cheeky charming swaggering narcissist. He's travelled, he's gambled and he's certainly 'one for the ladies' and, given half a chance, he'll tell us all about it.
As soon as Miller is on, he establishes a conspiratorial dynamic with the audience concerning the whereabouts of the theatre manager who wants to check his material. He keeps glancing into the wings:
Miller, and he must have been 65 years old when I saw him and well past his best, was still creating a mood of furtive disclosure and the audience were still colluding with him. He presumably still had his comic attitude of 'cheeky and conspiratorial' curled into 'devilment and mock denial' with its 'will he or won't he get a chance to tell us' hook of expectation into the audience.
It's a device that served him well over four decades and there must have been times when it was very real. Miller's career is dotted with periods when he was out of favour and banned outright from the stages of employers who were committed to promoting a 'decent' show, aimed at a broad popular cash return.
There has never been a period when such a device was not relevant. A contemporary comedian could make it work today on the Miller-lite Jongleurs circuit, where the current taboo is one of creativity with its possibility of causing discomfort by hinting at the evil of service industry failure. 'If he gets a chance, will he or won't he go too far and be an individual and serve his own truth instead of a generic approximation?'
When Miller did put down the approved white book and delivered his 'blue book' material, it was merely a taster of the sort of jokes doing the rounds in the public bars. Hearing Miller tell it again, publicly and in front of the ladies, was the actual gag. Contemporary comedians like Jenny Eclair and Jo Brand (who women take their twelve-year-old daughters to see) are leading exponents of a modern variation, with a range of awkward female subject matter. When I saw the Milleresque Roy Chubby Brown live in Skegness in 1998, he had a neat twist on the theme, which involved a tacit conspiracy with the women in the audience to tell detailed cunnilingus jokes to embarrass the lads.
Max Miller, the Cheeky Chappie, is remembered for his risqué comic songs and the jokes he shouldn't have told, but the other element of his performance that consolidated his attitude and assured his longevity as headline act, was his sparkling rapport with the audience and the fluency of his 'patter' between the gags.
Who Killed Variety?
Variety wasn't killed off by television; it just failed to adjust its set. From the mid-fifties everything got a lot grubbier in Variety; whether or not Max Miller was supported by a series of nude tableau acts, I can't recall, but that's what started to happen. It was the wrong response aimed at the wrong generation and when it became obvious that rock 'n' roll was the new Music Hall, Variety couldn't compete. The first wave of rock audiences were tearing up the seats because they didn't want to sit and watch; they wanted to get up and dance. In retrospect, an astute Variety management should have ripped out the front six rows in a couple of the tattier theatres and booked a trial season of raunchy comedy rock packages. The Coasters headlining, Lonnie Donegan in support, and Screaming Lord Sutch, for openers. I'd have gone. Instead, their last ditch attempt was to try and incorporate it in a traditional bill 'and introducing popular new recording star Cliff Richard'. That sort of approach.
Lonnie Donegan did actually play Variety but with much the same treatment. They missed their chance there; his comic songs were in the tradition of the Music Hall. If anybody could have saved Variety, it was probably him.
It was three years later, in 1960, when I was fifteen, that I next recall seeing live entertainment - Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran - at a scruffy cinema in Ruislip. By then, the new generic role model of rock had narrowed to young, cool and mildly delinquent.
Variety was dead by then and live stand-up comedy was virtually in hiding.
Why are Eric and Ernie so Loveable?
In the autumn of 2001, I was on my way to Amsterdam and arrived in the crowded departure lounge at Luton Airport to learn that the flight had been delayed for two hours.
About a third of the three hundred or so people waiting were sat watching the telly on an overhead screen. Back to back Morecambe and Wise TV shows. I stashed the book I was reading, found myself a seat in the middle of them and let it wash over me. There's a lot worse ways of spending two hours. The youngish lively crowd were focussed and loving it. Every time there was a break from Eric and Ernie, people chatted to each other and I soon picked up on the fact that most of them were Dutch with a fair sprinkling of other nationals, mostly Europeans, but only a few English.
So what was it about Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise that made them so universally loved?
Ernie Wise was working the Northern Club circuit when he was six-years-old. His father would black-up and sit him on his knee and sing 'Little Pal' as the finale to a cross-talk comedy double act, Carson and the Kid. Eric Morecambe was almost as precocious - winning talent contests in his early teens, staged by a professional 'blacked-up minstrel' troupe in the local seaside resort of Morecambe. He, like Ernie, was an all-round song and dance comic. They teamed up as a double act in the mid 1940s when they were both still in their teens. By sheer hard work and dedication, they became a headline showbiz attraction by 1960. In all that time they'd never had an original thought in their heads. They did what almost every other act did in their profession - they nicked material off other acts or rummaged in the archive and appropriated whatever suited them. It was the demise of live Variety and their decision to concentrate on television that forced them to finally take on scriptwriters and pay for using other people's material. No judgement. That's the way it was. Interesting to note that Hills and Green, the scriptwriters for their second TV series, were paid more than them.
In a profession where the bland were leading the bland, Morecambe and Wise got creative. Their double act evolved and gradually became less dependant on scripted gags and more on the subtle inter-action of their personas. For the rest of their careers (until 1983 when Eric died of his third heart attack) they stayed at the top. Their most creative period was their time at the Beeb from 68-77. In the final five years they appeared to be coasting.
In a double act, the two expressions of attitude echoing the set-up and punchline of joke structure are obvious. In their early work there was little or no attitude involved beyond the fact that Ernie was charming and sensible (the feed) and Eric was wacky and comical (the gag man). They would stand or fall on the quality of the gag and the business of putting it over to the audience. The whole thing was in inverted commas and very stagey. Often the set-up was cumbersome and required a prop that was then discarded. Eric walking on with an apple on a string tied to a stick.
Boom boom! And it was a 'boom boom!' or 'tarrah!' to the audience on the punchline. A dozen more gags, a couple of songs and a dance routine. Such was the stuff of double acts. After twenty years with regular updates and ringing the changes, Morecambe and Wise knew their business intimately.
When they subtly reversed the roles with Ernie Wise still providing the set-up but by expressing ambition, vanity or pomposity, it's his attitude that is the set-up more than what he's actually saying. And it's a perfect set-up. Eric also gets to express attitude. Eric need only register the fact that he's heard it. A simple turn to Ernie and a corresponding raised eyebrow to the audience or camera can get the laugh. His attitude is a complexity of rising status, mock pity or mild derision and of course playfulness. From there he can embark on humouring Ernie to encourage him to make further egocentric statements.
A further sophistication involved Ernie Wise catching on to the fact that he was being humoured or that Eric was sharing something with the audience and going behind his back. When Ernie started standing up for himself and making efforts to turn the joke back on Eric, it got curlier still. Eric's mugging to the audience became double-takes, which required a look of knowing amusement acknowledging what was going on - (Whooee! get him!).
The final deepening of the plot assured them an undeniable place in the heart of the nation's Christmas viewing habits.
When Ernie's backchat starts scoring the odd point, Eric is forced to notionally stop the game and remind Ernie of some salient facts. He points at Ernie, warning him to lay off the clever stuff. These threats never amount to anything more than playful reminders that Eric is twice Ernie's size - a look of censure, a firm arm around the shoulder, and very occasionally briefly holding Ernie's face between his hands and glancing at the audience.
But Eric never takes it any further. He may still glance at the audience, but he never goes so far as to ask them, 'Shall I give him the slap he deserves?' He always desists. They are friends and Eric is not about to betray the friendship any more than he already has.
And that was the beauty of it. Their on-stage relationship became a well-observed reflection on the unwritten rules of any long-term relationship. Eric has reached the boundary. Whatever his problem is with Ernie, he'll have to live with it, grin and bear it and close ranks.
Ernie of course is oblivious to all this and full of himself. Eric can only gently snipe, even playfully sulk, or better still, get Ernie off his ego-trip and on to another agenda where they can both mess about and enjoy themselves. Cue for a song. Two of a kind? They definitely weren't that.
In their performance, Ernie Wise is a vain, ambitious, penny-pinching, bumptious, flawed little know-all - a showbiz monster; Eric Morecambe a big, warm, endlessly playful man, who expresses a complexity of largesse and patience in a look and a minor adjustment to the tilt of his glasses. His only flaw is that he loves Ernie unconditionally. Every Morecambe and Wise sketch is a little homage to the tolerance of friendship.
I never saw Lenny Bruce perform. I was vaguely aware of the news items about his short run of gigs at The Establishment Club in 1963 and his subsequent exclusion from the UK. Shortly after this, I heard his first album 'Sick Comedian'. It was recorded in the fifties. I didn't know it, but by then he'd moved on to a far more adventurous style of comedy. It was 1968 and Lenny Bruce had been dead for two years when I first heard what I now consider to be his three seminal albums - the concerts at Berkeley, Carnegie Hall, and the Curran Theatre.
America in the fifties
In the period following World War Two, the development of good quality microphones, and the advent of television contributed to more intimate and less robust approaches to live comedy.
In America, the post-war generation of comedians were playing a circuit of cabaret clubs with occasional TV chat show appearances. They began to drop the razzmatazz of vaudeville styles (the equivalent of Variety and Music Hall) in favour of something far more relaxed and sophisticated. By the late fifties, one strain of this style eschewed familiar gag-telling in favour of extended skits and thematic routines. The early albums of Bob Newhart and Shelly Berman helped establish and popularise this style. Its most adventurous exponent, Lenny Bruce, explored subject matter previously deemed unsuitable as mainstream comedy material, performing extended raps about religion, drugs and sexuality. While Bruce's admirers celebrated him as a taboo-breaking social satirist, he was dubbed 'sick comedian' by journalists representing the conservative silent majority.
Lenny Bruce clearly became tired of doing the well-rehearsed comic 'bits', as he called them, and he began endlessly experimenting with ways of sustaining improvisation beyond the simple honing, heightening and embellishment of existing material. As early as 1960 his preferred approach was to 'free-form' - go out there, kick a few ideas around and give voice to his stream of consciousness, keeping his existing set-piece 'bits' in reserve to, if need be, pull the gig round.
By the early sixties, Lenny Bruce and his more politically motivated contemporaries, Mort Sahl and Dick Gregory, were performing their material as if they were holding an intelligent spontaneous conversation with the audience. The joke structure employed was subtle and not immediately apparent; their stage personas, the experiences related and the opinions expressed, had the ring of authenticity. The subject matter was real and relevant. Even their costume was casual everyday wear. We had entered the era of the serious raconteur comedian, although it would be another twenty years before this style of stand-up established itself with any grace on a live stage in the UK (Dave Allen being a notable exception).
The sensational side of Lenny Bruce's career has been well-documented. But there is an artistic legacy made of subtler stuff. Lenny Bruce's most important contribution to the art of stand-up comedy has less to do with breaking taboos around choice of language and subject matter, and more to do with the risks he took with himself on stage. Unsurprisingly, Lenny was into be-bop - he wanted to 'blow', 'wail' and 'cook' like a jazz musician, but having a flair for language and a head full of outrageous ideas, didn't bear comparison with 'being at one with your axe'. Performing stand-up seemingly without artifice, he started to discover range and variety in the light and shade of his own on-stage personality - his performance 'attitude'. More than any other comedian before or since, Lenny Bruce intuitively understood, used, and oozed attitude. He performed in a style of such flair and intimacy and expressed himself so eloquently, it is hard to think of any comedian since who has done anything vaguely comparable.
It was the American legal system that provided him with the impetus which would ironically liberate his artistic style, and tragically also be the death of him. First, in 1961, came an unnecessary drugs bust for the possession of methadone for which he had a doctor's prescription. A few weeks later, there was an equally pointless and vindictive obscenity bust for use of the phrase 'cock-sucker' in his stand-up act at the first house at the Jazz Workshop, San Francisco. He was out on bail and back on stage for the late show, with a whole wodge of potent material and the urgency and opportunity to share it. Rapping out his experiences with the law and updating his audience with his latest take on the current situation became a central theme in his work.
The busts (eight in all) and the police harassment continued; preparation for the lengthy trials and appeals began to take over much of his life; by 1965 he was bankrupted by legal fees. He died penniless of a methadone overdose in August 1966. For much of this time he was gigging - catharting his stuff and downloading the contents of a teeming mind to an intrigued audience.
It's a sign of those times that throughout, he was never hostile towards his audience; there was no indulgent ironic anger or second-hand raging at authority. Quite the opposite. He spoke to them as equals, often without guile, honestly sharing his bewilderment at the madness of the situation he found himself in. While Lenny was offering insight and overview of contemporary American society, he was also conducting a self-examination. Lenny's gigs were intimate affairs, and although there were many hundreds present, they had the mood of confidentiality, as if he was thinking aloud while writing up his diary.
The 1961 recording of his non-stop three-hour gig at the Curran Theatre, San Francisco, contains sequences that surpass any in stand-up comedy. The potency of the moment and much of the content is lost on us now - the samplings, local and cultural references, the detail, even some of his opinions and slang - it's all a foreign country. But forget the material, forget the word play and the twisted cliché joke structure; listen to the technique - the orchestration of his range of attitude. Just listen to the jazz of it.
Lenny Bruce delivered his witty insights and opinion in a spectrum of personal voices all in close attendance, but none getting to solo for more than a few seconds. While it wasn't always immediately funny, it made for a decidedly vital performance. He chatted honestly and openly, confided conspiratorially, wisecracked asides, mused soulfully, shared very personal observations, pleaded world-weary bewilderment, groped earnestly to understand and laughed delightedly at his own conclusions. He also rattled off opinionated short-hand information, sampling two decades of popular culture with comments, quips, quotes, snapshot characterisations, imagined official conversations and references to the local-immediate. Any of it could escalate into flights of nonsense and surrealism or slow to thoughtful reflection. There was a continual reprising of some of these references throughout in a range of fresh contexts. Another part of the textural glue uniting his act was a generous peppering of Yiddish slang, hip slang, jazz slang, showbiz slang, concocted language and verbal sound effects. All of it a deliberate artifice to help release his stream of consciousness and its free associations. He even alludes to this fact in his act, one voice offering an ongoing explanation of his comedy technique. Listening to Lenny Bruce, you get the feeling there was nothing in his life or art that he couldn't express through stand-up comedy.
Original research, ideas