racism in comedy -- 1/11/16

Today's selection -- from The Comedians by Kliph Nesteroff. The Marx Brothers, Groucho, Chico, and Harpo, reigned supreme among American comedians in the 1920s and 1930s -- a period of rampant racial stereotyping and prejudice. They used their success to try and erase these racial caricatures from entertainment:

"The [young] Marx Brothers toured as [a 'schoolroom act' called] the Six Mascots, and like many schoolroom acts, their characters were defined using racial caricature. Such racial stereotypes were common in vaudeville. Jack Sobel, father of comedian and television director Howard Storm, was in a Gus Edwards road company. 'It was called School Days with the Crazy Kids,' says Storm. 'My father did what in those days they called "the Jew comic." They had the Irish comic, the Dutch comic, the Jew comic.'

"Joe Laurie Jr. argued that in those days 'nobody took exception to the billings of The Sport and the Jew, Irish by Name but Coons by Birth, The Mick and the Policeman, The Merry Wop, Two Funny Sauerkrauts. It was taken in good humor by the audience. There were no pressure groups and no third generation to feel ashamed of immigrant origins.'

The Six Mascots

"Laurie Jr. said nobody found it offensive, but a better interpre­tation is that fewer found it offensive. Many felt uncomfortable with racial stereotypes, but there were few places for their grievance to be heard. Vaudeville comedians Harry Hershfield and Peter Donald made their livings with racial caricature. When former schoolroom players Groucho Marx and Walter Winchell, now a newspaper col­umnist, found themselves in a position of power years later, they waged a battle to have racial caricature erased from vaudeville. They used Hershfield and Donald as examples of undesirable comedy. Hershfield and Donald defended themselves, telling the press that racial caricature 'if done well is not offensive.' In an open letter to Variety they argued, 'The most dialectically used and abused nation­als were the Scots and the Swedes -- who have never complained.' Groucho Marx shot back angrily, 'The Sandy McPhersons and Yonny Yohnsons were not a minority being subjected to oppression, restric­tion, segregation or persecution.'

"Groucho's perspective was informed by the racism the Marx Brothers had faced while playing the road. 'We had to brazen our way into strange towns in the Midwest and down South,' said Harpo Marx, 'where we knew we had three strikes against us. One: we were stage folks, in a class with gypsies and other vagrants. Two: we were Jewish. Three: we had New York accents.' Comedian Benny Rubin remembered vaudeville in the Deep South. 'There were the hate towns, which you found down South where they hated Catholics, Blacks and Jews. So anybody like that didn't have a chance.'

"The protests against racial caricature made gains in the final years of vaudeville. Laurie Jr. wrote, 'Gradually each burlesque Irish­man, Jew, German and Italian gave way on the stage to the "neat" comic -- one well-dressed and attractive, who relied on his wit and talent for laughter and applause.'

"One element that did not disappear until after the Second World War was blackface. Everyone from Fred Allen to W. C. Fields to Mae West spent early days smeared in burnt cork. More than any other racial bit, blackface persisted. It was less a matter of race prejudice than conformity. 'Nearly all the singles [solo acts] started to do blackface,' said Laurie Jr. 'But it wasn't like the old-time minstrels who tried to portray a character; these new minstrels just put on black and talked white. No dialect, didn't even try, in fact some of them told 'Hebe' stories in blackface! For what reason they blacked up will never be known. It became a craze. People figured you were an actor when you had black on. And besides, working in white face demanded a personality, which many of the guys didn't have.'

"Bob Hope was a blackface comedian. He abandoned it only because he was late for a gig. 'I missed the streetcar to this theater one night and I didn't have time to put the blackface on. Mike Shea, who booked all the theaters, said, 'Don't ever put that stuff on your face anymore because your expressions after a joke are priceless.' "


Kliph Nesteroff


The Comedians: Drunks, Thieves, Scoundrels, and the History of American Comedy


Grove Press


Copyright 2015 Kliph Nesteroff


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