A Quickie with Andrew Davis!
I interviewed Doc about his spectacularly detailed, informative, and entertaining book, Baggy Pants Comedy Burlesque and the Oral Tradition.
When did you publish this book? How long did it take?
The book was published in 2011. It was actually my doctoral dissertation, which I completed in 2000. I’d gotten another book contract in the meantime, so I delayed a few years in revising the dissertation for publication. My work on it really started in 1992, when I was getting a Master’s Degree in Folklore and Mythology at UCLA. I’d heard about this stripper’s museum out in the desert, so I tracked down Dixie Evans at Exotic World, and she invited me to come to the Miss Exotic World pageant that year. Catherine D’Lish won that year, and I got to meet and interview a number of the old strippers who came to the reunion.
The following year, I had a graduate assistantship to do a conference, so I put together a 2-day conference on burlesque, invited Dixie and some other gals out talk about their careers, brought in some academics like Robert Allen (who wrote Horrible Prettiness), and had Ann Corio and her husband come out to do an evening presentation based on their show, This Was Burlesque. It was really quite an event. It was the first academic conference to get a write up in Army Archerd’s column in Variety.
How did you get interested in Baggy Pants comedians?
I became interested in baggy pants comedy because it was my theatrical background and I wanted to know more about my tradition. I had trained in improvisational comedy and I was interested in comedy in general – silent film comedians and vaudevillians especially. I became aware of the tradition of baggy pants comedy in the mid-1980s when I came across a collection of burlesque sketches at the Variety Arts Center in Los Angeles. They had a pretty good size collection of sketches belonging to Ken Murray, who produced a show in Los Angeles in the 1940s called Ken Murray’s Blackouts. I remember thinking the comedy was pretty lame, but I’d discovered that it was the premise of the scene – the basic situation – that was important, not the specific jokes, for the scenes were passed on orally and each comic made the scene his own by dropping in their own jokes and adapting them to their stage persona.
When I went back to graduate school in Folklore in the early 1990s, I remembered the collection, and I knew I had a good subject for original research – a necessary thing for a doctoral dissertation. No folklorist had ever examined this material because it was passed on by professional performers in an urban environment at a time when folklorists were only studying rural storytellers. I started looking around for more collections and found them in various archives around the U.S.
Have you gotten in touch with some of the old baggy pants comedians? What was that like?
There were not too many burlesque comics around by the time I got interested in the subject. I was closest to Dexter Maitland, the Straightman for Ann Corio’s This Was Burlesque, who was in his nineties when I knew him. I got to know Ann pretty well, along with her husband, Mike Iannucci. I met Jimmie Mathews a couple of times – he had worked for Corio, too. Bob “Rubberlegs” Tannenbaum was a big help, as well, although he was too young to have really been involved in the comedy – he mostly worked carnivals.
It was the women who provided me with the best entrée into the world of baggy pants comedians. There were always young women coming into the industry, but it stopped being a good showcase for comics after LaGuardia shut burlesque down in New York City. You couldn’t be seen by New York producers. Dixie Evans was a big help in putting me in touch with people who knew something about the comedy. I met Susan Mills, whose husband – Steve – was the principal comic for the Corio show when it opened in New York in 1963. A number of these people came to the UCLA Conference I put together.
What do you hope people take away from this book?
I am hoping for two things. First, for the burlesque community, I hope it gives people involved in the burlesque movement an understanding and an appreciation as to how central comedy was to the success of the burlesque show. Burlesque originally referred to comedy – it was initially a form of parody or travesty – and it was only later that it became associated with erotic entertainment. The combination of comedy and striptease is absolute gold. I hate to say it, but watching stripper after stripper after stripper gets old after awhile. You need some variety – something to cleanse the palate, as it were. The comedy does that. When you’re finished laughing, you’re ready to be aroused again. And that arousal helps fuel the comedy.
I think we’ve proved that in L.A. My comedy partner and I work the Monday Night Tease in Hollywood once a month, as Doc and Stumpy. We emcee the show, get the audience worked up and cheering for the girls, and we do a couple of classic scenes – we did “Flugel Street” not long ago – or original material based on classic formulas. There’s a Taxidermy scene that I’m pleased with. (“What’s a taxidermist? ” “Why a taxidermist is a guy who mounts dead animals.” “I beg your pardon.”) The material still works once you bring in some topical references, and make it fresh for today. And the comedy really enhances the striptease, because it engaging the audience and encourages them to be boisterous. The dancers at a Doc and Stumpy show definitely feel the difference in audience response.
The second thing I hope people to take away from the book is a deeper understanding of comedy. Burlesque represents a different approach to comedy performance than people are generally aware of nowadays. It was an oral tradition – a remembered tradition of comedy bits and routines that were passed on from performer to performer, from generation to generation. It’s a different approach that either improvisational comedy or standup, the two training ground for comedians nowadays. It’s closer to commedia dell’arte and circus clowning. Comics and clowns develop a persona they use through most of their career, unlike improv-trained people who create a variety of eccentric characters. It’s interactive – relying on give and take – unlike standup comedy. Once you’ve learned the routines, you can use them for the rest of your career.
The best example of this style of playing is Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s On First.” Biographers like to say they worked in vaudeville because of burlesque’s raunchy reputation, but Abbott and Costello were really burlesque comics. If you did sketch comedy, you did burlesque; vaudeville was mostly specialty acts. “Who’s On First” – which Time Magazine credited as the funniest comedy bit of the 20th Century (nudging out Monty Python’s dead parrot sketch) – was a sketch that goes back to the 19th century and a routine called “Watt Street.” Now the remarkable thing about that “Who’s On First” is that Abbott & Costello never did the bit the same way twice. (You can check it out on the internet.) They never memorized the routine; never wanted to, because they wanted to keep it fresh. They would purposely try to foul each other up. That kept them on their toes and kept the routine from getting stale.
I work much the same way with my comedy partner, David Springhorn, who performs as “Stumpy Putz.” (“It’s not a name, it’s a warning.”) We have a loose relationship to the script, and we’re likely to go off in all kinds of directions, and certain portions of the show are mostly free-form, especially the opening. We have our set gags to come back to, but we’re open to .
Both of us worked Renaissance Faires for years, and the street performance kind of defines our style. We are comfortable with interacting with the audience and we take opportunities for spontaneous.
I’d like to see more of the comedy at Festivals like BHoF weekend. Most younger performers are only vaguely aware of the comedy in burlesque, but the Legends are often our biggest boosters. (“Yeah, I remember the Golf Bit. Scurvy Miller used to do it in Detroit. Very funny guy.”) I’m hoping to create more of a space for comedy in the neo-burlesque movement – or at least awareness of it.
When my book comes out in softcover, hopefully more people will be aware of it and try it out. Right now, the hardcover retails for $90, so it’s only libraries that are buying it. The softcover should be out by the end of the year. I am hoping that young actors and theatre students will pick up on it, once the price is within reason.
The only group that I know is working with this material is Maque daVis’ group in Seattle, and they haven’t been at the BHoF weekend for a few years now. Once there’s a critical mass of people experimenting with this material, you can switch out partners and see where it takes you. When you know the comic’s or straightman’s or talking woman’s lines for a particular scene, you should be able to work with any other partner that is out there. Meeting up with people who know many of the same scenes could be a big attraction at burlesque festivals. It’s a matter of finding a critical mass of people who know the repertoire. If you knew that these festivals were a place where you could jam with some other people from other cities, it might bring a whole new type of attendee for events like this one.
That opens up your flexibility and your awareness, and can come up with fresh material and a fresh take on an old scene by working with an unfamiliar partner. It’s a little bit like social dance in that respect.
You can enjoy Doc's presentation at the Burlesque Hall of Fame Weekender in Las Vegas Friday, May 31
Baggy Pants Comedy: Burlesque and the Oral Tradition
With Doc and Stumpy
3:30pm - 4:30pm
$5 at the door, advance tickets here http://bhofweekend.com/schedule-of-events/bhof-finishing-school/
Join Andrew Davis for a presentation on burlesque comedy! He will explore the role of comedy in a show remembered mostly for striptease, and examine how burlesque comics, straight men, and talking women approached the craft of comedy, working in a genre that relied not on scripts but on a remembered tradition of comedy bits that circulated orally. The book opens a long-neglected area of American folklore. He'll discuss fondly-remembered routines like "Who's On First" and "Niagara Falls (Slowly I Turned)."
Check out Andrew's amazing book!
The Burlesque Hall of Fame Finishing School is sponsored by BurlyCon.