The New Humor in the Progressive Era: Americanization and the Vaudeville Comedian. By Rick DesRochers. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014. Pp. 187.
Rick DesRochers’s exploration of vaudeville comedians and comediennes during vaudeville’s heyday is richly contextualized within a particular sociocultural moment, a crucial moment of rapid change in the history of the United States, when new technologies hurled the nation into the modern age, and a wave of immigration, primarily from Southern and Eastern Europe, alarmed native-born Americans with roots in Northern and Western Europe. It was a time when future President Woodrow Wilson warned Americans that “the countries of the south of Europe were disburdening themselves of the more sordid and hapless elements of their population” (quoted by DesRochers, xiii). It is also an era that seems profoundly familiar to our present moment.
DesRochers looks critically at this nominally “progressive” era (circa 1880s-1920s) and the concerted efforts of primarily white, middle class Protestant reformers, who instituted a plethora of educational and social programs to solve the “problems” of the new immigrant and urban poor through assimilation/“Americanization.” Along with political and religious practices that the native population found Un-American, the new immigrants popularized a “New Humor,” first identified as such by vaudeville historian Albert McLean Jr., who defined it as “a humor that was more excited, more aggressive, and less sympathetic than that to which the middle classes of the nineteenth century had been accustomed” (quoted by DesRochers, 30). This new, satirical humor was attributed at the time to the “great influx of Latins and Slavs” who dared to laugh at, rather than with, the dominant culture (xiv). DesRochers’s purpose is to illustrate how this new and subversive sense of humor, which would be particularly, and gleefully, manifest in vaudeville, disrupted the Progressive agenda of assimilation. In addition to undermining the aforementioned attempts to “Americanize” a new generation of immigrants from “unfavorable” (3) foreign cultures, DesRochers argues, the new humor in vaudeville contributed to the making of a new America by blurring artistic distinctions between ‘high’ and ‘low’ art, as well as blurring distinctions between cultural identities based on race, religion, gender, age, and class. The new humor confronted sensitive, volatile issues and situations head on and challenged authority on every level. It shocked the middle class bourgeoisie but ultimately, for its most talented practitioners, found a large and appreciative audience.
DesRochers organizes the study in five chapters and an epilogue. His first two chapters provide an overview of the socio-historical context and explicate the nature and origins of the “New Humor.” Chapters Three and Four analyze three major and overlapping genres of vaudeville comic acts, each subverting the cultural status quo in its own way: ethnic acts challenged the stability of racial identity, family acts challenged patriarchal authority, and school acts challenged the educational system. A fifth chapter on female performers explores how they subverted conventional gender expectations by being wild, unruly, sexual, and most of all, funny. As one critic remarked of May Elinore: “she is one of those marvels Heaven seldom sends us – a truly funny woman who doesn’t mind making herself look ugly or ridiculous in order to make her audience laugh” (quoted by DesRochers, 71). The range of performers profiled include those who became legendary, like Buster Keaton, the Marx brothers, and Marie Dressler, those who are known to vaudeville aficionados, including Weber and Fields, Eva Tanguay and May Irwin, and those who are virtually unknown, like the Elinore sisters.
The performance of ethnic and racial identities permeates all three genres; the Marx brothers, who were first generation Eastern European Jews, performed German, Irish, and Italian identities, among others. Weber and Fields lampooned German and Jewish identities in their “Double Dutch” act. May Irwin won fame as a “coon shouter” crossing both gender and racial identities with her imitation of African American male singers. Eva Tanguay created a sensation as the Sambo girl in an act that included her signature song, “I don’t care” (“what people may think of me”). Cringe-worthy terms like coons, micks, wops, and krauts appear in the titles of ethnic acts. Although the degree to which such performances may have sustained, rather than challenged, racist attitudes, is a vexing question, DesRochers argues that “no vaudevillian, whether in blackface, yellow face, or any of the myriad ethnic disguises ever entirely disappeared behind those masks, making it clear that ethnicity was performed and not to be taken literally” (55-56). For me, the absurd and self-aware ethnic impersonations of the Marx brothers, as described herein, seem to have more subversive potential than others. For example, in a scene in which a Russian-accented Groucho, threatened with a coconut pie by an Italian-accented Chico, drops character (and accent) to say to the audience: “There’s my argument. Restrict immigration” (1).
This book links vaudeville, both aesthetically and ideologically, to modernism through its challenges to aesthetic and cultural as well as moral, categories, its speed and vitality, its irreverence and irony, and its self awareness. In his epilogue, DesRochers also highlights contemporary correspondence between Progressive era “New Humorists” and “current new humorists” Dave Chappell, Assif Mandvi, Key and Peele, Tina Fey, Larry David, and Sarah Silverman, arguing that their humor still responds to cultural shifts by “confronting and satirizing these irrational anxieties caused by the decline of Anglo-Christian hegemony in the United States” (141-42).
In sum, The New Humor in the Progressive Era vividly illuminates a critical era in America’s social and cultural history that might also shed light on our own. DesRochers writes in clear, accessible prose, and this book will be of interest to those interested in America’s social and cultural history, as well as specialists in theatre history and popular entertainment.
University of Missouri