The Ventriloquist

This classification also generally includes the monologists who work with an unseen partner on the telephone. Archie (of Duffy's Tavern) and George Jessel established the telephone skit, Shelly Berman and Lily Tomlin perfected it.

The orthodox ventriloquist act—performers like Edgar Bergen, Shari Lewis, Paul Winchell, and Ronn Lucas—seems to have lost its appeal to contemporary audiences, although there are scores of excellent artists still playing lounges and small clubs. The basic format hasn't changed; the performer plays a straight man and sets up lines. The dummy or puppet (called a character) is a brat and a wise ass but gets all the laughs. If the laughs don't come, the comic has a basic saver. The dummy turns to his master and says, "Hey! Don't complain. You're doing all the talking."

Again, the audience isn't intimidated by a wooden dummy. The humor would never work if the lines were transposed.


15. The Impersonator

This character is an expert dialectician who impersonates in stories, songs, and patter the mannerisms, accents and material of famous people. Also known as impressionists, impersonators work mainly on voice and a few exaggerated mannerisms. There is very little acting or skit situations; a few lines are sufficient to get audience appreciation. Impressionists get more applause than laughs for their skill.

As children, our earliest introduction to parody was impersonation. We loved to imitate the voices and idiosyncrasies of neighborhood characters, school faculty, and often our own parents. Maurice La Marche, who can do over a hundred different voices, was voted by his senior class as "most likely to be someone else."

Mimicry is generally a fast way for performers to get public attention. All profess to use impersonations solely as a starting point for creating their own, more original material. They lie!

The current master of impressionists is Rich Little, who is famous for his impersonations of Jimmy Stewart, Ronald Reagan, and Richard Nixon ("I didn't do it, and I promise never to do it again!"). Actors who can imitate even one voice to perfection have made millions. Vaughn Meader's claim to fame was his impersonation of the Kennedy voices. His act died in a Dallas motorcade. Joe Piscopo probably will be best remembered for his Frank Sinatra impressions. One of the most talented of all was Larry Storch. .

16. The Clown

This category also includes mimes and zanies. In the tradition of the circus, clowns wear greasepaint. But in comedy, makeup is secondary to a mobile face—innocent pop-eyes, bulbous nose, electrified hair, or bald head—frequently on top of a short, tubby body (or a tall, thin one). If an artist drew a police caricature of that description, you'd end up with a male who looked like Zero Mostel and a female like Lucille Ball.

Their shtick is triumph over failure and humiliation. They are rarely as adept at creating funny situations as at executing them. Material for clowns still has to be written.

Clown material should play in all languages. Starting with the walk, clown comics are more physical than verbal. Props include "lean shoes" so heavily weighted that the performer can lean forward, like an Olympic ski-jumper just before take-off, and still not topple over. They wear oversize clothes, a bizarre hat, wig, or hair piece, horn-rim glasses and, not infrequently, white finger gloves. It isn't necessary to look funny before you perform funny, but this generation of normal looking comedians, who rarely resort to funny faces, has to work harder.

In addition, the comic clown must be a communicative mime, an eccentric dancer, an elasticized gymnast, an accomplished juggler and, above all, an expert actor of broad comedy. Clowns must constantly win our sympathies, not our annoyance, as they become confused by life's obstacles.

In developing a clown act, as in conventional humor, the ending is resolved first and then the beginning is improvised until the best route to the finish line is discovered. The basic scenario is that of an innocent simpleton trying to get on with his ordinary life but constantly suffering from the interference of others. Clowns are indefatigable in their persistence, because just as one problem starts to become solvable, a new dilemma is introduced.

A clown standard, perfected by George Carl, is getting entangled in different objects—like a microphone. First the comic finds the mike has stuck to his hand; then trying to pull himself loose, he becomes entwined in the cord which, in turn, becomes twisted in his suspenders, jacket, and shirttail.

Of all comedians, the comic clown has the most leeway to exaggerate life. But the audience must still identify with a realistic dilemma, then find personal recognition in the solution.

The quintessential clowns in comedy were Ed Wynn, Harpo Marx, and Bert Lahr. They called Charlie Chaplin a clown, but that's an oversimplification, because Chaplin's theme was pathos, so delicately tuned it created laughter instead of sorrow.

The most talented of the current crop is Bill Irwin, whose polished comic routines have delighted audiences from the circus to Broadway. According to Mel Gussow in a New Yorker profile, Irwin's most famous routine, now a standard, is putting his foot under a curtain and pretending he is suddenly being pulled offstage by a mysterious vacuum. No matter how

Irwin struggles, his foot, then his whole body, and finally his flailing arms get sucked under the curtain, like Jonah going down the mouth of an invisible whale.

17. The Artists, Musicians, and Cartoonists

Many comedians use musical instruments as character props, because a number got their start in show business by climbing the musical staff. Many claim there is a metric beat in comedy as there is in music. If the performer has the talent—and it need not be virtuoso—instruments make excellent counterpoints, provide some relief from the barrage of comic hostility, accompany satirical songs, and permit strong opening and closing mood numbers.

Piano comedy is a signature of Victor Borge, and some of his nonsensical tinkling was inspired by the finger-pointing punctuation notes of Chico Marx. Mark Russell, Steve Allen, Dale Gonier, and Abe Burrows are others whose ability at the piano helped distinguish their early careers, and many still combine music and comedy in their acts today. Jimmy Durante's act was to destroy the piano, which was more fun than hearing him play it.

The violin, whose first stringers were Jack Benny and Henny Young-man, seems dated as a musical prop, as is the cello, used by Morey Amsterdam. The guitar has taken their place and a number of performers such as Dick Smothers and, formerly, George Gobel and Tennessee Ernie Ford, among others, find humor and folksinging perfect companions.

Sid Caesar started out in show business as a saxophonist; Peter Sellers began as a drummer for dance orchestras. Johnny Carson, Joe Piscopo, and Mickey Rooney sometimes still play drums in public performances, but telling jokes and punctuating them with drum rolls isn't an acceptable format. Other musical instruments that make good humor props are harmonicas and accordions; Spike Jones used everything from whistles to washboards.

It is Steve Allen's theory that their musical talent was never that great or they would never have switched to comedy.

18. The Vaudevillian

This category includes jugglers, magicians, and acrobats.

Vaudeville started in Italy in the fifteenth century as commedia del-I'arte; its American obituary was written in the 1940s. But today, magicians and jugglers have found that vaudeville may have been buried prematurely.

Humor is the vehicle that's propelling a new vaudeville. Humor integrated into specialty acts was first introduced by tap dancers. Then Will Rogers combined it with rope twirling. W. C. Fields started out as a jug gler. Today, comic clowns must invent a specialty—part physical, part comedy—that makes them memorable as well as admired for their talent. The Flying Karamazov Brothers are jugglers, Penn and Teller are magicians, and Bruce D. Schwartz wears a puppet body.

One current example is Michael Davis, an improv actor turned juggler because, he said "jugglers don't get a lot of respect outside a circus sideshow... most people think there's just one juggler who runs all over the country. If people see me just juggle, they think I must be that guy." So Davis added deadpan (and some bedpan) wit. As he tosses one ball in the air, "I have an unusual philosophy about juggling. It's not important to me how many." Then he takes out five balls and adds, "You've got to admire a man with five balls." As he juggles knives, axes, and meat cleavers he adds lines like "I could hurt myself at your expense." To Davis, comedy takes top priority: "If people are applauding and not laughing, then I'm failing."

Two pegs up from magic and juggling humor is comic basketball, as practiced by the Harlem Globe Trotters, and even comic ballet, as performed by men in drag for the Ballet Trocadero de Monte Carlo.

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