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Humor and Assimilation in Vaudeville

Our latest report from the Humanities Research Seminar comes from Machele Miller Dill, Director of the Musical Theatre Program at TU.  Here she considers the way vaudeville helped explore the rapidly changing shape of American culture in the early twentieth century.

sophie-tucker-6

Sophie Tucker

I like Sophie Tucker. In fact, I love Sophie Tucker. If you read about her, some accounts may claim that she was a Ukrainian-born entertainer originally named, Sonya Kalish. While the name is true, the rest isn’t. She was actually born on the boat on the way over from the Ukraine – a true immigrant. Her life after landing in the United States embodied the very notion of the American dream: she married young, had a child and then left that all behind to make it big in the big Apple. And boy did she, thanks to her grit and moxie. You see, she was big, she was ugly and she was Jewish. But once she opened her mouth, no one cared. They just yelled for more. I wish I could relate some of her jokes here, but I can’t even tell you the clean ones! Sophie Tucker was the last of the “Red Hot Mamas” and she owned vaudeville and burlesque stages for decades. She used self-deprecating humor, making fun of both her Jewishness and her appearance, to entertain while at the same time putting people at ease with her otherness.

Bert and Friend

Bert Savoy and a Friend

She was in good company. Fanny Brice (the original Funny Girl), Bert Williams (hailed by W.C. Fields as the funniest man in show business…and the saddest), and a host of other entertainers who might not otherwise have fit into the mainstream, helped re-define a rapidly changing American culture . They were immigrants who could never go home again. They were former slaves forced to work in blackface if they wanted to entertain – portraying the white man’s notion of black identity. They were vaudevillians who would later go on to be some of the biggest names in cinema. And all used humor as a tool – a chisel, if you will, to break down barriers to their own American dreams.

My own research isn’t on why something is funny. People find things funny or they don’t. I’m interested in how the disenfranchised, immigrants, and others used humor to fit into, and to eventually, transform American culture. So the next time you crack a joke at your own expense – know you are in exceptional company.