Within the realm of American popular theatre scholarship, amongst the many works on circus, vaudeville, variety, minstrelsy, dime museums, and concert saloons, the burlesque tradition remains one of the most theorized, yet least comprehensively examined. In the last thirty years dozens of books and articles examining both the history of burlesque and contemporary variations have been published. Almost without exception, these works, led by Robert C. Allen’s excellent Horrible Prettiness (1991), focus on feminist and cultural approaches to the disrobing portions of the shows. Most works that chronicle the history of burlesque as a part of their project, like Rachel Schteir’s Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show (2004) and Katherine Liepe-Levinson’s Strip Show: Performances of Gender and Desire (2003), barely mention the comedians whose acts tied the strips together [End Page 87] into a show, except to note their presence as holdovers from burlesque’s origins as variety shows of parodies. Schteir notes the similarities between early burlesque and vaudeville, and Michelle Baldwin, in her examination of modern burlesque, Burlesque and the New Bump-N-Grind (2004), includes a short but well-elucidated section on the process by which female burlesque performers were mostly removed from the dialogue scenes. Lacking in modern burlesque scholarship, however, has been an examination of the comedy. Andrew Davis’s Baggy Pants Comedy: Burlesque and the Oral Tradition seeks to fill that gap.
Davis’s focus is not so much the comedians—although there are fascinating tidbits about how specific performers worked—but rather the most popular sketches, many of which he reproduces here as he analyzes their structure and type. The first seven chapters analyze the structure and types of humor found in the scripts, as well as the working habits and styles of the performers. The final seven chapters are divided into humor types (e.g. “Flirtations” and “Trickery”) and contain some lengthy script excerpts as examples. Oddly, Davis’s history of burlesque (including a contextualization within the other popular theatres of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries) does not appear until chapter three, a delay that might lead to confusion for the popular audience at whom the book seems to be aimed. That chapter ends with a short section on the behavior of the audience, and Davis’s assertion that the purpose of the burlesque show was “not about satisfying sexual desire. Rather it was about dissipating those feelings through laughter” (49). This is an intriguing theory, and one that seems to be supported by the mix of sexual references and humor present in many of the sketches Davis includes.
The major unifying theory of the book, as indicated in the title, is that the history and evolution of burlesque comedy can best be understood through the lens of folklore and oral tradition. Davis situates burlesque within oral-formulaic theory. He connects standard joke and sketch types to the formulas and catalogued motifs of folk literature, and provides examples of sketches that present variations on select motifs. The key for Davis is the unwritten tradition of burlesque humor. He repeatedly asserts that sketches were transmitted, learned, and stolen verbally, a tradition that allowed and contributed to the many versions and constant evolution of the scripts. Accompanying every sketch is Davis’s reminder that this is just one version of those extant in print. Many other variations lived in the minds of comedians, waiting to be pulled out and inserted during performance whenever needed. He succeeds in the delicate task of freezing individual versions in print while not letting the reader forget that they were fluid in usage. His implication is that the written collections of comedians were nostalgic and historic in nature, rather than sources for constructing performances. To support that concept he uses Richard Andrews’s work on commedia dell’arte and argues that, similar to that tradition (and that of oral storytelling as well), performers remembered pieces of [End Page 88] full sketches in dialogic units that could be combined and recycled to create any number of scenes.
A section on...