- Baggy Pants Comedy: Burlesque and the Oral Tradition by Andrew Davis
Andrew Davis’s Baggy Pants Comedy: Burlesque and the Oral Tradition takes the comedians of the Depression-era burlesque stage seriously. Although the past decade has seen a popular revival of burlesque dancing, the comedy bits and sketches that wove together the larger production numbers of the burlesque show are remembered primarily by their popular culture relics, such as Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on first?” Davis, a folklorist, theatre historian, and himself the straight man in a Los Angeles burlesque comedy duo, aims with Baggy Pants Comedy to build a more comprehensive archive of the jokes and scenarios that circulated in the heyday of burlesque. In revisiting burlesque comedy, the book re-centers a collaborative oral tradition in order to intervene in the tendencies of folklorists to privilege rural contexts and theatre historians to privilege a text-based methodology. The book thus presents an essentially recuperative project, complicating common understandings of burlesque comedy as simplistic, cliché, and repetitive by framing burlesque performance instead as a unique performance craft in which repeated material demanded more, not less, skill from the performer.
Baggy Pants Comedy begins by establishing the book’s two main premises: that burlesque comedy demanded unique skills, and those skills are best understood by considering the tradition as folkloric. Rather than working from a fixed script, Davis argues, burlesque performers learned a premise or scenario and key jokes or lines, but improvised the rest of their act, producing particular combinations of scripted and improvised material that demand a different understanding of originality and creativity. For Davis, the creativity of burlesque lies in pacing, rhythm, physicality, emotional dynamics, and the crafting of character and persona. The book’s second chapter lays out general sources and features of a burlesque sketch in order to contextualize the genre within other forms of American popular theatre and folk expression.
The next two chapters address the performance context of burlesque, focusing on the time, place, [End Page 173] and people of 1930s burlesque comedy. As Davis tells it, the 1930s were a time of transition for burlesque: touring circuits evolved into stock companies, and burlesque graduated from theatres in run-down commercial neighborhoods to a place on Broadway, where working-class male, neighborhood audiences were eventually supplanted by a tourist crowd. Accordingly, for Davis, the 1930s marks both the height and the demise of burlesque comedy, as popular attention led to theatre closures on the grounds of decency. Turning to the characters that populated these shows, Davis details the comic/straight-man dynamic, highlighting several common types of comics, including the immigrant or “ethnic type” and the rustic fool or tramp, and several types of straight men, including the effeminate juvenile and female characters, dubbed “talking ladies.” Here, as elsewhere in the book, Davis largely refuses critical readings of these characters as racist or sexist, arguing that ethnic types were often portrayed by members of the group being represented; at times, as when Davis pushes back against Jill Dolan’s readings of representations of women and sexuality in burlesque, this resistance takes on a dismissive tone that reads as more defensive than persuasive.
With this background information in place, Davis moves into the main project of Baggy Pants Comedy: the collection, explanation, and categorization of the formal features of burlesque comedy generally, as well as of specific scenes and scenarios. Chapter 5 discusses the ways in which burlesque comedians were trained in an oral tradition that taught timing and delivery, physicality, and ways to stretch and embellish formulas, while chapter 6 explores the skill of combining and rearranging the modular elements of a burlesque scene in creative ways. Chapter 7 focuses on the ways that comics used already-circulating ideas to build original comic personas. The next six chapters move to a typology of specific kinds of scenes—double entendre, flirtation, trickery, brutality, and parody of art and life—in order to demonstrate how these served the needs of performers...