Friday, March 30, 2018

Women in Clowning, Part Two: A Research Guide to (pre-1975) Clown(esque) Women (outside of the circus)

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In my last post we saw that pre-1975 circus clowning was pretty much a boys club, with a big No Girlz Allowed sign posted on the clown alley door. When we look outside the circus, we see more gender fluidity when it comes to women clowning, though still nothing like what started to develop after 1975.

Of course a lot of it depends on how you choose to define what makes a "clown." Is it the bumbling and the naiveté? The stylized makeup and costume? The physicality? The openness and vulnerability? The number of laughs he or she gets? Who's more of a clown, someone who looks like one and performs standard clown gags or someone who does neither but has a stronger clownesque persona?

Yep, defining "clown" is a tricky and often contentious matter, no doubt worthy of another blog post, but here I am just going flat out with a broader definition. It's simply more useful. The great strength of clowns is that they can be anywhere, and usually are. It's a natural human phenomenon, observable in all eras and on all continents, Antarctica not included (with the possible exception of a few penguins and, believe me, they know who they are). And as we travel outside the circus ring, I'll be looking at these six areas — but again only before 1975.

1. Tricksters, Contraries, and Sacred Clowns

2. Fools & Jesters
3. "Low" Comedy: the farce, commedia, and pantomime tradition
4. The Variety Stage
5. Silent Film
6. Sound-era Movies and Television

Whoa! That's way too much for a definitive search, at least for me. It would be like writing another book that I don't have time for. To get this done, I had to hypnotize myself, and now it's time to hypnotize you too. So repeat after me: 

This is a blog post, not a book
This is a blog post, not a book. 
Good. Now... for this post, I'm going to do three things in each category:

• Provide an overview for the category, outlining the general scope of what we're looking at

• Give a few examples
• Provide resources for further exploration

And that's why I'm calling this a Research Guide!

1. Tricksters, Contraries, and Sacred Clowns

Roxanne Swentzell: Emergence of the Clowns (1989)


Clowns were here from the beginning. The creation stories told and acted out for centuries if not millennia by indigenous peoples throughout the world are full of mudhead clowns and trickster coyotes. For the Hopi, an indigenous tribe of the American Southwest, when humans first emerged from the underworld, it was the clowns who led the way. Likewise, trickster characters are a part of most mythologies and take many forms —not just male, and not just human.

Although in a patriarchal society these stories will be dominated by men, there is still more gender diversity than we westerners are accustomed to in our relatively recent monotheistic Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition, where the creator is an all-powerful father figure. But going back to pagan times, the Greeks had their Zeus (Jupiter to the Romans), clearly the chief honcho, but they also had their goddesses, not just Aphrodite and Athena, but also Hecate, goddess of sorcery, crossroads, and magic, and Eris, goddess of chaos. And this blog's patron saint, Dionysus, god of my two weaknesses, wine and theatre, was raised exclusively by women and took on many feminine attributes. There was likewise more gender fluidity in Norse, Egyptian, African, and Hindu mythologies, and perhaps even more so in the thousands of indigenous cultures that dot the earth. The Fon of West Africa, for example, attribute the creation of the world to the goddess Mawu.

Mimbres pottery (c.1100–1250 A.D) and modern 
koshare clown (Barton Wright drawing) 

When these stories are incarnated in tribal ceremonies, they offer an example of clown performance that testifies to clowning's universality. The Hopi emergence of the clowns is not just a creation myth, it's part of a ceremony that has been reenacted by the Hopi for centuries. And I'm not just assuming it goes way, way back. Just look at this image (above) of a Mimbres pottery bowl from the U.S. Southwest, dating from almost a thousand years ago, and compare it to a modern koshari clown!

Beyond creation stories, beyond the sacred, anthropologists have found clown figures in many other indigenous performances where their function is decidedly secular, satirizing anti-social behavior and often openly exploring "forbidden" topics, such as sexual behavior. This clowns-as-critic function is sometimes referred to as conservative, but I think that's a term too easily equated with modern political connotations. Satire is satire and can cut in multiple directions.


Androgynous Tricksters

This is definitely a thing. Christen's Clowns & Tricksters (see citation below) is full of them. 

The Norse Trickster Loki was a shape-shifter who could change gender or species. In the tales, Loki is portrayed as a scheming coward who cares only for shallow pleasures and self-preservation, and is by turns playful, malicious, and helpful, but always irreverent and nihilistic. Loki is also the mother –yep, the mother– of Sleipnir, Odin’s shamanic horse, whom Loki gave birth to after shapeshifting into a mare and courting the stallion Svadilfari, as is recounted in the tale of The Fortification of Asgard

 is an androgynous clown, the female half of the warrior Arjuna, who appears in book four of the often-staged Indian epic The Mahabharata, and in many derivative Indian puppet shows. "Playing his role as Brhannada," writes Christen, "Arjuna accepted the role of charioteer, but in a comedic light. First, he had trouble finding the chariot. Then he put on his armor upside-down. Finally, as he climbed into the chariot, he pretended not to know he was heading into battle, telling the king's wives that he would bring them back fine fabric."

and Kamdaak Waneeng are Papua, New Guinea tricksters, a male-female duo both of whom can and do gender-shift at will, and whose bad behavior is intended to educate the young as to right and wrong. 

The komali clowns seen in Tamil (India) village rituals and plays are outrageous, ribald satirists who dress as members of the opposite gender or of both genders, deliberately jumbling everything, focusing attention on life as an illusion.

The Amazon-like Nafigi is, not surprisingly, from Brazil. She's more evil trickster than clown, and can change shape and gender to get what she wants (including sex), leaving mayhem in her wake.

The Heyoka (North America)

The Heyoka are the sacred fools of the Lakota Nation, and are called to joining this society of contraries by having a vision of the Great Winged One, also known as Thunderbirds. Though the Heyoka are predominantly male, women too are called.

Ch'angbu (Korea)

Again according to Christen, "the ch'angbu is a humorous female clown character and is one of the most popular of the ancestors who appear in the kut, a common Korean women's ritual. Traditional Korean religious practices include women's rituals that range from daily practices to annual celebrations. In the kut, ancestors are summoned, reveal themselves, and are spoken to through a mansin (female shaman). The ch'angbu is not only a humorous character, but also carries with her the spirits of dead actors, singers, and acrobats.As such, she brings with her a whole range of skills to enhance the kut."

South Pacific Clown Women

I'm not sure if the South Pacific is an especially female-clowny part of the world or if it just seems that way because recent anthropological research has been more open to discovering it. I'm basing this on William Mitchell's compilation of essays, Clowning as Critical Practice: Performance Humor in the South Pacific.  From Fiji to Samoa to Papua New Guinea, and islands in-between, clowns exercise an important societal role, and many of them are women. Mitchell writes in his intro that "one of the challenging findings... is the extent to which women are involved in clowning... The stereotype of clowning as predominantly male is supported by the ethnographic record but... this may be more an artifact of the discounting of women's activities by researchers than a faithful record of women and comedy."


 Kimberly Christen's Clowns & Tricksters: An Encyclopedia of Tradition and Culture is a valuable compilation of cultural variations on the trickster and clown archetypes.
 Paul Radin's The Trickster: A Study in American Indian Mythology is the classic work on the subject.
• Barton Wright's well-illustrated Clowns of the Hopi: Tradition Keepers and Delight Makers offers a short and lively introduction to the subject. 
 Barbara Sproul's Primal Myths is the standard work on creation stories.
• Mike Rugnetta's Crash Course Mythology series on YouTube offers lively introductions to Earth Mothers and Rebellious Sons and to Coyote and Raven, Americn Tricksters.
 Clowning as Critical Practice: Performance Humor in the South Pacific, a collection of essays edited by William Mitchell, looks at the satirical role played by clown figures in these cultures and shows that women do indeed have a significant role.
 Modern-day explorations of sacred clown have been carried out most significantly by Richard Pochinko and his disciples, including Ian Wallace; Cheryl Cashman; John Turner and Mike Kennard (aka Mump & Smoot); Sue Morrison; Deborah Kauffman; and others. Mike Funt, artistic director of Four Clowns (Los Angeles) has also done considerable research on the subject and teaches a workshop using this approach.

2. Fools and Jesters


The keeping of fools, both natural and artificial, by royalty and nobility is a matter of historical record, but much of our knowledge of the phenomenon is anecdotal, and has been the inspiration for dramatization by everyone from Shakespeare on down. One suspects that our image of kings trusting in the wisdom of their court jester is often a romanticized version of reality. Likewise, the medieval Feast of Fools, which originated in France, was not usually as subversive and naughty as we might like to think. In both cases, however, there is some truth to the legend and there's ample material to mine, with similar examples to be found in societies far removed from medieval Europe.


From Seneca to Mathurine

The wife of Seneca, the great Roman philosopher, retained a woman fool. Seneca did not approve, however, declaring that if he wanted to waste his time looking at a fool, all he had to do was stare into the mirror. John Doran, in his History of Court Fools (1858), tells of Artaude du Puy, fool to Jeanne, wife of Charles I of France. This was in 1373, and nothing specific is known about her. 

The most famous female fool was no doubt the flamboyant Mathurine, who presided at the French court from the reign of Henry Ill to that of Louis XIII. She walked the streets dressed like an Amazon warrior and was noted for the fervor with which she attempted to convert Huguenots to Catholicism. The name of this pugnacious and outspoken jester was adopted as a pseudonym by contemporary satirists, and a specific style of burlesque writing was given the name mathurinade.

Family of Hanry VIII, with Will Sommers (far right) 
and (perhaps) Jane the Fool (far left)
Jane the Fool
Will Sommers was the well-known jester to three monarchs, notably Henry VIII. In his later years under Mary I, he was paired in the royal household with the queen's longtime fool, Jane, about whom little is known other than that she apparently shaved her head, as was the custom for court fools. John Southworth devotes an entire chapter to her in Fools and Jesters of the Royal Court, but finds little more than records of the queen's wardrobe purchases for her.

Lear's Fool & Cordelia

This is just a side note, but a lot's been written about King Lear's fool and his outcast daughter Cordelia being two sides of the same coin: They are the only characters who tell Lear the hard truth, they never appear in the same scene, and to this day are often played by the same actor. Indeed, there seems to be a general consensus that Shakespeare wrote it for a single actor and, of course, a man would have played Cordelia in the original 1606 production. Provocative but less convincing is the theory that the fool is really Cordelia in disguise...

Carnival, Saturnalia, and the medieval Feast of Fools

These rowdy celebrations all temporarily turned the social order topsy-turvy, providing an opportunity for role reversal galore. A "Lord of Misrule" assumed power and lay people dressed up as priests and nuns,  behaving as sacrilegiously as possible. Cross-dressing was common and the policy was pretty much "anything goes." While the most frequent targets were church and state, I suspect that the power dynamics of the "battle of the sexes" got their fair share of laughs.

Symbolically, the Feast of Fools was guided by the spirit of Mère Folle (Mother Folly). In the image on the right, she is feeding wine to her children. (Click to enlarge!) She also appeared on festival coins, along with the motto "the number of fools is infinite." One of the largest fool societies (sociétés joyeuses) was the Dijon (France)-based Infanterie Dijonnaise, whose nickname was Mère Folle and had over 500 members. 


Beatrice Otto's Fools are Everywhere: Court Jesters Around the World offers a 19-page (!!) table of jesters throughout the world, organized by these categories: Name, Dates, Place, Patron, and Comments. 
 Theologian Harvey Cox's The Feast of Fools: A Theological Essay on Festivity and Fantasy was the first major study finding meaning and inspiration in these —excuse the technical jargon—medieval shenanigans.
 Sacred Folly: A New History of the Feast of Fools by Max Harris is the most recent scholarly study of the Feast of Fools. Very well researched (tho not a page-turner), it goes a long way towards separating fact from myth.
 Dancing in the Streets: A History of Collective Joy by Barbara Ehrenreich (author of Nickeled and Dimed) is a lively account of how the established order has often been threatened by expressions of ecstasy and anarchy. The Feast of Fools is just one of her examples of this timeless cultural conflict. A fun read!
 Enid Welsford's The Fool: His Social & Literary History (1935) was the first major study of the subject.
 William Willeford's The Fool and His Scepter: A Study in Clowns and Jesters and Their Audience (1969) offers a more modern, intellectually analytical take, drawing heavily on psychoanalysis. It has a chapter on "The Fool and the Woman," but it is not so much about female performers as it is about the androgynous or hermaphrodite nature of the fool.
 The contemporary theatre troupe, Dzieci, based in NYC and trained both in clown and the work of  Grotowski, has created material inspired by the medieval fool's mass, infused with their own spirituality. 

3. The "Low Comedy" Tradition: 

farce, commedia, and pantomime

Antoine Watteau sketches Arlecchino and Columbina


There's a lot of academic writing out there that traces the origins of stage comedy to 487 B.C. in ancient Greece, with special credit to Aristophanes, whose first plays were produced 20 years later. To me, at least, this is a wrongheaded literary view of theatre, conveniently ignoring the fact that there were strolling players (Dorian mimes) doing comedy throughout Greece at least two centuries before then. From the very beginning, they were associated with jugglers, tumblers, and ropedancers, from whom they no doubt derived the concept of the professional entertainer. The loose plots of these mimic farces were woven around scenes from everyday life and burlesques of Greek mythology. Domestic quarrels proved especially popular, as did thievery, fighting, sexual exploits, and all sorts of trickery. The characters were familiar stock types: braggart soldiers, pompous doctors, larcenous slaves and servants, and bald-headed fools (the moros).

NOTE: Nowadays, w
hen we talk of "mime" or "pantomime," we may think of Marcel Marceau or Children of Paradise, but originally the word meant "to imitate" and referred to the performer's talent for mimicry. Nineteenth-century pantomime, the era of Grimaldi, was likewise far from silent. Ditto for today's still-popular Christmas pantos in England.

Three points:

This same style of comedy and these same stereotypes were not invented in Greece. They show up in India, in China, in Bali, and even among the Mandé peoples of West Africa, who perform farces involving cowardly braggarts, infirm old men, lepers, thieves, adulterers and cuckolds, and even a fool. Descriptions of the Dorian mimes and the Mandé comedians both refer to an old woman described as "witch-like." Such comic butts are universal, and show up in Africa not because some Greek comic got lost and just happened to wander through a remote Mandé village and ended up teaching the locals the fine art of buffoonery. So it really doesn't matter how clear a line of descent there is from ancient Greece through the Middle Ages to the development of commedia dell'arte in 16th-century Italy. It's already in our DNA.

Women acted in these! True, where the Christian church was in full control, women were banned from the stage, in their eyes an actress being not a whole lot better than a prostitute. While this prohibition carried all the way through the time of Shakespeare, it was not true of the commedia dell'arte, a less official and less sanctioned form of entertainment. Sure, the men in commedia had the best roles, but that was also partly because they were more often the targets of the satire. It was men whose behavior needed the most correcting. (Some things never change.) But, as we shall see, funny female lovers and servants were not a rarity.

Commedia dell'arte flourished in Europe from the 16th to the 18th century, but the characters also evolved a lot during that period. And because performances were improvised from a scenario, characterization and comic business were in the hands of the individual actor. We can't accurately speak of the character of Arlecchino or Columbina without specifying the time and place and even the performer. There was, for example, the tendency of a zanni character to evolve from a dim-witted bumpkin into a sly and resourceful type. And in the post-commedia 19th-century, the zanni characters in their French and British pantomime incarnations were merely a starting point for whatever interpretation one might venture to apply. By the 20th century, the anglicized Harlequin and Columbine had become almost unrecognizable romantic figures, mostly seen in ballets.



In medieval England, itinerant male entertainers were called gleemen. They were usually musicians but were also often comedic performers. Many of them worked in partnership with a "glee-maiden," a female who was a skilled musician, dancer, and acrobat. Glee-maidens also worked on their own or as an assistant to male troubadours burlesquing his skill.

Servettes in Commedia dell'Arte
Though not as prominent as the male zanni, their archetypes not preserved in standardized half-masks, the female comic servants of the commedia dell'arte were still a force to be reckoned with.  This is from Harlequin by Thelma Niklaus: "Within the framework of the commedia itself.. was the vivacious and wholly enchanting race of serving wenches, born maybe from the corrupt and wanton slave girls of Roman tradition. With her renaissance as the Servetta or Fantesca of the comedy, she was given a series of delightful names —Gitta, Nina, Betta— as staccato as her pert wit, as fresh and charming as her person, as light as her morals." 

Like the men, their names and character changed over time, but Columbina, Franceschina, and even Arlecchina were the most enduring ones.

From left to right: Arlecchina, Franceschina, Columbina

The commedia woman could be an ingenue —the sweet, innocent young lover— though that could still be a comic role, what with young lovers (innamorati) usually being crazy and all. (CF: A Midsummer Night's Dream.) Or she could be a soubrette —the more worldly and mischievous servant, often conniving and clever, and not innocent when it came to sex. Columbine began as an ingenue, as the second innamorata (the first usually being Isabelle), but evolved into a bolder and more comic character, tho by the time we reach 19-century English pantomime she is again just the ingenue, and a silent one at that. Franceschina is the commedia name most associated with the more robust soubrette characters. Here's a comic monolog from The Melon Peel translated by Julie Goell for her article cited below.

I know all too well where my mistress is headed: the precipice I toppled over when I lost my virginity. It was all on account of a melon peel! Oh, when I think of it, I could die of shame. I can't recall it without streaking my cheeks with tears. Let me bring you up to speed ladies and gentlemen: As a young girl, beautiful, round, and soft as a turtle dove, a certain young Spaniard from my town fell in love with me. With much passion he says to me, "Ahi, querida, que me matais, mi corazon esta perdido. Yo me muero por ella." One day I find myself in a garden, in a white mantle, graceful as a swan, yearning to be tamed. He tries to kiss me, but not as the French do. Putting my hands up to stop him as he comes toward me I slip on a melon peel and fall supine. The fresh breeze lifts my skirts. My poor lover runs to cover me, but tripping on the same peel, he falls on top of me in such a manner that the thrust makes my belly swell.

I had to leave my village in shame. Imagine my father's disgrace! Fathers everywhere make this same mistake: they marry their daughters off when they want, but daughters marry when they have to. Testimius, the jailed scholar, speaking in his book, On Base lncarnality, finishes with this verse, "Young maiden, winsome, and lithe, who would tempt each passerby, first be a bride, and then a wife."

The Imaginary Invalid

Duchartre, in The Italian Comedy, describes a subset of the soubrette, the servetta birichina, or artful servant-maid. It may be an indication of a growing appreciation of female intellect that this character came to the forefront in subsequent comic drama. The great French comic playwright Molière grew up in commedia and many of his plays are clearly based on commedia plots, characters ,and gags. His servant women are often wise and resourceful, able to wrap their master around their little finger. Dorine in Tartuffe is a famous example, as is Toinette in The Imaginary Invalid, who disguises herself as a doctor to fool her master back to his senses.

Opera Buffa
La Serva Padrona

This cunning maid who bamboozles her old master likewise became a staple of Italian comic opera, whose origins go back to the 16th century but whose heyday was the 18th. The most famous of these was Pergolesi's intermezzo, La Serva Padrona (1733), still performed today. Maurice Sand quotes one contemporary commentator as saying, "There are a male and a female buffoon who play a farce in the entr'actes in a manner so natural, and with an expression s0 comical, that it is impossible to conceive the like. It is not true that it is possible to die of laughter, for if s0 I should now be dead, notwithstanding that the pain I experienced in the expansion of my spleen hindered me from hearing as well as I desired the celestial music of this farce."

A Female British Panto Clown

In 19th-century British pantomime, "Clown" was a specific character, just as one might speak of Harlequin or Pierrot.  Made famous by Joseph Grimaldi, in whose hands it evolved from a country bumpkin to a mischievous trickster, it soon supplanted Harlequin as the prime deliverer of laughs. George Speaight, in his The Book of Clowns, writes that in 1869 social historian Arthur Mumby noted in his diary seeing a female Clown at the Metropolitan on London's Edgware Road "drest exactly like any male Clown in a pantomime, her face daubed with chalk and red ochre, grinning and jabbering, making ugly faces and thrusting her tongue in her cheek, her legs knock-kneed, her elbows thrust out, her shoulders up to her ears." The Metropolitan was a theatre, not a circus, so it is safe to say that she was not just dressed like the pantomime Clown character, but was indeed playing this star role.


 Julie Goell's article, "Le Servette in Commedia dell'Arte," from the Routledge Companion to the Commedia Dell Arte is a good starting point.
 Maurice Sand's The History of the Harlequinade (1915) traces the evolution of the classic commedia characters.
 Pierre Duchartre's The Italian Comedy (1929) is likewise strong on commedia character types.
 Masks, Mimes and Miracles: Studies in the Popular Theatre by Allardyce Nicoll (1969) is one of the standard works on this whole tradition.
 Here are some comic monologues for women from the plays of Molière.
 On youtube you can see a classical production of the opera buffa La Serva Padrona here or a modern-dress production with English subtitles here.

4. The Variety Stage: 

Burlesque, Vaudeville, Music Hall, Variété, Night Clubs, Revues, etc.


Comedy has always been a key part of the variety format and there have been many star turns by performers we might call clowns. Think of Bert Lahr, Pigmeat Markham, Abbot & Costello (or at least Costello), Dan Leno, Little Tich, and George Carl, to name just a few. They may have lacked the makeup and more exaggerated costume of the circus clown, but they often honed their own homegrown eccentric, naive, and/or bumbling character over a lifetime, with humor that was decidedly self-deprecating. They may be highly skilled at this or that, but they hide their technique, channeling it into the character's moment-to-moment struggles. Of course I'd call them clowns.

In the United States, at least, women did not make their mark on the variety stage until the 20th century. In the pre-vaudeville 19th, the precursor concert saloons were truly dens of iniquity, where the equation of actress = prostitute was more than just a slur by the Catholic church.

Lotta Crabtree
But this was not true of the legitimate stage. By 1870, Lotta Crabtree had become famous nationwide as an actress, and a comical one at that. By the 1880s she was making as much as $5,000 a week, rock-star dollars in those days. Around this time, Tony Pastor was turning vaudeville into respectable family entertainment, and by the 20th century, women were increasingly show-stoppers. Most were singers who rose to fame in good part due to their comedic chops. Others worked with men, often their husbands. In the book Women in Comedy, authors Martin & Segrave do a good job of tracing the slow evolution of mixed-gender comedy teams, the most successful of which was Burns & Allen. It did not hurt that Burns was smart enough to admit that his wife was funnier than him and that she should get all the laughs while he honed his takes of bafflement and wonder.

In burlesque, vaudeville's naughtier cousin (and not to be confused with today's "neo-burlesque"), the customers were there to see women strip, so it's hardly surprising that many of the comedy routines centered around what literary historians refer to as The Quest to Get Laid. (You could look it up.) In the book Baggy Pants Comedy, Andrew Davis discusses these burlesque "talking ladies," as they were known, as versions of the ingenue, the soubrette, and the prima donna. The burlesque ingenue was a sweet, naive, virginal young thing, often unaware of the utter lust she was bringing out in the men around her. This was often just a walk-on role taken on by a chorus girl, a visual focus for the comic's wisecracks and thinly-veiled sexual innuendos. Think of the most vulgar dumb-blonde joke you ever heard and you probably have the picture. To be fair to burlesque, however, the ingenue's innocence and naiveté were so obviously exaggerated that it was almost a commentary on the warped fantasies of her panting admirers. The soubrette, as in commedia, was an older, smarter, sassier, and more sexually experienced dame who could use her sexuality and quick thinking to manipulate men. And similar to the many routines that had the straightman teaching the less knowing comic the ways of the world, this status relationship also carried over into scenes between the sophisticated soubrette and the innocent ingenue. Finally, there was the prima donna. She was the lead female singer —often a tall woman who could really belt it out— but she was also seen in sketches, usually as a figure of authority, sometimes as the comic's wife. Davis cites Margaret Dumont in all the Marx Brothers films as an embodiment of this type.


Fanny Brice (1891–1951)

Most famous as the inspiration for Barbara Streisand's Funny Girl, Fanny Brice was a talented and original singer and comedian, and can certainly be considered to have been a clown and not merely (heh heh) a comic actor. Like me, born in Manhattan; unlike me, she started her career in a burlesque revue and made her first big splash in Ziegfield's Follies in 1910. One of her most clownesque characters was Baby Snooks, which she did on radio for some 30 years, but also on stage and once on television, though she disliked the tv version. 

Here's Baby Snooks in a duet with Judy Garland:

And here's Brice showing us all how to be graceful:

Brice also did a famous parody of Martha Graham's Revolt with, amongst others, Bob Hope and Eve Arden, but I haven't found video of it.

Josephine Baker (1906–1975)

Josephine Baker was clearly a remarkable person, and will be the subject of a lengthy blog post when I can devote the amount of time to her that she deserves. But still, here's a real short bio, because it's amazing: 

She grew up in St. Louis in a time when it was not safe for African-Americans to walk down the street. She had great talent as a dancer and comic, and made her escape into vaudeville (and two early marriages) as a teenager. She was soon discovered and brought to Paris, where she became a sensation, a true superstar. She loved the fame but, like many other African-American performers of that era, also loved the relative lack of racial prejudice and the appreciation for her art. She learned French, made France her home, toured widely and successfully throughout Europe, had affairs with many men and women, and actually worked as a spy for the French government during World War II. She was a champion of human rights and multi-culturalism, and adopted and raised a "rainbow tribe" of a dozen children of different races, religions, and ethnicities. Her activism and refusal to perform for segregated audiences made her few return trips to the U.S. controversial and unpleasant for her. She died at home in Paris a few hours after a triumphant comeback performance. See?

But she's in this particular blog post because she was also in many ways a clown. She came out of black vaudeville and the whole eccentric dance tradition. She was famous for her charleston, even more crazy legs than usual, and for her elastic face. She cracked people up. I think as her career progressed, she became more celebrated as a chanteuse and a sex goddess than as a comedian, but clowning was certainly a key ingredient to her early success.

Here's her version of the charleston from 1925:

Moms Mabley (1894–1975)

One live performance I still remember vividly, though it was decades ago, was Whoopi Goldberg's one-woman show about Moms Mabley, which I saw her do in San Francisco years before she made it big with a different one-woman show. I'd seen a sanitized version of Mabley on television —she was a regular on the Merv Griffin Show— but Goldberg captured her feistier vaudeville persona. I read five years back that she was considering remounting the Moms Mabley show, but so far it hasn't happened. But Goldberg has produced an HBO documentary about Mabley.

Mabley's persona was that of a sweet but feisty tell-it-like-it-is grandmother. Her rubbery face sported a toothless grin and her body was bedecked in a gaudy-colored housedress and knit cap. She talked about men, she talked about getting old, and she talked about sex (though less on television). She was in many ways a jester, someone whose comic character allowed her to say whatever she damn pleased.

Here's the opening to Whoopi Goldberg's documentary:

In addition to the three examples above, consider as well the careers of May Irwin, Trixie Friganza, Sophie Tucker, Eva Tanguay, Marie Lloyd, Gracie Allen, and Minnie Pearl.


 Women in Comedy by Kerry Martin and Kerry Segrave is a good 1986 survey of the subject, though very condescending toward anything that smacks of "low comedy."
 For all things vaudeville, check out the encyclopedic Travalanche blog by TravSD.
 Baggy Pants Comedy: Burlesque and the Oral Tradition by Andrew Davis is a good analysis of the characters and comedy routines of traditional burlesque.
 Anthony Balducci has a nice blog post about Brice's Baby Snooks character.
 The HBO movie The Josephine Baker Story (2001) is not perfect, but it's not bad.
 Moms Mabley: I Got Somethin' to Tell You (HBO, 2013), directed by Whoopi Goldberg, is available on HBO GO under the title Whoopi Goldberg Presents Moms Mabley.

5. Silent Film


With silent film, the clown moved in next door, shedding his festive garb and taking his rightful place in a naturalistic environment. I say "his" because our silent clown heroes were mostly men, cast as underdogs who overcame a hostile world and often received as their reward the hand in marriage of the young ingenue. The object of their affection was more often than not a cute but rather passive young lady. But there were some major exceptions, and some of the women were stars and even superstars in their own right. In fact, Steve Massa, one of our very top silent film historians, has just published an encyclopedic book on the subject, Slapstick Divas: The Women of Silent Comedy. It's an exciting resource, though it's frustrating that so many of the films Steve discusses are only available in archives, and not for purchase or rent, much less for free online. Hopefully, that will change...


Marie Dressler (1868–1934)

What an amazing career! Born shortly after the Civil War, she was told she was ugly —by her mother. This stuck with her, and she even titled her autobiography The Life Story of an Ugly Duckling. She was certainly large and awkward. At 14 she left home to tour with various theatre and light opera companies, compensating for her looks by honing her comedic chops. When she hit Broadway in 1892, she was an immediate hit. By the time Mack Sennett hit Hollywood, she was a veteran star. Sennett, who had a real eye for talent, was smart enough to hire her in 1914. That year, Sennet directed her in the first-ever full-length slapstick film comedy, Tillie's Punctured Romance, based on a stage hit of Dressler's. It co-starred none other than Charlie Chaplin and Mabel Normand, but it was Dressler's show. Her career took a dive in the 20s, partly because of failed efforts to produce her own movies. She no doubt seemed washed-up at the time, but she made quite a comeback starting in 1927 at age 59, and was again a big star in the beginning of the sound era, winning an Academy Award in 1931.

Here's a funny bit with Polly Moran (see below) from Dangerous Females (1929).

Mabel Normand (1892–1930)

In terms of box office, Mabel Normand was the top female star of the early silent era and was a woman who did it all: writer, director, producer, actor. Discovered by Sennett, she became his on-again, off-again lover, artistic partner, and business partner, a relationship that inspired the musical, Mack & Mabel, with Bernadette Peters and my old buddy Robert Preston in the original roles on Broadway. Normand co-starred in 17 films with Fatty Arbuckle and a dozen with Chaplin, and is credited with persuading Sennett to retain Chaplin after his inauspicious Hollywood debut. She personally mentored Chaplin and the debut of Chaplin's tramp character was in a Mabel Normand film. Here's Mabel at the Wheel (1914), co-starring Normand and Chaplin.

Mabel Normand's meteoric career came crashing down in the 1920s, beset by scandals, not necessarily of her own making, and some serious health issues. She died in 1930, only 37 years old. 

Polly Moran (1883–1952)
Polly Moran (r.) with Marie Dressler

Moran cut her teeth in early vaudeville before signing on with Mack Sennett's Keystone studio in 1914. In her early days, at least, she was a true knockabout comic, often pairing with  Charles Murray as an uncouth Irish couple —you know those immigrants!— whose m.o. was mayhem. Steve Massa writes: "The hallmark of her character was a complete lack of class that made her capable of doing things that mannered and cultured people would never do, and made her stick out like a sore thumb in any kind of nice society or fancy event." This is exactly what happens in Their Social Splash (1915). The mayhem really gets going after the 6-minute mark.

In the late 20s and early 30s, Moran teamed up with Marie Dressler in a series of somewhat tamer comedies.

Wilna Hervey (1894–1979)
This is more of a curiosity, but a fascinating one. Hervey was never a star and I would not have heard of her were it not for the recent (and excellent) book, Living Large: Wilna Hervey & Nan Mason. Hervey was an accomplished painter, but at 6' 3" and 300 pounds, was perfect for silent film comedy. Her first roles were at the Vitagraph Studios in Brooklyn, and she was subsequently cast as "The Powerful Katrinka" in the Toonerville Trolley comedies of the early 1920s. When they ceased production, Hervey was featured in a knock-off, the Plum Center Comedies, in which she played Tillie Overton, the "Amazonian baggage smasher." (Hah!) Her co-star in all these was Dan Mason. As fate would have it, Wilna fell in love with Dan's daughter, Nan, and they became a groundbreaking out-and-proud lesbian couple. They eventually moved to Woodstock, NY, thrived as painters and real-estate agents, and spent the rest of their lives together, becoming local legends and the subject of a book and museum exhibition!

With the Three Stooges in 1936:

Their Woodstock days:

 You can buy Slapstick Divas here.
 You can buy Living Large here.
 Here is a documentary on the life of Mabel Normand.

6. Sound Film & TV


With the switchover to movies with sound beginning in 1928 and the birth of television in the 1950s, the physical style of silent film clowning gave way to  yakkety-yak. This new media had an insatiable appetite for new material. This was especially true of television, where a vaudevillian could get a nice paycheck for doing the act he or she had honed and toured for three decades, and then wonder what to do next, now that everyone had seen that one. Performers from the legit stage, Broadway light comedies, silent film, and vaudeville were all grist for the mill. Still, there was a wider audience and new opportunities, and the slow but sure progress of women in society gradually opened up more possibilities. 

There are so many women that could fit into this category, and you probably know most of them, but here are three whose work especially paved the way.


Mae West (1893–1980)

In this brief survey of female comedy roles, we've seen a bunch of women tricking their masters, but no female character as bold as that of Mae West, who on screen and in life said what she wanted to (often through double entendres) and did what she wanted to —always coming out on top. She used men for sex without sacrificing her own independence, again onscreen and off.

She began her career by competing in amateur theatrical competitions as a child growing up in Brooklyn, and by 14 was in vaudeville as part of a song & dance act. She made a successful Broadway debut in 1911 and a couple of years later was already a vaudeville headliner. During the silent film era she remained a stage star, and in 1926 wrote and produced the play Sex, creating a scandal in New York that she milked for all the publicity it was worth, including eight days in jail. The original sentence was for ten days, but it was cut back by two after she had dinner with the warden. Or so the story goes.

When sound movies took over, she made a big splash there as well, both as a performer and a screenwriter, and was famously teamed with W.C. Fields in My Little Chickadee (1940). She was always a controversial figure, always fighting the censors. For more, the chapter on her in Women in Comedy is quite good.

You can easily find a lot of Mae West video clips on YouTube, so instead here's a Dick Cavett interview.

Lucille Ball (1911–1989)

"I'm not funny," Lucille Ball famously said. "What I am is brave." Indeed. Many of our other comic heroines discovered their clown souls as teenagers, but Ball went through decades as a model and an actor in B-movies, only slowly gravitating toward screwball comedy. By 1943 she was co-starring with Red Skelton in DuBarry Was a Lady. But it wasn't until she and her husband Desi Arnaz developed the idea for I Love Lucy that her career took off. That was 1951 and she was already 40. The rest is history. The show ran forever under different names, and can still be seen in reruns —and everyone really did love Lucy. Of all the women in this 20th-century section, she was the purest clown, a master of slapstick that grew out of her very relatable character. More than that, she was a pioneer as a woman in Hollywood, the first to run her own television production company.

ALSO: Here's an interesting connection I saw in a YouTube comment: One of the writers on the Baby Snooks Radio Show [Fanny Brice] was Jess Oppenheimer, later the head writer on I Love Lucy.  He said he based the character of Lucy Ricardo on Baby Snooks.  This might explain, among other things, why Lucy would cry like a baby!

Here's Lucy and Harpo Marx doing their reboot of the classic mirror gag from Duck Soup. Some people who don't know the Marx Brothers thought this was an original piece by Lucy and Harpo. Some people who don't know vaudeville think this was created by the Marx Brothers. (It wasn't.)

Speaking of androgynous tricksters (we were, remember?), Harpo is not far from that classification, despite his skirt-chasing schtick.

Phyllis Diller (1917-2012)

Stand-up comedy made its home in the nightclub, but worked its way onto television, often in sanitized form. Until quite recently it was strictly a male domain. It is not surprising that the first woman to break that barrier in a big way was a master of self-deprecating humor. We were safe: Phyllis Diller didn't make fun of us, she made fun of herself. She was very funny and also very clowny. Like Marie Dressler, she made fun of her looks. Like Moms Mabley, her style of dress was what is known in the business as  frumpy extrème. Like Lucille Ball, she was a late bloomer, making her professional debut at the age of 37 at the Purple Onion in San Francisco. Multiple appearances on Jack Parr's late-night tv show catapulted her to fame. 

Here's a documentary about her:

There are a lot more clips on YouTube, but here's her last appearance. It's not her most outrageous material by far, but I love it because she was 89!


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