Writing for Vaudeville
by Brett Page

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Chapter VIII - The Structural Elements of Two-Act Material

It is very likely that in your study of “The German Senator” and “The Art of Flirtation,” there has crossed your mind this thought: Both the monologue and the two-act are composed of points and gags. The only difference–besides the merely physical difference of two persons delivering the gags and the greater amount of business used to “get them over” [1]–lies in the way the gags are constructed. The very same gags–twisted just a little differently–would do equally well for either the monologue or the two-act.

[1] To get over a vaudeville line or the entire act, means to make it a success–to make it get over the foot-lights so that the audience may see and appreciate it, or “get” it.


There is just enough truth in this to make it seem an illuminating fact. For instance, take the “janitor point” in “The German Senator.” We may imagine the characters of a two-act working up through a routine, and then one saying to the other:

A child can go to school for nothing, and when he grows up to be a man and he is thoroughly educated he can go into the public school and be a teacher and get fifty dollars a month.

The other swiftly saying:

And the janitor gets ninety-five.

There would be a big laugh in this arrangement of this particular gag, without a doubt. But only a few points of “The German Senator" could be used for a two-act, with nearly as much effect as in the monologue form. For instance, take the introduction. Of course, that is part and parcel of the monologue form, and therefore seems hardly a fair example, yet it is particularly suggestive of the unique character of much monologic material.

But take the series of points in “The German Senator,” beginning: “We were better off years ago than we are now.” Picture the effect if one character said:

Look at Adam in the Garden of Eat-ing.


Life to him was a pleasure.


There was a fellow that had nothing to worry about.


Anything he wanted he could get.


But the old fool had to get lonesome.


And that’s the guy that started all our trouble etc. etc. etc.

Even before the fourth speech it all sounded flat and tiresome, didn’t it? Almost unconsciously you compared it with the brighter material in “The Art of Flirtation.” But, you may say: “If the business had been snappy and funny, the whole thing would have raised a laugh.”

How could business be introduced in this gag–without having the obvious effect of being lugged in by the heels? Business, to be effective, must be the body of the material’s soul. The material must suggest the business, so it will seem to be made alive by it. It must be as much the obvious result of the thought as when your hand would follow the words, “I’m going to give you this. Here, take it.”

Herein lies the reason why two-act material differs from monologic material. Experience alone can teach you to “feel” the difference unerringly.

Yet it is in a measure true that some of the points and gags that are used in many monologues–rarely the anecdotal gag, however, which must be acted out in non-two-act form–would be equally effective if differently treated in the two-act. But often this is not due so much to the points themselves as to the fault of the writer in considering them monologic points.

The underlying cause of many such errors may be the family likeness discernible in all stage material. Still, it is much better for the writer fully to recompense Peter, than to rob Peter to pay Paul inadequately.

Nevertheless, aside from the “feel” of the material–its individual adaptability–there is a striking similarity in the structural elements of the monologue and the two-act. Everything in the chapter on “The Nature of the Monologue” is as true of the two-act as of the monologue, if you use discrimination. Refer to what was said about humor, unity of character, compression, vividness, smoothness and blending, and read it all again in the light of the peculiar requirements of the two-act. They are the elements that make for its success.


The two-act–like all stage material in which acting plays a part–is not written; it is constructed. You may write with the greatest facility, and yet fail in writing material for the vaudeville stage. The mere wording of a two-act means little, in the final analysis. It is the action behind the words that suggests the stage effect. It is the business–combined with the acting–that causes the audience to laugh and makes the whole a success. So the two-act, like every other stage form, must–before it is written–be thought out.

In the preceding chapter, you read of the elements that enter into the construction of a two-act. They are also some of the broad foundation elements which underlie, in whole or in part, all other stage-acting–material. A few of the two-act elements that have to do more particularly with the manuscript construction have been reserved for discussion in the paragraphs on development. In this chapter we shall consider what you must have before you even begin to think out your two-act–your theme.

1. Selecting a Theme

Imitation may be the sincerest flattery, but it is dangerous for the imitator. And yet to stray too far afield alone is even more hazardous. Successful vaudeville writers are much like a band of Indians marching through an enemy’s country–they follow one another in single file, stepping in each other’s footprints. In other words, they obey the rules of their craft, but their mental strides, like the Indians’ physical footsteps, are individual and distinct.

2. Fundamental Themes

Experience has taught effective writers that certain definite themes are peculiarly adaptable to two-act form and they follow them. But success comes to them not because they stick to certain themes only–they win because they vary these fundamental themes as much as they can and still remain within the limits of proved theatrical success.

(a) The Quarrel Theme. Search my memory as diligently as I may, I cannot now recall a single successful two-act that has not had somewhere in its routine a quarrel, while many of the most successful two-acts I remember have been constructed with a quarrel as their routine motives.

With this observation in mind, re-read “The Art of Flirtation” and you will discover that the biggest laughs precede, arise from, or are followed by quarrels. Weber and Fields in their list of the most humorous business, cite not only mildly quarrelsome actions, but actually hostile and seemingly dangerous acts. The more hostile and the more seemingly dangerous they are, the funnier they are. Run through the Cohan list and you will discover that nearly every bit of business there reported is based on a quarrel, or might easily lead to a fight.

(b) The “Fool” Theme. To quote again from Weber and Fields:

There are two other important items in human nature that we have capitalized along with others to large profit. Human nature, according to the way we analyzed it, is such a curious thing that it will invariably find cause for extreme mirth in seeing some other fellow being made a fool of, no matter who that fellow may be, and in seeing a man betting on a proposition when he cannot possibly win. We figured it out, in the first place, that nothing pleased a man much more than when he saw another man being made to look silly in the eyes of others.

For example, don’t you laugh when you observe a dignified looking individual strutting down the street wearing a paper tail that has been pinned to his coat by some mischievous boys? [1]

[1] From the Weber and Fields article already quoted.

Note how the “fool” theme runs all through “The Art of Flirtation." Go to see as many two-acts as you can and you will find that one or another of the characters is always trying to “show up” the other.

(c) The “Sucker” Theme.

As for the quirk in human nature that shows great gratification at the sight of a man betting on something where he is bound to be the loser: in inelegant language, this relates simply to the universal impulse to laugh at a “sucker.” It is just like standing in front of a sideshow tent after you have paid your good money, gone in, and been “stung,” and laughing at everyone else who pays his good money, comes out, and has been equally “stung.” You laugh at a man when he loses the money he has bet on a race that has already been run when the wager has been posted. You laugh at a man who bets a man ten dollars “receive" is spelled “recieve,” when you have just looked at the dictionary and appreciate that he hasn’t a chance. . . . Comedy that lives year after year–no matter whether you choose to call it “refined” or not–never comes to its exploiters by accident. The intrinsic idea, the germ, may come accidentally; but the figuring out of the elaboration and execution of the comedy takes thinking and a pretty fair knowledge of your fellow men. [1]

[1] From the Weber and Fields article.

Although there are very many two-acts–among them “The Art of Flirtation"–which do not make use of this third fundamental theme, there are a great many that depend for their biggest laughs upon this sure-fire subject.

In common with the “fool” theme, the “sucker” theme lends itself to use as a part or bit of a two-act. And both these themes are likely to be interspersed with quarrels.

There are, of course, other themes that might be classed with these three fundamental themes. But they tend to trail off upon doubtful ground. Therefore, as we are considering only those that are on incontrovertible ground, let us now turn our attention to the act themes which we will call:

3. Subject Themes

What can you bring to the vaudeville stage in the way of themes that are new? That is what you should ask yourself, rather than to inquire what has already been done.

Anything that admits of treatment on the lines of the two-act as it has been spread before you, offers itself as a subject theme. In the degree that you can find in it points that are bright, clever, laughter-provoking and business-suggestive, does it recommend itself to you as a theme.

Here is the merest skimming of the themes of the two-acts presented in one large city during one week:

Flirting: done in a burlesque way. Our own example, “The Art of Flirtation.”

Quarrelsome musicians in search of a certain street. One is always wrong. Gags all on this routine subject.

Getting a job: “sucker” theme. One character an Italian politician, the other an Italian laborer.

Wives: one man is boss at home, the other is henpecked. Furthermore, the wives don’t agree. Quarrel theme.

Old times: two old schoolmates meet in the city. One a “fly guy," the other a simple, quiet country fellow. “Fool” theme, in the old days and the present.

Note the variety of subjects treated. If my memory serves me correctly, everyone of these acts had a quarrel either as its entire subject, or the usual quarrels developed frequently in the routine. These quarrels, as in most two-acts, were fundamental to much of their humor. But no two of the acts had the same subject theme.

It would seem, then, that in thinking out the two-act, the author would do well to avoid every theme that has been used–if such a thing is humanly possible, where everything seems to have been done–and to attempt, at least, to bring to his two-act a new subject theme.

But if this is impossible, the writer should bring to the old theme a new treatment. Indeed, a new treatment with all its charm of novelty will make any old theme seem new. One of the standard recipes for success in any line of endeavor is: “Find out what somebody else has done, and then do that thing–better.” And one of the ways of making an old theme appear new, is to invest it with the different personalities of brand new characters.


From the time when vaudeville first emerged as a commanding new form of entertainment, distinct from its progenitor, the legitimate stage, and its near relatives, burlesque and musical comedy, there have been certain characters indissolubly associated with the two-act. Among them are the Irish character, or “Tad"; the German, or “Dutch,” as they are often misnamed; the “black-face,” or “Nigger"; the farmer, or “Rube"; the Swedish, or “Swede"; the Italian, or “Wop"; and the Hebrew, or “Jew.”

Not much chance for a new character, you will say–but have you thought about the different combinations you can make? There is a wealth of ready humor waiting not only in varying combinations, but in placing the characters in new businesses. For example, doesn’t a “Jew” aviator who is pestered by an insurance agent or an undertaker, strike you as offering amusing possibilities?

But don’t sit right down and think out your two-act on the lines of the combination I have suggested on the spur of the moment. Others are sure to be ahead of you. You can only win success with new characters that are all your own. Then you are likely to be the first in the field.

As a final warning, permit the suggestion that bizarre combinations of characters very probably will be difficult to sell. Make your combinations within the limits of plausibility, and use characters that are seen upon the stage often enough to be hailed with at least a pleasant welcome.


“Comedy” and “Straight”

The characters of the two-act are technically called the “comedian" and the “straight-man.” The comedian might better be called the “laugh-man,” just as the straight is more clearly termed the “feeder.”

In the early days of the business the comedian was always distinguishable by his comedy clothes. One glance would tell you he was the comical cuss. The straight-man dressed like a “gent," dazzling the eyes of the ladies with his correct raiment. From this fact the names “comedian” and “straight” arose.

But today you seldom can tell the two apart. They do not dress extravagantly, either for comedy or for fashion effect. They often dress precisely alike–that is, so far as telling their different characters is concerned. Their difference in wealth and intelligence may be reflected in their clothes, but only as such differences would be apparent in real life. Indeed, the aim today is to mimic reality in externals, precisely as the real characters themselves are impersonated in every shade of thought and artistic inflection of speech. There are, to be sure, exceptions to this modern tendency.

The original purposes of their stage names, however, remain as true today as they did when the two-act first was played. The comedian has nearly all the laugh lines and the straight-man feeds him.

Not only must you keep the characters themselves pure of any violation of their unity, but you must also see to it that every big laugh is given to the comedian. If the comedian is the one “getting the worst of it"–as is almost invariably the case–he must get the worst of it nearly every time. But that does not influence the fact that he also gets almost all the laugh lines.

Note the working out of the laugh lines in “The Art of Flirtation." You will see that only on the rarest of occasions does the straight-man have a funny line given him.

The only time the feeder may be given a laugh line, is when the laugh is what is called a “flash-back.” For example, take the point in “The Art of Flirtation” beginning:


And does she answer?


She’s got to; it says it in the book.


Does she answer you with a handkerchief?


Yes, or she might answer you with an umbrella.

This is a flash-back. But, the comedian gets a bigger laugh on the next line–worked up by a gesture:

COMEDIAN Over the head.

Or take this form of the flash-back, which may seem an even clearer example:


Oh, I know how to be disagreeable to a lady. You ought to hear me talk to my wife.


To your wife? Any man can be disagreeable to his wife. But think–,

and so on into the introduction to the next point. It is always a safe rule to follow that whenever you give the straight-man a flash-back, top it with a bigger laugh for the comedian. How many flash-backs you may permit in your two-act, depends upon the character of the material, and also varies according to the bigness of the roars that the business adds to the comedian’s laughs. No stated rule can be given you. In this, as in everything else, you must carve your own way to win your own business.


Foreword  •  Introduction  •  Chapter I - The Why of the Vaudeville Act  •  Chapter II - Should You Try to Write For Vaudeville?  •  Chapter III - The Vaudeville Stage and Its Dimensions  •  Chapter IV - The Scenery Commonly Found in Vaudeville Theatres  •  Chapter V - The Nature of the Monologue  •  Chapter VI - Writing the Monologue  •  Chapter VII - The Vaudeville Two-Act  •  Chapter VIII - The Structural Elements of Two-Act Material  •  Chapter IX - Putting the Two-Act on Paper  •  Chapter X - The Playlet as a Unique Dramatic Form  •  Chapter XI - Kinds of Playlet  •  Chapter XII - How Playlets are Germinated  •  Chapter XIII - The Dramatic–The Vital Element of Plot  •  Chapter XIV - The Structural Elements of Plot  •  Chapter XV - The Characters in the Playlet  •  Chapter XVI - Dialogue in the Playlet  •  Chapter XVII - “Business” in the Playlet  •  Chapter XVIII - Writing the Playlet  •  Chapter XIX - The Elements of a Successful One-Act Musical Comedy

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By Brett Page
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