Writing for Vaudeville
by Brett Page
Public Domain Books
Chapter IX - Putting the Two-Act on Paper
You have selected your theme, chosen your characters, thought out every angle of business, and mapped nearly all of your points, as well as your big laugh-lines: now you are ready to put your two-act on paper. Before “taking your pen in hand,” stop for a moment of self-analysis.
You can now determine how likely you are to succeed as a writer of the two-act, by this simple self-examination:
How much of my two-act have I thought out clearly so that it is playing before my very eyes?
If you have thought it all out, so that every bit of business moves before your eyes, as every point rings in your ears, you are very likely to turn out an acceptable two-act–if you have not played a “chooser’s” part, and your points are real points.
But do not imagine because you are positive that you have thought everything out beforehand, and now have come to writing it down, that your job of thinking is ended. Not at all; there are a few things still to be thought out, while you are writing.
I. WHERE TO BEGIN
As in the monologue–because your material is made up of points–you may begin nearly anywhere to write your two-act. And like the monologue, you need not have a labored formal introduction.
Still, your introduction is no less comprehensively informing because it has not the air of formality. If your characters by their appearance stamp themselves for what they are, you may trust complete characterization–as you should in writing every form of stage material–to what each character does and says.
But in your very first line you should subtly tell the audience, so there cannot possibly be any mistake, what your subject is.
Why are those two men out there on the stage?
What is the reason for their attitude toward each ther?
If they are quarreling, why are they quarreling?
If they are laughing, why are they laughing?
But don’t make the mistake of trying to tell too much. To do that, would be to make your introduction draggy. You must make the audience think the characters are bright–precisely as the introduction of the monologue is designed to make the audience think the monologist is bright. Write your introduction in very short speeches. Show the attitude of the characters clearly and plainly, as the first speech of our two-act example shows the characters are quarreling:
Say, whenever we go out together you always got a kick coming. What’s the matter with you?
Then get into your subject-theme quickly after you have given the audience time to get acquainted and settled, with the memory of the preceding act dimmed in their minds by the giggle-points of your introduction.
The introduction of the two-act is designed to stamp the characters as real characters, to establish their relations to each other, to give the audience time to settle down to the new “turn,” to make them think the performers are “bright” and to delay the first big laugh until the psychological moment has come to spring the initial big point of the subject theme, after the act has “got" the audience.
II. THE DEVELOPMENT
It would seem needless to repeat what has already been stated so plainly in the chapters on the monologue, that no one can teach you how to write excruciatingly funny points and gags, and that no one can give you the power to originate laughter-compelling situations. You must rise or fall by the force of your own ability.
There are, however, two suggestions that can be given you for the production of a good two-act. One is a “don’t,” and the other a “do.” Don’t write your points in the form of questions and answers. The days of the “Why did the chicken cross the road?"–"Because she wanted to get on the other side” sort of two-act, is past. Write all your points in conversational style.
What were you doing at Pat’s dinner lathering your face with a
So you were down at Pat’s house for dinner, and you went and
lathered your face with a charlotte russe–I saw you.
Of course when a legitimate question is to be asked, ask it. But do not deliberately throw your points into question form. Your guide to the number of direct queries you would use should be the usual conversational methods of real life.
Your subject, of course, in a large measure determines how many questions you need to ask. For instance, if your theme is one that develops a lot of fun through one character instructing the other, a correspondingly large number of questions naturally would be asked. But, as “The Art of Flirtation” plainly shows, you can get a world of fun out of even an instruction theme, without the use of a wearying number of inquiries. The two-act fashion today is the direct, conversational style.
Now for the second suggestion:
Although some exceedingly successful two-acts have been written with many themes scattered through their twelve or more minutes, probably a larger number have won success through singleness of subject. A routine with but one subject worked up to its most effective height is often more likely to please.
Furthermore, for the reason that the two-act is breaking away from the offering that is merely pieced together out of successful bits–precisely as that class of act struggled away from the old slap-stick turn–the single-routine now finds readier sale. The present tendency of the two-act seems to be to present clever characterization–and so to win by artistic acting, as before it won by cruder methods.
Therefore, strive for unity of routine. Treat but one subject and amplify that one subject with singleness of purpose.
The point, or the gag, of a two-act is very much like that of the monologue. In so far as construction is concerned–by this I mean laugh-wave construction–they are identical. Study “The Art of Flirtation,” and you will see how little laughs precede big laughs and follow after, mounting into still bigger laughs that rise into roars of laughter.
1. Introducing a Point
If you were telling a joke to a friend you would be sure to tell him in your very first sentence all the things he would need in order to understand the point of the joke, wouldn’t you? You would take great care not to leave out one salient bit of information that would make him see the joke plainly–you would be as logical as though you were trying to sell him a bill of goods. Take the same attitude toward each point that you introduce into your two-act. Remember, you are wholesaling your “jokes” to the comedians, who must retail them to their audiences. Therefore, introduce each new point as clearly and as briefly as you can.
Let us take a point from “The Art of Flirtation” and see how it is constructed. The very first line the straight-man speaks when he comes out on the stage unmistakably declares his relation to the comedian. When he shows the book, he explains precisely what it is. And while laugh after laugh is worked out of it, the precise things that the book teaches are made clear.
No. It ain’t ten cent love. It’s fine love. (Opens book) See–here is the destructions. Right oil the first page you learn something. See–how to flirt with a handkerchief.
Who wants to flirt with a handkerchief? I want to flirt with a woman.
Listen to what the book says. To a flirter all things have got a language. According to this book flirters can speak with the eye, with the fan, with the cane, with the umbrella, with the handkerchief, with anything; this book tells you how to do it.
COMEDIAN For ten cents.
Note that the straight-man does not say, “with the eye, cane, umbrella–” and so on through the list. He says “With the eye, with the fan, with the cane–.” There can be no mistake–as there might be if the items were enumerated swiftly. Each one is given importance by the “with the eye, with the fan.” The words “with the” lend emphasis and a humorous weight.
Shut up. Now when you see a pretty woman coming along who wants to flirt with you, what is the first thing a man should do?
Run the other way.
No, no. This is the handkerchief flirtation. . . .
You see precisely what the subject of this particular point is because it is stated in unmistakable words.
. . .As soon as a pretty woman makes eyes at you, you put your hands in your pockets.
And hold on to your money.
Now this is a big laugh at every performance–a sure-fire laugh when it is well done. Note that it is the fourth line the comedian has after the specific point introduction, “. . .See–how to flirt with a handkerchief?” Now the line “Who wants to flirt with a handkerchief? I want to flirt with a woman,” is not intended to be a real laugh-line. It serves as an audience settler, gives emphasis to the explanation of just what the book tells and helps to blend into the next line.
There’s a first laugh on, “For ten cents.” A bigger laugh comes on, “Run the other way.” And the bigest–in this point-division– on the third laugh line “And hold on to your money.”
2. Blending into the Following Point
When you have a big laugh, you must make the next line carry you on smoothly into the succeeding lint. It matters not whether the points are all related to the same general subject or not–although we are considering here only the single-routine two-act–you must take great care that each point blends into the following one with logical sequence.
The line, “Who wants to flirt with a handkerchief? I want to flirt with a woman,” helps in the blending of the point division we have just examined.
The straight-man’s line following the big laugh line in that point division, “No, you take out your handkerchief,” (biz. ) is another example of the blend-line. And it is the very first introduction of the peculiar style of business that makes of “The Art of Flirtation” so funny an act.
 Biz. is often used in vaudeville material for bus., the correct contraction of business.
3. The Use of Business
Let us continue in the examination of this example.
Suppose you ain’t got a handkerchief?
Every flirter must have a handkerchief. It says it in the book. Now you shake the handkerchief three times like this. (Biz) Do you know what that means?
(Biz. of shaking head.)
That means you want her to give you–
The reason why these two words come with such humorous effect, lies in two causes. First, “ten cents” has been used before with good laugh results–as a “gag line,” you recall–and this is the comedian’s magical “third time” use of it. It is a good example of the “three-sequence mystery” which Weber and Fields mentioned, and which has been used to advantage on the stage for many, many years.
Second, the comedian had refused to answer the straight-man’s question. He simply stood there and shook his head. It was the very simple business of shaking his head that made his interruption come as a surprise and gave perfect setting for the “gag-line.”
Read the speeches that follow and you will see how business is used. Note particularly how the business makes this point stand out as a great big laugh:
. . .Den you hold your handkerchief by the comer like dis.
Vat does that mean?
Meet me on the corner.
Och, dat’s fine. (Takes handkerchief). . . Den if you hold it dis way, dat means (biz.): “Are you on the square?”
This line reads even funnier than many laughs in the act that are bigger, but its business cannot be explained in words. It seems funnier to you because you can picture it. You actually see it, precisely as it is done.
Then the next line blends it into the next point, which is clearly introduced with a grin–is developed into a laugh, a bigger laugh by effective business, and then into a roar.
Point after point follows–each point topping the preceding point–until the end of the two-act is reached in the biggest laugh of all.
III. HOW AND WHERE TO END
The business of the two-act, which secures its effects by actions that are often wholly without words, makes the two-act more difficult to time than a monologue. Furthermore, even if the time-consuming bits of business were negligible, the precise timing of a two-act by the author is not really necessary.
Precisely as a monologist can vary the length of his offering by leaving out gags, the two-act performers can shorten their offering at will–by leaving out points. Hence it is much better to supply more points than time will permit to delivery in the finished performance, than to be required to rewrite your material to stretch the subject to fill out time. All you need do is to keep the two-act within, say, twenty minutes. And to gauge the length roughly, count about one hundred and fifteen words to a minute.
Therefore, having arranged your points upon separate cards, or slips of paper, and having shuffied them about and tried them all in various routines to establish the best, choose your very biggest laugh for the last.  Wherever that biggest laugh may have been in the sample routines you have arranged, take it out and blend it in for your final big roar.
 See description of card system, Chapter VI, section III.
Remember that the last laugh must be the delighted roar that will take the performers off stage, and bring them back again and again for their bows.
IV. MAKING THE MANUSCRIPT A STAGE SUCCESS
The manuscript of a two-act is only a prophecy of what may be. It may be a good prophecy or a bad prognostication–only actual performance before an audience can decide. As we saw in the monologue, points that the author thought would “go big"–"die"; and unexpectedly, little grins waken into great big laughs. There is no way of telling from the manuscript.
When you have finished your two-act you must be prepared to construct it all over again in rehearsal, and during all the performances of its try-out weeks. Not only must the points be good themselves, they must also fit the performers like the proverbial kid gloves.
More two-acts–and this applies to all other stage-offerings as well–have started out as merely promising successes, than have won at the first try-out. For this reason, be prepared to work all the morning rehearsing, at the matinee and the night performances, and after the theatre is dark, to conjure giggle points into great big laughs, and lift the entire routine into the success your ability and the performers’ cleverness can make it.
Even after it has won its way into a contract and everybody is happy, you must be prepared to keep your two-act up-to-the-minute. While it is on the road, you must send to the performers all the laughs you can think of–particularly if you have chosen for your theme one that demands constant furbishing to keep it bright.
V. OTHER TWO-ACT FORMS
It is with direct purpose that the discussion of the two-act has been confined to the kind of act that Weber and Fields made so successful–and of which Mr. Hoffman’s “The Art of Flirtation” is a more up-to-date, mild and artistic form. There are other forms of the two-act, of course, but the kind of two-act we have discussed is peculiarly typical of two-act material. It holds within itself practically all the elements of the two-act that the writer has to consider. It is only necessary now to describe the other forms briefly.
By “pure two-act form,” I mean the two-act that is presented without songs, tricks, or any other entertainment elements. Yet many of the most successful two-acts open with a song, introduce songs or parodies into the middle of their dialogue, or close with a song or some novelty.
Do not imagine that a two-act in which songs are introduced cannot be precisely as good as one that depends upon its talk alone. It may be an even better act. If it pleases the audience better, it is a better act. Remember that while we have been discussing the two-act from the writer’s view-point, it is the applause of the audience that stamps every act with the final seal of approval. But, whether a two-act makes use of songs or tricks or anything else, does not change the principles on which all two-act points and gags are constructed.
The more common talking two-acts are:
1. The Sidewalk Conversation or Gag Act
This form may or may not open and close with songs, and depends upon skillfully blended, but not necessarily related, gags and jokes.
2. The Parody Two-Act
This sort of act opens and closes with parodies on the latest song-hits, and uses talk for short rests and humorous effect between the parodies by which the act makes its chief appeal.
3. The Singing Two-Act
This type makes its appeal not by the use of songs, but because the voices are very fine. Such an act may use a few gags and unrelated jokes–perhaps of the “nut” variety–to take the act out of the pure duet class and therefore offer wider appeal.
4. The Comedy Act for Two Women
Such acts may depend on precisely the same form of routine the pure talking two-act for men uses. Of course, the treatment of the subject themes is gentler and the material is all of a milder character.
5. The Two-Act with Plot Interest
Acts of this character make use of a comedy, burlesque, melodramatic or even a dramatic plot. This form of sketch seldom rises into the playlet class. It is a two-act merely because it is played by two persons. Often, however, this form of the two-act uses a thread of plot on which to string its business and true two-act points. It may or may not make use of songs, parodies, tricks or other entertainment elements. We have now come to a form of two-act which is of so popular a nature that it requires more than passing mention. This is
6. The Flirtation Two-Act
Usually presented with songs making their appeal to sentiment, almost always marked by at least one change of costume by the woman, sometimes distinguished by a special drop and often given more than a nucleus of plot, this very popular form of two-act sometimes rises into the dignity of a little production. Indeed, many two-acts of this kind have been so successful in their little form they have been expanded into miniature musical comedies .
 See Chapter XXX, The One-Act Musical Comedy.
(a) Romance is the chief source of the flirtation two-act’s appeal. It is the dream-love in the heart of every person in the audience which makes this form of two-act “go” so well. Moonlight, a girl and a man–this is the recipe.
(b) Witty Dialogue that fences with love, that thrusts, parries and–surrenders, is what makes the flirtation two-act “get over." It is the same kind of dialogue that made Anthony Hope’s “Dolly Dialogues” so successful in their day, the sort of speeches which we, in real life, think of afterward and wish we had made.
(c) Daintiness of effect is what is needed in this form of two-act. Dialogue and business, scenery, lights and music all combine to the fulfillment of its purpose. The cruder touches of other two-act forms are forgotten and the entire effort is concentrated on making an appeal to the “ideal.” Turn to the Appendix, and read “After the Shower,” and you will see how these various elements are unified. This famous flirtation two-act has been chosen because it shows practically all the elements we have discussed.