Writing for Vaudeville
by Brett Page

Presented by

Public Domain Books

Chapter V - The Nature of the Monologue

The word monologue comes from the combination of two Greek words, monos, alone, and legein, to speak. Therefore the word monologue means “to speak alone"–and that is often how a monologist feels. If in facing a thousand solemn faces he is not a success, no one in all the world is more alone than he.

It appears easy for a performer to stroll into a theatre, without bothersome scenery, props, or tagging people, and walk right out on the stage alone and set the house a-roar. But, like most things that appear easy, it is not. It is the hardest “stunt” in the show business, demanding two very rare things: uncommon ability in the man, and extraordinary merit in the monologue itself.

To arrive at a clear understanding of what a monologue is, the long way around through the various types of “talking singles” may be the shortest cut home to the definition.

1. Not a Soliloquy.

The soliloquy of the by-gone days of dramatic art was sometimes called a monologue, because the person who spoke it was left alone upon the stage to commune with himself in spoken words that described to the audience what manner of man he was and what were the problems that beset him. Hamlet’s “To be or not to be,” perhaps the most famous of soliloquies, is, therefore, a true monologue in the ancient sense, for Hamlet spoke alone when none was near him. In the modern sense this, and every other soliloquy, is but a speech in a play. There is a fundamental reason why this is so: A monologue is spoken to the audience, while in a soliloquy (from the Latin solus, alone, loqui, to talk) the actor communes with himself for the “benefit” of the audience.

2. Not Merely an Entertainment by One Person

There are all sorts of entertaining talking acts in vaudeville presented by a single person. Among them are the magician who performs his tricks to the accompaniment of a running fire of talk which, with the tricks themselves, raises laughter; and the person who gives imitations and wins applause and laughter by fidelity of speech, mannerisms and appearance to the famous persons imitated. Yet neither of these can be classed as a monologist, because neither depends upon speech alone to win success.

3. Not a Disconnected String of Stories

Nor, in the strictest vaudeville sense, is a monologue merely a string of stories that possesses no unity as a whole and owns as its sole reason of being that of amusement and entertainment. For instance, apropos of nothing whatever an entertainer may say:

I visited Chinatown the other evening and took dinner in one of the charming Oriental restaurants there. The first dish I ordered was called Chop Suey. It was fine. They make it of several kinds of vegetables and meats, and one dark meat in particular hit my taste. I wanted to find out what it was, so I called the waiter. He was a solemn-looking Chinaman, whose English I could not understand, so I pointed to a morsel of the delicious dark meat and, rubbing the place where all the rest of it had gone, I asked:


The Chink grinned and said:

“No. No. Bow-wow.”

Before the laughter has subsided the entertainer continues:

That reminds me of the deaf old gentleman at a dinner party who was seated right next to the prettiest of the very young ladies present. He did his best to make the conversation agreeable, and she worked hard to make him understand what she said. But finally she gave it up in despair and relapsed into a pained silence until the fruit was passed. Then she leaned over and said:

“Do you like bananas?”

A smile of comprehension crept over the deaf old man’s face and he exclaimed:

“No, I like the old-fashioned night-gowns best.”

And so, from story to story the entertainer goes, telling his funny anecdotes for the simple reason that they are funny and create laughter. But funny as they are, they are disconnected and, therefore, do not meet the requirement of unity of character, which is one of the elements of the pure monologue.

4. Not a Connected Series of Stories Interspersed With Songs and the Like

If the entertainer had told the stories of the Chinaman and the deaf old gentleman as though they had happened to a single character about whom all the stories he tells revolve, his act and his material would more nearly approach the pure monologue form. For instance:

Casey’s a great fellow for butting into queer places to get a bite to eat. The other evening we went down to Chinatown and in one of those Oriantal joints that hand out Chop Suey in real china bowls with the Jersey City dragoons on ’em, we struck a dish that hit Casey just right.

“Mither av Moses,” says Casey, “this is shure the atein fer ye; but what’s thot dilicate little tid-bit o’ brown mate?”

“I don’t know,” says I.

“Oi’ll find out,” says Casey. “Just listen t’me spake that heathen’s language.”

“Here, boy,” he hollers, “me likee, what you call um?”

The Chink stares blankly at Casey. Casey looks puzzled, then he winks at me. Rubbing his hand over the place where the rest of the meat had gone, he says:


A gleam shot into the Chink’s almond eyes and he says:

“No. No. Bow-wow.”

It took seven of us to hold Casey, he felt that bad. But that wasn’t a patchin’ to the time we had dinner with a rich friend o’ ours and Casey was seated right next to the nicest little old lady y’ever saw. . . .

And so on until the banana story is told, with Casey the hero and victim of each anecdote.

But an entertainer feels no necessity of making his entire offering of related anecdotes only. Some monologists open with a song because they want to get the audience into their atmosphere, and “with” them, before beginning their monologue. The song merely by its melody and rhythm helps to dim the vividness of impression left by the preceding act and gives the audience time to quiet down, serving to bridge the psychic chasm in the human mind that lies between the relinquishing of one impression and the reception of the next.

Or the monologist may have a good finishing song and knows that he can depend on it for an encore that will bring him back to tell more stories and sing another song. So he gives the orchestra leader the cue, the music starts and off he goes into his song.

Or he may have some clever little tricks that will win applause, or witty sayings that will raise a laugh, and give him a chance to interject into his offering assorted elements of appeal that will gain applause from different classes of people in his audience. Therefore, as his purpose is to entertain, he sings his song, performs his tricks, tells his witty sayings, or perhaps does an imitation or two, as suits his talent best. And a few end their acts with serious recitations of the heart-throb sort that bring lumps into kindly throats and leave an audience in the satisfied mood that always comes when a touch of pathos rounds off a hearty laugh.

But by adding to his monologue unrelated offerings the monologist becomes an “entertainer,” an “impersonator,” or whatever title best describes his act. If he stuck to his stories only and told them all on a single character, his offering would be a monologue in the sense that it observes the unity of character, but still it would not be a pure monologue in the vaudeville sense as we now may define it–though a pure monologue might form the major part of his “turn.”


Having seen in what respects other single talking acts–the soliloquy, the “talking single” that has no unity of material, the disconnected string of stories, and the connected series of stories interspersed with songs–differ from the pure monologue, it will now be a much simpler task to make plain the elements that compose the real vaudeville monologue.

The real monologue possesses the following eight characteristics:

  1. It is performed by one person.
  2. It is humorous.
  3. It possesses unity of character.
  4. It is not combined with songs, tricks or any other entertainment form.
  5. It takes from ten to fifteen minutes to deliver.
  6. It is marked by compression.
  7. It is distinguished by vividness.
  8. It follows a definite form of construction.

Each of these eight characteristics has either been mentioned already or will be taken up in detail later, so now we can combine them into a single paragraphic definition:

The pure vaudeville monologue is a humorous talk spoken by one person, possesses unity of character, is not combined with any other entertainment form, is marked by compression, follows a definite form of construction and usually requires from ten to fifteen minutes for delivery.

It must be emphasized that because some single talking acts do not meet every one of the requirements is no reason for condemning them [1]. They may be as fine for entertainment purposes as the pure monologue, but we must have some standard by which to work and the only true standard of anything is its purest form. Therefore, let us now take up the several parts that make up the pure monologue as a whole, and later we shall consider the other monologue variations that are permissible and often desirable.

[1] Frank Fogarty, “The Dublin Minstrel,” one of the most successful monologists in vaudeville, often opens with a song and usually ends his offering with a serious heart-throb recitation. By making use of the song and serious recitation Mr. Fogarty places his act in the “entertainer" class, but his talking material is, perhaps, the best example of the “gag"-anecdotal-monologue to be found in vaudeville.

Mr. Fogarty won The New York Morning Telegraph contest to determine the most popular performer in vaudeville in 1912, and was elected President of “The White Rats"–the vaudeville actors’ protective Union–in 1914. [end footnote]

If you have not yet turned to the appendix and read Aaron Hoffman’s “The German Senator” do so now. (See Appendix.) It will be referred to frequently to illustrate structural points.


1. Humor

All monologues, whether of the pure type or not, possess one element in common–humor. I have yet to hear of a monologist who did not at least try to be funny. But there are different types of monologic humor.

“Each eye,” the Italians say, “forms its own beauty,” so every nation, every section, and each individual forms its own humor to suit its own peculiar risibilities. Still, there are certain well-defined kinds of stories and classes of points in which we Americans find a certain delight.

What these are the reader knows as well as the writer and can decide for himself much better than I can define them for him. Therefore, I shall content myself with a mere mention of the basic technical elements that may be of suggestive help.

(a) The Element of Incongruity. “The essence of all humor,” it has been said, “is incongruity,” and in the monologue there is no one thing that brings better laugh-results than the incongruous. Note in the Appendix the closing point of “The German Senator." Could there be any more incongruous thing than wives forming a Union?

(b) Surprise. By surprise is meant leading the audience to believe the usual thing is going to happen, and “springing” the unusual–which in itself is often an incongruity, but not necessarily so.

(c) Situation. Both incongruity and surprise are part and parcel of the laughter of a situation. For instance; a meeting of two people, one of whom is anxious to avoid the other–a husband, for instance, creeping upstairs at three A. M. meeting his wife–or both anxious to avoid each other–wife was out, too, and husband overtakes wife creeping slowly up, doing her best not to awaken him, each supposing the other in bed and asleep. The laughter comes because of what is said at that particular moment in that particular situation–"and is due,” Freud says, “to the release from seemingly unpleasant and inevitable consequences.”

(d) Pure Wit. Wit exists for its own sake, it is detachable from its context, as for example:

And what a fine place they picked out for Liberty to stand. With Coney Island on one side and Blackwell’s Island on the other. [1]

[1] The German Senator. See Appendix.

(e) Character. The laughable sayings that are the intense expression at the instant of the individuality of the person voicing them, is what is meant by the humor of character. For instance: the German Senator gets all “balled up” in his terribly long effort to make a “regular speech,” and he ends:

We got to feel a feeling of patriotic symptoms–we got to feel patriotic symp–symps–you got to feel the patri–you can’t help it, you got to feel it.

These five suggestions–all, in the last analysis, depending on the first, incongruity–may be of assistance to the novice in analyzing the elements of humor and framing his own efforts with intelligence and precision.

In considering the other elemental characteristics of the monologue, we must bear in mind that the emphasizing of humor is the monologue’s chief reason for being.

2. Unity of Character

Unity of character does not mean unity of subject–note the variety of subjects treated in “The German Senator"–but, rather, the singleness of impression that a monologue gives of the “character" who delivers it, or is the hero of it.

The German Senator, himself, is a politician “spouting,” in a perfectly illogical, broken-English stump speech, about the condition of the country and the reason why things are so bad. Never once do the various subjects stray far beyond their connection with the country’s deplorable condition and always they come back to it. Furthermore, not one of the observations is about anything that a politician of his mental calibre would not make. Also the construction of every sentence is in character. This example is, of course, ideal, and the precision of its unity of character one of the great elements of a great monologue.

Next to humor, unity of character is the most important requirement of the monologue. Never choose a subject, or write a joke, that does not fit the character delivering the monologue. In other words, if you are writing a pure monologue, do not, just because it is humorous, drag in a gag [1] or a point [2] that is not in character or that does not fit the subject. Make every turn of phrase and every word fit not only the character but also the subject.

[1] A gag is the vaudeville term for any joke or pun.

[2] A point is the laugh-line of a gag, or the funny observation of a monologue.

3. Compression

We have long heard that “brevity is the soul of wit,” and certainly we realize the truth in a hazy sort of way, but the monologue writer should make brevity his law and seven of his ten commandments of writing. Frank Fogarty, who writes his own gags and delivers them in his own rapid, inimitable way, said to me:

“The single thing I work to attain in any gag is brevity. I never use an ornamental word, I use the shortest word I can and I tell a gag in the fewest words possible. If you can cut out one word from any of my gags and not destroy it, I’ll give you five dollars, and it’ll be worth fifty to me to lose it. “You can kill the whole point of a gag by merely an unnecessary word. For instance, let us suppose the point of a gag is ’and he put the glass there’; well, you won’t get a laugh if you say, ’and then he picked the glass up and put it there.’ Only a few words more–but words are costly.

“Take another example. Here’s one of my best gags, a sure-fire laugh if told this way:

“O’Brien was engaged by a farmer to milk cows and do chores. There were a hundred and fifty cows, and three men did the milking. It was hard work, but the farmer was a kind-hearted, progressive man, so when he went to town and saw some milking-stools he bought three and gave ’em to the men to sit down on while at work. The other two men came back delighted, but not O’Brien. At last he appeared, all cut-up, and holding one leg of the stool.

“’What’s the matter?’ said the farmer.

“’Nothing, only I couldn’t make the cow sit down on it.’

“When I tell it this way it invariably gets a big laugh. Now here’s the way I once heard a ’chooser’ [1] do it.

[1] Chooser–one who chooses some part of another performer’s act and steals it for his own use.

“’O’Brien came to this country and looked around for work. He couldn’t get a job until at last a friend told him that a farmer up in the country wanted a man to milk cows. So O’Brien got on a trolley car and went out to the end of the line, took a side-door pullman from there, was ditched and had to walk the rest of the way to the farm. But at last he got to the farmer’s place and asked him for the job.

“’"Sure I can use you,” said the farmer, “here’s a milk pail and a milking-stool. Take ’em and go out and milk the cows in the barn.”

“’Now O’Brien didn’t know how to milk a cow, he’d never milked a cow in his whole life, but he needed a job so he didn’t tell the farmer he hadn’t ever milked a cow. He took the pail and the milking-stool and went out to the barn. After half an hour he came back to the farm house all cut-up, and he had one leg of the milking-stool in his hand.

“’"What’s the matter?” asked the farmer, “How’d you get all cut up–been in a fight or something?”

“’"No,” said O’Brien, “I couldn’t get the cow to sit on it.’”

“See the difference? There’s only one right way to tell any gag and that’s to make it brief, little–like the works of a watch that’ll fit in a thin watch case and be better and finer than a big turnip of a pocket clock.”

So, then, each point and gag in a monologue is told in the fewest, shortest words possible and the monologue, as a whole, is marked by compression. Remember, “brevity is the soul of wit"–never forget it.

4. Vividness

If a successful monologue writer has in mind two gags that are equally funny he will invariably choose the one that can be told most vividly–that is, the one that can be told as if the characters themselves were on the stage. For instance, the words, “Here stood John and there stood Mary,” with lively, appropriate gestures by the monologist, make the characters and the scene seem living on the stage before the very eyes of the audience. That is why the monologist illustrates his points and gags with gestures that picturize.

Every gag and every point of great monologues are told in words that paint pictures. If the gag is supposititious, and the direct right-here-they-stood method cannot be used, the point is worded so strikingly, and is so comically striking in itself, that the audience sees–visualizes–it. [1]

[1] Walter Kelly, “The Virginia Judge,” offers a fine example of the monologist who makes his words picturize. He “puts his stories over” almost without a gesture.

Unlike the playlet, the monologue does not have flesh-and-blood people on the stage to act the comic situation. The way a point or gag is constructed, the words used, the monologist’s gestures, and his inflections, must make the comic situation live in vivid pictures.

Therefore, in selecting material the monologue writer should choose those gags and points that can be told in pictures, and every word he uses should be a picture-word.

5. Smoothness and Blending

A monologue–like the thin-model watch mentioned–is made up of many parts. Each part fits into, the other–one gag or point blends perfectly into the following one–so that the entire monologue seems not a combination of many different parts, but a smoothly working, unified whole.

Count the number of different points there are in “The German Senator” and note how each seemingly depends on the one before it and runs into the one following; you will then see what is meant by blending. Then read the monologue again, this time without the Panama Canal point–plainly marked for this exposition–and you will see how one part can be taken away and still leave a smoothly reading and working whole.

It is to careful blending that the monologue owes its smoothness. The ideal for which the writer should strive is so to blend his gags and points that, by the use of not more than one short sentence, he relates one gag or point to the next with a naturalness and inevitableness that make the whole perfectly smooth.

We are now, I think, in a position to sum up the theory of the monologue. The pure vaudeville monologue, which was defined as a humorous talk spoken by one person, possesses unity of character, is not combined with any other entertainment form, is marked by compression, follows a definite form of construction, and usually requires from ten to fifteen minutes for delivery. Humor is its most notable characteristic; unity of the character delivering it, or of its “hero,” is its second most important requirement. Each point, or gag, is so compressed that to take away or add even one word would spoil its effect; each is expressed so vividly that the action seems to take place before the eyes of the audience. Finally, every point leads out of the preceding point so naturally, and blends into the following point so inevitably, that the entire monologue is a smooth and perfect whole.


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

[Buy at Amazon]
Writing for Vaudeville
By Brett Page
At Amazon