Writing for Vaudeville
by Brett Page

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Chapter VI - Writing the Monologue


Before an experienced writer takes up his pencil he has formed definitely in his mind just what he is going to write about–that is the simple yet startling difference between the experienced writer and the novice. Not only does the former know what his subject is, but he usually knows how he is going to treat it, and even some striking phrases and turns of sentences are ready in his mind, together with the hundreds of minute points which, taken together, make up the singleness of impression of the whole.

But just as it is impossible for the human mind–untrained, let us say, in the art of making bricks–to picture at a glance the various processes through which the clay passes before it takes brick form, so it is identically as impossible for the mind of the novice to comprehend in a flash the various purposes and half-purposes that precede the actual work of writing anything.

True as this is of writing in general, it seems to me particularly true of writing the monologue, for the monologue is one of those precise forms of the art of writing that may best be compared to the miniature, where every stroke must be true and unhesitating and where all combine unerringly to form the composite whole.

In preparing monologue material the writer usually is working in the sounds of spoken–and mis-spoken–words, and the humor that lies in the twisting of ideas into surprising conclusions. He seldom deliberately searches for a theme–more often some laugh-provoking incident or sentence gives him an idea and he builds it into a monologue with its subject for the theme.

1. Themes to Avoid

Anything at all in the whole range of subjects with which life abounds will lend itself for a monologue theme–provided the writer can without straining twist it to the angle of humor; but propriety demands that nothing blatantly suggestive shall be treated, and common sense dictates that no theme of merely local interest shall be used, when the purpose of the monologue is to entertain the whole country. Of course if a monologue is designed to entertain merely a certain class or the residents of a certain city or section only, the very theme–for instance, some purely local happening or trade interest–that you would avoid using in a monologue planned for national use, would be the happiest theme that could be chosen. But, as the ambitious monologue writer does not wish to confine himself to a local or a sectional subject and market, let us consider here only themes that have universal appeal.


Politics   Woman Suffrage
Love   Drink
Marriage   Baseball
Woman’s Dress   Money

While there are many more themes that can be twisted to universal interest–and anyone could multiply the number given–these few are used in whole or in part in nearly every successful monologue now being presented. And, they offer to the new writer the surest ground to build a new monologue. That they have all been done before is no reason why they should not be done again: the new author has only to do them better–and a little different. It is all a matter of fresh vision. What is there in any art that is really new–but treatment?

Do not make the fatal mistake of supposing that these few themes are the only themes possessing universal interest. Anything in the whole wide world may be the subject for a monologue, when transmuted by the magic of common sense and uncommon ability into universal fun.


As a monologue is a collection of carefully selected and smoothly blended points or gags, with a suitable introduction to the routine [1]–each point and gag being a complete, separate entity, and the introduction being as truly distinct–the monologue writer, unlike the playlet writer, may begin to write anywhere. He may even write the last point or gag used in the routine before he writes the first. Or he may write the twelfth point before he writes either the first one or the last one. But usually, he writes his introduction first.

[1] Routine–the entire monologue; but more often used to suggest its arrangement and construction. A monologue with its gags and points arranged in a certain order is one routine; a different routine is used when the gags or points are arranged in a different order. Thus routine means arrangement. The word is also used to describe the arrangement of other stage offerings–for instance, a dance: the same steps arranged in a different order make a new “dance routine.”

1. The Introduction

A monologue introduction may be just one line with a point or a gag that will raise a snicker, or it may be a long introduction that stamps the character as a “character,” and causes amusement because it introduces the entire monologue theme in a bright way.

An example of the short introduction is:

“D’you know me friend Casey? He’s the guy that put the sham in shamrock,” then on into the first gag that stamps Casey as a sure-’nuff “character,” with a giggle-point to the gag.

The very best example of the long introduction being done on the stage today is the first four paragraphs of “The German Senator." The first line, “My dear friends and falling Citizens,” stamps the monologue unquestionably as a speech. The second line, “My heart fills up with vaccination to be disabled,” declares the mixed-up character of the oration and of the German Senator himself, and causes amusement. And the end of the fourth paragraph–which you will note is one long involved sentence filled with giggles–raises the first laugh.

Nat Wills says the introduction to the gag-monologue may often profitably open with a “local"–one about the town or some local happening–as a local is pretty sure to raise a giggle, and will cause the audience to think the monologist “bright” and at least start their relations off pleasantly. He says: “Work for giggles in your introduction, but don’t let the audience get set–with a big laugh–until the fifth or sixth joke.”

The introduction, therefore, is designed to establish the monologist with the audience as “bright,” to stamp the character of the “character” delivering it–or about whom the gags are told–and to delay a big laugh until the monologist has “got” his audience.

2. The Development

The “point,” you will recall, we defined as the funny observation of a pure monologue–in lay-conversation it means the laugh line of a joke; and “gag” we defined as a joke or a pun. For the sake of clearness let us confine “point” to a funny observation in a monologue, and “gag” to a joke in a connected series of stories.

It is impossible for anyone to teach you how to write a really funny point or a gag. But, if you have a well-developed sense of humor, you can, with the help of the suggestions for form given here and the examples of humor printed in the appendix, and those you will find in the funny papers and hear along the street or on the stage, teach yourself to write saleable material. All that this chapter can hope to do for you is to show you how the best monologue writes and the most successful monologists work to achieve their notable results, and thus put you in the right path to accomplish, with the least waste of time and energy, what they have done.

Therefore, let us suppose that you know what is humorous, have a well-developed sense of humor, and can produce really funny points and gags. Now, having your points and gags clearly framed in mind and ready to set down on paper, you naturally ask, How shall I arrange them? In what order shall I place them to secure the best effect for the whole monologue?

Barrett Wendell, professor of English at Harvard University, [1] has suggested an effective mechanical aid for determining the clearest and best arrangement of sentences and paragraphs in English prose, and his plan seems especially adapted to help the monologue writer determine a perfect routine. Briefly his method may be paraphrased thus:

[1] English Composition, page 165.

Have as many cards or slips of paper as you have points or gags. Write only one point or gag on one card or slip of paper. On the first card write “Introduction,” and always keep that card first in your hand. Then take up a card and read the point or gag on it as following the introduction, the second card as the second point or gag, and so on until you have arranged your monologue in an effective routine.

Then try another arrangement. Let us say the tenth joke in the first routine reads better as the first joke. All right, place it in your new arrangement right after the introduction. Perhaps the fourteenth point or gag fits in well after the tenth gag–fine, make that fourteenth gag the second gag; and so on through your cards until you have arranged a new routine.

Your first arrangement can invariably be improved–maybe even your seventh arrangement can be made better; very good, by shuffiing the cards you may make as many arrangements as you wish and eventually arrive at the ideal routine. And by keeping a memorandum of preceding arrangements you can always turn back to the older routine–if that appears the best after all other arrangements have been tried.

But what is really the ideal arrangement of a monologue? How may you know which routine is really the best? Frankly, you cannot know until it has been tried out on an audience many, many times–and has been proved a success by actual test. Arranging a routine of untried points and gags on paper is like trying to solve a cut-out puzzle with the key-piece missing. Only by actually trying out a monologue before an audience and fitting the points and gags to suit the monologist’s peculiar style (indeed, this is the real work of writing a monologue and will be described later on) can you determine what really is the best routine. And even then another arrangement may “go” better in another town. Still there are a few suggestions–a very few–that can be given here to aid the beginner.

Like ocean waves, monologic laughs should come in threes and nines–proved, like most rules, by exceptions. Note the application of this rule in “The German Senator.”

Study the arrangement of the points in this great monologue and you will see that each really big point is dependent on several minor points that precede it to get its own big laugh. For instance, take the following point:

And if meat goes any higher, it will be worth more than money.

Then there won’t be any money.

Instead of carrying money in your pocket, you’ll carry meat around.

A sirloin steak will be worth a thousand dollar bill.

When you go down to the bank to make a deposit, instead of giving the cashier a thousand dollar bill, you’ll slip him a sirloin steak.

If you ask him for change, he’ll give you a hunk of bologny. The first line blends this point with the preceding one about the high cost of eggs. The second line awakens interest and prepares for the next, “Instead of carrying money in your pocket, you’ll carry meat around,” which is good for a grin. The next line states the premise necessary for the first point-ending “–you’ll slip him a sirloin steak,” which is always good for a laugh. Then the last line, “If you ask him for change, he’ll give you a hunk of bologny,” tops the preceding laugh.

From this example you see what is meant by monologic laughs coming in threes and nines. The introduction of each new story–the line after the blend-line–should awaken a grin, its development cause a chuckle, and the point-line itself raise a laugh.

Each new point should top the preceding point until with the end of that particular angle or situation, should come a roar of honest laughter. Then back to the grin, the chuckle, and on to the laugh again, building up to the next big roar.

With the end of the monologue should come complete satisfaction in one great burst of laughter. This, of course, is the ideal.

3. How and Where to End

A monologue should run anywhere from ten to fifteen minutes. The monologist can vary his playing time at will by leaving out points and gags here and there, as necessity demands, so the writer should supply at least a full fifteen minutes of material in his manuscript.

“How shall I time my manuscript?” is the puzzling problem the new writer asks himself. The answer is that it is very difficult to time a monologue exactly, because different performers work at different speeds and laughs delay the delivery and, therefore, make the monologue run longer. But here is a very rough counting scale that may be given, with the warning that it is far from exact:

For every one hundred and fifteen to one hundred and forty words count one minute for delivery. This is so inexact, depending as it does on the number of laughs and the monologist’s speed of delivery, that it is like a rubber ruler. At one performance it may be too long, at another too short.

Having given a full fifteen minutes of material, filled, let us hope, with good points made up of grins, chuckles and laughs, now choose your very biggest laugh-point for the last. When you wrote the monologue and arranged it into the first routine, that biggest laugh may have been the tenth, or the ninth, or the fifteenth, but you have spotted it unerringly as the very biggest laugh you possess, so you blend it in as the final laugh of the completed monologue.

It may now be worth while thus to sum up the ideal structure:

A routine is so arranged that the introduction stamps the monologist as bright, and the character he is impersonating or telling about as a real “character.” The first four points or gags are snickers and the fifth or sixth is a laugh. [1] Each point or gag blends perfectly into the ones preceding and following it. The introduction of each new story awakens a grin, its development causes a chuckle, and the point-line itself raises a laugh. The final point or gag rounds the monologue off in the biggest burst of honest laughter.

[1] It is true that some monologists strive for a laugh on the very first point, but to win a big laugh at once is very rare.


When a writer delivers the manuscript of a monologue to a monologist his work is not ended. It has just begun, because he must share with the monologist the pains of delivering the monologue before an audience. Dion Boucicault once said, “A play is not written, but rewritten.” True as this is of a play, it is, if possible, even more true of a monologue.

Of course, not all beginners can afford to give this personal attention to staging a monologue, but it is advisable whenever possible. For, points that the author and the monologist himself were sure would “go big,” “die,” while points and gags that neither thought much of, “go big.” It is for precisely this purpose of weeding out the good points and gags from the bad that even famous monologists “hide away,” under other names, in very small houses for try-outs. And while the monologist is working on the stage to make the points and gags “get over,” the author is working in the audience to note the effect of points and finding ways to change a phrase here and a word there to build dead points into life and laughter. Then it is that they both realize that Frank Fogarty’s wise words are true: “There is only one way to tell a gag. If you can cut one word out from any of my gags I’ll give you five dollars, for it’s worth fifty to me. Words are costly.”

Some entire points and gags will be found to be dead beyond resurrection, and even whole series of gags and points must be cast away and new and better ones substituted to raise the golden laughs. So the monologue is changed and built performance after performance, with both the monologist and the author working as though their very lives depended on making it perfect.

Then, when it is “set” to the satisfaction of both, the monologist goes out on the road to try it out on different audiences and to write the author continually for new points and gags. It may be said with perfect truth that a monologue is never finished. Nat Wills, the Tramp Monologist, pays James Madison a weekly salary to supply him with new jokes every seventh day. So, nearly every monologist retains the author to keep him up to the minute with material, right in the forefront of the laughter-of-the-hour.


The discussion of the monologue form has been exhaustive, for the pure monologue holds within itself all the elements of the other allied forms. The only difference between a pure monologue and any other kind is in the addition of entertainment features that are not connected gags and points. Therefore, to cover the field completely it is necessary only to name a few of the many different kinds of single talking acts and to describe them briefly.

The most common talking singles–all of whom buy material from vaudeville writers–are:

(a) The Talking Magician–who may have only a few little tricks to present, but who plays them up big because he sprinkles his work with laughter-provoking points.

(b) The “Nut Comedian”–who does all manner of silly tricks to make his audience laugh, but who has a carefully prepared routine of “nut” material.

(c) The Parody Monologist–who opens and closes with funny parodies on the latest song hits and does a monologue routine between songs.

(d) The “Original Talk” Impersonator–who does impersonations of celebrities, but adds to his offering a few clever points and gags.


Before you seek a market [1] for your monologue, be sure that it fulfills all the requirements of a monologue and that it is the very best work you can do. Above all, make sure that every gag or point you use is original with you, and that the angle of the subject you have selected for your theme is honestly your own. For if you have copied even one gag or point that has been used before, you have laid your work open to suspicion and yourself to the epithet of “chooser.”

[1] See Chapter XXIV, Manuscripts and Markets.

The infringer–who steals gags and points bodily–can be pursued and punished under the copyright law, but the chooser is a kind of sneak thief who works gags and points around to escape taking criminal chances, making his material just enough different to evade the law. A chooser damages the originator of the material without himself getting very far. No one likes a chooser; no one knowingly will have dealings with a chooser. Call a vaudeville man a liar and he may laugh at you–call him a chooser and you’ll have to fight him.

There are, of course, deliberate choosers in the vaudeville business, just as there are “crooks” in every line of life, but they never make more than a momentary success. Here is why they invariably fail:

When you sit in the audience, and hear an old gag or point, you whisper, “Phew, that’s old,” or you give your companion a knowing look, don’t you? Well, half the audience is doing the very same thing, and they, like you, receive the impression that all the gags are old, and merely suppose that they haven’t heard the other ones before.

The performer, whose bread and butter depends on the audience thinking him bright, cannot afford to have anything ancient in his routine. Two familiar gags or points will kill at least twenty-five percent of his applause. He may not get even one bow, and when audiences do not like a monologist well enough to call him out for a bow, he might as well say good-by to his chances of getting even another week’s booking. Therefore the performer watches the material that is offered him with the strained attention of an Asiatic potentate who suspects there is poison in his breakfast food. He not only guards against old gags or points, but he takes great care that the specific form of the subject of any routine that he accepts is absolutely new.

Some of the deliberate choosers watch the field very closely and as soon as anyone strikes a new vein or angle they proceed to work it over. But taking the same subject and working around it–even though each gag or point is honestly new–does not and cannot pay. Even though the chooser secures some actor willing to use such material, he fails ultimately for two reasons: In the first place, the copier is never as good as the originator; and, in the second place, the circuit managers do not look with favor upon copy-acts.

As the success of the performer depends on his cleverness and the novelty of his material, in identically the same way the success of a vaudeville theatre lies in the cleverness and novelty of the acts it plays. Individual house managers, and therefore circuit managers, cannot afford to countenance copy-acts. For this reason a monologist or an act is often given exclusive rights to use a precise kind of subject-material over a given circuit. A copy-act cannot keep going to very long with only a few segregated house willing to play his act.

Therefore before you offer your monologue to a possible buyer, be sure–absolutely sure–that your theme and every one of your points and gags are original.


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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