Writing for Vaudeville
by Brett Page

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Chapter VII - The Vaudeville Two-Act

The word “two-act” is used to describe any act played by two people. It has nothing to do with the number of scenes or acts of a drama. When two people present a “turn,” it is called a two-act. It is a booking-office term–a word made necessary by the exigencies of vaudeville commerce.

If the manager of a theatre requires an acrobatic act to fill his bill and balance his show he often inquires for an acrobatic two-act. It may matter little to him whether the act plays in One or Full Stage–he wants an acrobatic act, and one presented by two people. If he requires any other kind of two-people-act, he specifies the kind of two-act of which he is in need.

On the other hand, if a performer asks an author to write a vaudeville two-act, an act of a certain definite character is usually meant and understood. For, among writers, the vaudeville two-act–or “act in One” as it is often called–has come to mean a talking act presented by two persons; furthermore, a talking act that has certain well-defined characteristics.

1. What a Vaudeville Two-Act Is

The most carefully constructed definition cannot describe even the simplest thing with satisfying exactness. But the human mind is so formed that it have a definition for a guide to learn anything is new. Therefore let us set up this dogmatic definition:

A pure vaudeville two-act is a humorous talking act performed by two persons. It possesses unity of the characters, is not combined with songs, tricks or any other entertainment form, is marked by compression, follows a definite form of construction, and usually requires from ten to fifteen minutes for delivery.

You have noticed that this definition is merely that of the monologue very slightly changed. It differs from it only in the number of persons required for its delivery. But, like many such verbal jugglings, the likeness of the two-act to the monologue is more apparent than real.

2. How the Two-Act Differs from the Monologue

Turn to the Appendix and read “The Art of Flirtation,” by Aaron Hoffman. [1] It was chosen for publication in this volume as an example of the vaudeville two-act, for two reasons: First, it is one of the best vaudeville two-acts ever written; second, a careful study of it, in connection with “The German Senator,” will repay the student by giving an insight into the difference in treatment that the same author gives to the monologue and the two-act.

[1] The Art of Flirtation,” by Aaron Hoffman, has been used in vaudeville, on the burlesque stage, and in various musical comedies, for years and has stood the test of time.

Aside from the merely physical facts that two persons deliver the vaudeville two-act and but one “does” the monologue, you will notice in reading “The Art of Flirtation,” that the two-act depends a surprising lot on “business” [1] to punch home its points and win its laughs. This is the first instance in our study of vaudeville material in which “acting” [2] demands from the writer studied consideration.

[1] Business means any movement an actor makes on the stage. To walk across the stage, to step on a man’s toes, to pick up a telephone, to drop a handkerchief, or even to grimace–if done to drive the spoken words home, or to “get over” a meaning without words–are all, with a thousand other gestures and movements, stage business.

[2] Acting is action. It comprises everything necessary to the performing of a part in a play and includes business.

So large a part does the element of business play in the success of the two-act that the early examples of this vaudeville form were nearly all built out of bits of business. And the business was usually of the “slap-stick” kind.

3. What Slap-Stick Humor Is

Slap-stick humor wins its laughs by the use of physical methods, having received its name from the stick with which one clown hits another.

A slap-stick is so constructed that when a person is hit a light blow with it, a second piece of wood slaps the first and a surprisingly loud noise, as of a hard blow, is heard. Children always laugh at the slap-stick clowns and you can depend upon many grown-ups, too, going into ecstasies of mirth.

Building upon this sure foundation, a class of comedians sprang up who “worked up” the laughter by taking advantage of the human delight in expectation. For instance: A man would lean over a wall and gaze at some distant scene. He was perfectly oblivious to what was going on behind him. The comedy character strolled out on the stage with a stick in his hand. He nearly walked into the first man, then he saw the seat of the man’s trousers and the provokingly tempting mark they offered. In the early days of the use of the slap-stick, the comedian would have spanked the man at once, got one big laugh and have run off the stage in a comic chase. In the later days the comedian worked up his laugh into many laughs, by spacing all of his actions in the delivery of the blow.

As soon as the audience realized that the comedian had the opportunity to spank the unsuspecting man, they laughed. Then the comedian would make elaborate preparations to deliver the blow. He would spit on his hands, grasp the stick firmly and take close aim–a laugh. Then he would take aim again and slowly swing the stick over his shoulder ready to strike–a breathless titter. Down would come the stick–and stop a few inches short of the mark and the comedian would say: “It’s a shame to do it!” This was a roar, for the audience was primed to laugh and had to give vent to its expectant delight. A clever comedian could do this twice, or even three times, varying the line each time. But usually on the third preparation he would strike–and the house would be convulsed.

In burlesque they sometimes used a woman for the victim, and the laughter was consequently louder and longer. It is an interesting commentary on the advancement of all branches of the stage in recent years that even in burlesque such extreme slap-stick methods are now seldom used. In vaudeville such an elemental bit of slap-stick business is rarely, if ever, seen. Happily, a woman is now never the victim.

But it was upon such “sure-fire” [1] bits of business that the early vaudeville two-acts–as well as many other acts–depended for a large percentage of their laughs. It mattered little what were the lines they spoke. They put their trust in business–and invariably won. But their business was always of the same type as that “bit” [2] of spanking the unsuspecting man. It depended for its humor on the supposed infliction of pain. It was always physical–although by no means always even remotely suggestive.

[1] Any act or piece of business or line in a speech that can be depended on to win laughter at every performance is called sure-fire.

[2] Anything done on the stage may be called a bit. A minor character may have only a bit, and some one part of a scene that the star may have, may be a bit. The word is used to describe a successful little scene that is complete in itself.

Because such acts did not depend on lines but on slap-stick humor, they became known as slap-stick acts. And because these vaudeville two-acts–as we have elected to call them–were usually presented by two men and worked in One, in front of a drop that represented a street, they were called “sidewalk comedian slap-stick acts.”

Their material was a lot of jokes of the “Who was that lady I saw you with last night?"–"She weren’t no lady, she was my wife," kind. Two performers would throw together an act made up of sure-fire comedy bits they had used in various shows, interpolate a few old “gags"–and the vaudeville writer had very little opportunity.

But to-day–as a study of “The Art of Flirtation” will show–wit and structural skill in the material itself is of prime importance. Therefore the writer is needed to supply vaudeville two-acts. But even to-day business still plays a very large part in the success of the two-act. It may even be considered fundamental to the two-act’s success. Therefore, before we consider the structural elements that make for success in writing the two-act, we shall take up the matter of two-act business.

4. The “Business” of the Two-Act

The fact that we all laugh–in varying degrees–at the antics of the circus clown, should be sufficient evidence of the permanence of certain forms of humor to admit of a belief in the basic truth that certain actions do in all times find a humorous response in all hearts. Certain things are fundamentally funny, and have made our ancestors laugh, just as they make us laugh and will make our descendants laugh.

“There’s no joke like an old joke,” is sarcastically but nevertheless literally true. There may even be more than a humorous coincidence–perhaps an unconscious recognition of the sure-firedness of certain actions–in the warnings received in childhood to “stop that funny business.”

5. Weber and Fields on Sure-Fire Business

However this may be, wherever actors foregather and talk about bits of stage business that have won and always will win laughs for them, there are a score or more points on which they agree. No matter how much they may quarrel about the effectiveness of laugh-bits with which one or another has won a personal success–due, perhaps, to his own peculiar personality–they unite in admitting the universal effectiveness of certain good old stand-bys.

Weber and Fields–before they made so much money that they retired to indulge in the pleasant pastime of producing shows–presented probably the most famous of all the sidewalk comedian slap-stick acts. [1] They elevated the slap-stick sidewalk conversation act into national popularity and certainly reduced the business of their performance to a science–or raised it to an art. In an article entitled “Adventures in Human Nature,” published in The Associated Sunday Mazagines for June 23, 1912, Joe Weber and Lew Fields have this to say about the stage business responsible, in large measure, for the success of their famous two-act:

The capitalizing of the audiences’ laughter we have set down in the following statistics, ranged in the order of their value. An audience will laugh loudest at these episodes:

(1) When a man sticks one finger into another man’s eye.

(2) When a man sticks two fingers into another man’s eyes.

(3) When a man chokes another man and shakes his head from side to side.

(4) When a man kicks another man.

(5) When a man bumps up suddenly against another man and knocks him off his feet.

(6) When a man steps on another man’s foot.

[1] The great success of the return of Weber and Fields to vaudeville in 1915-16, with excerpts from their old successes, is only one more proof of the perennial value of sure-fire business.

Human nature–as we have analyzed it, with results that will be told you by the cashier at our bank–will laugh louder and oftener at these spectacles, in the respective order we have chronicled them, than at anything else one might name. Human nature here, as before, insists that the object of the attacks–the other man–be not really hurt.

Now, let us tell you how we arrived at our conclusions. The eye is the most delicate part of the body. If a man, therefore, pokes his two forefingers into the eyes of another man without hurting them, then human nature will make you scream with mirth; not at the sight of the poking of the fingers into the other man’s eyes (as you who have seen us do this trick night in and night out have imagined), but because you get all the sensations of such a dangerous act without there being any actual pain involved in the case of the man you were watching. You laugh because human nature tells you to. You laugh because the man who had the fingers stuck into his eyes might have been hurt badly, but wasn’t.

The greatest laughter, the greatest comedy, is divided by a hair from the greatest tragedy. Always remember that! As the chance of pain, the proportion of physical misery, the proportion of tragedy, becomes diminished (see the other items in the table), so does the proportion of laughter become less and less. We have often tried to figure out a way to do something to the other’s kneecap–second in delicacy only to the eye–but the danger involved is too great. Once let us figure out the trick, however, and we shall have capitalized another item that may be listed high in our table. Here is how you can verify the truth of our observations yourself:

You have seen those small imitation tacks made of rubber. Exhibit one, put it on a chair, ask a stranger to sit down–and everybody who is in on the joke will scream with mirth. Try it with a real tack, and everybody will take on a serious face and will want to keep the man from sitting down.

6. What George M. Cohan Has to Say

George M. Cohan spent his boyhood on the vaudeville stage as one of “The Four Cohans.” In collaboration with George J. Nathan, Mr. Cohan published in McClure’s Magazine for November, 1913, an article entitled “The Mechanics of Emotion.” Here is what he has to say about some bits of business that are sure-fire laughs: [1]

[1] These sure-fire bits of business should be considered as being equally effective when used in any form of stage work. Some of them, however, lend themselves most readily to the vaudeville two-act.

Here, then, are a few of the hundred-odd things that you constantly laugh at on the stage, though, when you see them in cold type, you will probably be ashamed of doing so.

(1) Giving a man a resounding whack on the back under the guise of friendship. The laugh in this instance may be “built up" steadily in a climacteric way by repeating the blow three times at intervals of several minutes.

(2) A man gives a woman a whack on the back, believing in an absent-minded moment that the woman (to whom he is talking) is a man.

(3) One character steps on the sore foot of another character, causing the latter to jump with pain.

(4) The spectacle of a man laden with many large bundles.

(5) A man or a woman starts to lean his or her elbow on a table or the arm of a chair, the elbow slipping off abruptly and suddenly precipitating him or her forward.

(6) One character imitating the walk of another character, who is walking in front of him and cannot see him.

(7) A man consuming a drink of considerable size at one quick gulp.

(8) A character who, on entering an “interior” or room scene, stumbles over a rug. If the character in point be of the “dignified” sort, the power of this laugh provoker is doubled.

(9) Intoxication in almost any form. [1]

[1] Intoxication, however, must never be revolting. To be welcomed, it must always be funny; in rare instances, it may be pathetic.

(10) Two men in heated conversation. One starts to leave. Suddenly, as if fearing the other will kick him while his back is turned, this man bends his body inward (as if he actually had been kicked) and sidles off.

(11) A man who, in trying to light his cigar or cigarette, strikes match after match in an attempt to keep one lighted. If the man throws each useless match vigorously to the floor with a muttered note of vexation the laughter will increase.

(12) The use of a swear-word. [2]

[2] The use of swear-words is prohibited in most first-class vaudeville theatres. On the walls of every B. F. Keith Theatre is posted this notice: “The use of ’Damn’ and ’Hell’ is forbidden on the stage of this theatre. If a performer cannot do without using them, he need not open here.”

(13) A man proclaims his defiance of his wife while the latter is presumably out of hearing. As the man is speaking, his wife’s voice is heard calling him. Meekly he turns and goes to her. This device has many changes, such as employer and employee. All are equally effective.

(14) A pair of lovers who try several times to kiss, and each time are interrupted by the entrance of some one or by the ringing of the doorbell or telephone-bell or something of the sort.

(15) A bashful man and a not-bashful woman are seated on a bench or divan. As the woman gradually edges up to the man, the man just as gradually edges away from her.

All these “laugh-getters” are known to the experienced as “high class"; that is, they may all be used upon the legitimate stage. On the burlesque and vaudeville stages devices of a somewhat lower intellectual plane have established a permanent standing An authority on this phase of the subject is Mr. Frederick Wyckoff, who catalogues the following as a few of the tricks that make a vaudeville audience laugh:

Open your coat and show a green vest, or pull out your shirt front and expose a red undershirt. Another excellent thing to do is to wear a shirt without sleeves and pull off your coat repeatedly. [1]

[1] Such ancient methods of winning laughs, however, belong to vaudeville yesterdays. It should be remembered that Mr. Nathan, who bore the labor of writing this excellent article, is blessed with a satirical soul–which, undoubtedly, is the reason why he is so excellent and so famous a dramatic critic.

Ask the orchestra leader if he is married.

Have the drummer put in an extra beat with the cymbals, then glare at him.

Always use an expression which ends with the query, “Did he not?" Then say, “He did not.”

The men who elaborated this kind of thing into a classic are Messrs. Weber and Fields. They are the great presiding deities of “slap-stick” humor. They have capitalized it to enormous financial profit. They claim that Mr. Fields’ favorite trick of poking his forefinger periodically in Mr. Weber’s eye is worth a large fortune in itself. A peculiarity of this kind of humor is that it finds its basis in the inflicting of pain. A painful situation apparently contains elements of the ridiculous so long as the pain is not actually of a serious nature. Here, too, the stage merely mirrors life itself. We laugh at the person who falls on the ice, at the man who bumps against a chair or table in the dark, at the headache of the “morning after,” at the boy who eats green apples and pays the abdominal penalty, at the woman whose shoes are so tight they hurt her, at the person who is thrown to the floor by a sudden lurch of a street-car, and at the unfortunate who sits on a pin. A man chasing his rolling hat in the street makes everybody laugh.

The most successful tricks or jokes are all based on the idea of pain or embarrassment. Tacks made of rubber, matches that explode or refuse to light, exploding cigars or cigarettes, fountain-pens that smear ink over the fingers immediately they are put to use, “electric” bells with pins secreted in their push buttons, and boutonnieres that squirt water into the face of the beholder, are a few familiar examples.

Here, then, we have the bits of business that three of the ablest producers of the legitimate stage–all graduates from vaudeville, by the way–agree upon as sure-fire for the vaudeville two-act. Paradoxically, however, they should be considered not as instructive of what you should copy, but as brilliant examples of what you should avoid. They belong more to vaudeville’s Past than to its Present. Audiences laughed at them yesterday–they may not laugh at them tomorrow. If you would win success, you must invent new business in the light of the old successes. The principles underlying these laugh-getters remain the same forever.

7. Sure-Fire Laughs Depend upon Action and Situation, Not on Words

If you will read again what Weber and Fields have to say about their adventures in human nature, you will note that not once do they mention the lines with which they accompanied the business of their two-act. Several times they mention situation–which is the result of action, when it is not its cause–but the words by which they accompanied those actions and explained those situations they did not consider of enough importance to mention. Every successful two-act, every entertainment-form of which acting is an element–the playlet and the full-evening play as well–prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that what audiences laugh at–what you and I laugh at–is not words, but actions and situations.

Later on, this most important truth–the very life-blood of stage reality–will be taken up and considered at greater length in the study of the playlet. But it cannot be mentioned too often. It is a vital lesson that you must learn if you would achieve even the most fleeting success in writing for the stage in general and vaudeville in particular.

But by action is not meant running about the stage, or even wild wavings of the arms. There must be action in the idea–in the thought–even though the performers stand perfectly still.

So it is not with words, witty sayings, funny observations and topsy-turvy language alone that the writer works, when he constructs a vaudeville two-act. It is with clever ideas, expressed in laughable situations and actions, that his brain is busy when he begins to marshal to his aid the elements that enter into the preparation of two-act material.


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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