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January 26, 2010

Girls Behaving Badly: Comedy of a Different Color
by WomenInComedy - 0

By Sheila Moeschen
Even by twenty first century standards, the moment was jaw-dropping.  This season of the AMC guilty pleasure, Mad Men, a show set in 1960s America, featured an episode where Roger Sterling, partner of the Sterling & Cooper advertising firm, threw a lavish country club party. Sterling added to the dining and dancing with his own brand of entertainment: serenading his new young wife with an old-fashioned southern ballad, performed in blackface.  What’s a little grease paint and a century of human atrocity between friends, right?

Blackface became shorthand for its association with nineteenth-century minstrelsy, a kind of performance where, typically, white actors, wearing black make-up, performed derogatory songs, dances and sketches lampooning African-Americans.  What is considered today as astonishingly distasteful on a moral and ethical scale ranging from Genghis Khan to Hitler, was a completely acceptable performance practice for much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, benefitting male and female performers.
The eclectic nature of vaudeville with its emphasis on variety, risqué humor, and its appeal to working classes and immigrants became a logical place for racialized humor.  Apparently, the historical statute on racial stereotypes is nonexistent.  I suspect that archeologists have yet to release their findings of cave drawings of Cro-Magnon man mocking Rhodesia man’s small feet. In the late 1800s, caricatures of alcoholic Irishmen, sexually available African-Americans, and suspicious Jewish merchants brought the houses down with their overly simplistic, completely inaccurate, fairly absurd distortion of these groups. You know, like FOX News but with more pancake make-up.
Conscious of using every weapon in their comic arsenal, female comic performers adopted the principles of minstrelsy and blackface to give it their own gender-informed spin. One of the more popular types of racial performance involved what historians termed “coon songs.” These were racially charged songs and dances, typically set to ragtime accompaniment. The performance of race emerged from a combination of the lyrics and from the white comic’s movements such as an exaggerated “black wench walk.”  Comedienne May Irwin gained fame and immense popularity as a performer of racial humor.  She, like many of her fellow curvaceous performers, used her body as the focus of her depiction of “mammy” characters. Sophie Tucker, one of Irwin’s contemporaries, not only used blackface make-up, but she added a black wig and white gloves.  In her autobiography she claimed that “audiences would gasp and then howl with laughter” when she removed her gloves at the end of her act to show off her white skin.  Remember when white privilege was just so much, fun?
Anna Held, the beautiful, white, female comic who starred in many of Florenz Ziegfeld’s ornate follies, also tapped into the public’s appetite for racial humor.  In many of her acts, she used a staging gimmick called an “animated song sheet,” a huge sheet hung behind the performer that reproduced the piece’s vocal score of the chorus.  Instead of notes, 33 “woolly heads of negro choristers” protruded through the sheet; at Held’s cue, the group sang the song’s chorus.  Something tells me that Michael Richards would have done quite well for himself in the 1900s.

Anna Held

The relationship between race and comedy has evolved, but remains an uncomfortable territory for performers and spectators.  Who earns the right to joke about ethnicity?  Are there unwritten rules to this kind of humor?  Why do some racial characterizations prevail and others become taboo or does comedy, by virtue of its interest in challenging norms, give performers license to address any subject in any way they choose?  How does women’s handling of racial themes in comedy differ from the acts of their male cohort?
The women of vaudeville fed the public fascination for these degrading ethnic characterizations, pandering to the masses in a way that made economic and professional sense.  Additionally, one could argue that their comedy provided an outlet for American’s fears and anxieties over changes in the country’s political and cultural climate.  At the same time, blackface and minstrelsy eventually (thankfully) fell out of favor, leaving many of these comics to either reinvent themselves with new comedy or to face extinction.  Several fell victim to the latter, finding themselves unmarketable and unpopular.  They left the racially infused humor to successors like Whoopi Goldberg, Wanda Sykes, Ellen Cleghorn, or Margaret Cho to name a few who take on this subject with the kind of courage, wit and insight that neither make-up nor music can provide.

Margaret Cho on the "Long Duk Dong" experience

An excerpt from Dawn French's "Girls Who Do Comedy" interview with the truly inimitable Whoopi Goldberg

Woman in comedy Sheila Moeschen has a PhD in Theatre & Drama from Northwestern University with a Minor in Gender Studies. She puts theory into practice as an improv and sketch comedienne in Boston, MA.


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