I like the phrase “show business”. Putting on a show is a complex art, and creating popular entertainment is a serious and challenging business. Someone has an idea, plans are made, resources gathered, experiments and rehearsals, and finally, show time! You put your work in front of an audience and pray they love it. It’s how theater works and movies are made. Animation lives in that world, and that’s what this blog is about. I look at other forms of show business that have some value to offer animators. It’s less about art, more about performance.
I have been reading from the book “What Makes Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic.” by Henry Jenkins. All of the early animation directors were familiar with vaudeville and silent films. Walt Disney, Chuck Jones, Max Fliescher, and so on. It was inspiration for them, and it’s worth understanding now.
Vaudeville producers hired acts who produced there own short piece of a program. The performers were entirely responsible for what transpired on stage. From Jenkins’ book:
In a 1907 Variety article, William Gould emphasized: He originates. No stage manager gives him personality or individuality. It simply grows. He must be his own manager, buy or write his own specialty production. Then he becomes his own advance and press agent; his own property man.”
Eddie Cantor was a hugely successful singer and comedian who worked in vaudeville, radio, film and television. He is mentioned in this quote from Jenkins’ book.
Eddie Cantor told an American magazine interviewer in 1924: “A comedian in vaudeville … is like a salesman who has only fifteen minutes in which to make a sale. You go on the stage, knowing that every minute counts. You’ve got to get your audience the instant you appear.”
Variety theater is all about the actor and the audience. They would work like crazy for every bit of laughter and applause. Directed by Robert McKimson, The Bugs Bunny short “What’s Up Doc” beautifully illustrates how vaudeville and popular entertainment worked then, and still works today. The short can be seen on the first disc of the first “Looney Tunes Golden Collection” box set.
Bugs starts out in amateur stage, he breaks into show business, doing an Irish dance. Irish dancing, and characters were popular on the vaudeville stage.
When he goes on the big stage, it’s as part of the chorus. You may recall “We’re the boys of the chorus! We hope you like our show! We know you’re rootin’ for us, but now we have to go!”
Then he get’s his big break when the star gets sick, and Bugs gets the nod to move up.
Bugs takes the stage and juggles and dances, but the audience is silent, and he gets the hook. Which, by the way, was something that was actually used for amateur night to remove incompetent but stubbornly persistent acts.
He quits the business, which is actually not consistent with reality. Vaudeville actors had to have extremely thick skin. Jenkins writes:
As James J. Morton explained in 1906 “Originality is the first step to recognition. Personality next, and an indomitable nerve to withstand criticism last.”
It’s still that way in entertainment. You have to be able to take the bad with the good.
Bugs becomes a derelict, living in the park, hanging out with other down and out actors. In this case they are caricatures of various famous people.
Bugs is discovered by the successful Elmer Fudd. Fudd takes him as a partner, where Bugs is the stooge who gets slapped and sprayed with seltzer and smacked with pies.
The audience loves it, but Bugs gets tired of it. Then one night he turns the tables on Fudd and returns the abuse.
I love that part because it exemplifies something that actually occurred in the theater. Comic characters often start out stupid, but evolve, and become clever protagonists. After years of watching a character get abused, the audience likes the surprise of seeing the tables turned.
Angered, Elmer Fudd pulls a shotgun and holds Bugs at gunpoint. This is when Bugs nervously improvises and says “What’s Up Doc” . The audience goes wild. Improvisation can lead to unexpected success. Here we can see how surprised they are.
The duo completely revises the act. It’s all built around the tagline “What’s up doc”. They take the show to Hollywood, to the movies, to milk it for all they can. Which is just how it goes in the entertainment business.
The punchline of the cartoon is when Bugs next big show is exactly the same as his old chorus act. He retreats into doing old material over again, relying on his past success. He’s out of new ideas.