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Collecting Comedy

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(The following is an article from the May/June 2015 issue of the Library of Congress Magazine, LCM. Daniel Blazek, a recorded sound technician at the Library’s Packard Campus for Audio-Visual Preservation, wrote the story. You can read the issue in its entirety here.)

"How to Enter Vaudeville,

Laughter, with its links to the development of the human brain, no doubt dates back to mankind’s earliest ancestors. But it was not until the 4th century B.C. that ancient Greece first formalized comedy in dramatic-arts competitions. From Aristophanes–the chief comedic playwright of ancient Greece–to 21st-century “rom-com” films, plays and musical comedies, the Library of Congress maintains an impressive archive of published and unpublished materials, much of which is downright rib-tickling.

From their writings, we know that the founding fathers managed to find humor during the tumultuous process of creating a new nation. No less a force in the shaping of our country than Benjamin Franklin described the importance of comedy in our lives. “Trouble knocked at the door, but, hearing laughter, hurried away,” he said. The personal papers of many founding fathers, housed in the Library, contain their wit as well as their wisdom.

The sound of African-American recording artist ‘s George W. Johnson laughter made his 1896 work “The Laughing Song” one of the most popular recordings of its day. The song, which is one of the “historically significant” sounds on the Library’s National Recording Registry, can be heard on the Library’s National Jukebox.

The American frontier, which later captured our imaginations on film, saw the rise of the American variety stage and vaudeville around the turn of the 20th century. Vaudeville consisted of a variety of separate acts: singers, dancers, acrobats, magicians, jugglers, animal acts, dramatic skits and humorous monologues.

Lobby card for the 1936 film, “The Great Ziegfeld,” featuring
William Powell, Myrna Loy and Fanny Brice. Prints and Photographs Division

The wave of European immigration to America in the 19th century made ethnic humor popular. Yiddish vaudeville acts paralleled the rise of Yiddish theater, which is richly represented in the Library’s collections, along with Yiddish sheet music. Jewish “funny girl” Fanny Brice gained fame in Ziegfeld’s Follies, then went onto Broadway and decades in radio as bratty toddler “Baby Snooks.” Irish humor also flourished. Even before he became president, William Howard Taft spoke of a love of Irish humor in 1909, in a recording made on an Edison cylinder.

Many performers, like Cal Stewart, began their career in medicine shows and worked their way into vaudeville. The advent of recording technology made it possible to hear their routines on cylinders and early 78 rpm phonograph records. Stewart recorded dozens of routines featuring his popular “Uncle Josh” character. Many rare monologues and vaudeville acts like Stewart’s “Uncle Josh and the Insurance Company” and Nat Wills’ “No news, or What killed the dog” exemplify the earthy nature of rural comedy.

Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, 1953. NBC Television, Prints and Photographs Division
Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, 1953. NBC Television, Prints and Photographs Division

Also on the National Recording Registry are classic comedy routines such as Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s On First” (1938); Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner’s “2000 Year Old Man” (1961) and Vaughan Meader’s “The First Family” (1962), a comical homage to John F. Kennedy and his family that was commercially withdrawn following the president’s assassination. Another registry selection, “At Sunset” (1955), is a full-length album featuring Mort Sahl, considered the first modern stand-up comedian. Sahl influenced Lenny Bruce and paved the way for others, like Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers, who began their careers as stand-ups rather than vaudevillians.

“Sahl, Bruce and Lord Buckley were in the vanguard of thought-provoking comedy,” said Gene DeAnna, head of the Recorded Sound Section. “Lord Buckley’s ‘Gettysburg Address’ is among the most unusual monologues ever put to vinyl. The entire address is spoken in the language of the 1950s beat generation.”

Bert Williams. Samuel Lumiere, Prints and Photographs Division
Bert Williams. Samuel Lumiere, Prints and Photographs Division

Vaudevillian Bert Williams, who became a popular recording artist, went on to make films and was the first African-American Broadway headliner. Last year, the Library added to its National Film Registry seven reels of footage shot in 1913 for a planned feature film titled “Lime Kiln Club Field Day” starring Williams. Although the film was never made, it is considered to be the earliest surviving feature film starring black actors. The film will be preserved by the Library for future generations, along with other titles on the list. Among them are such comedy classics as the Marx Brothers’ “Duck Soup” (1933), Bob Hope’s “Road to Morocco” (1942), “National Lampoon’s Animal House” (1975), “Airplane!”(1980), the Coen brothers’ “The Big Lebowski” (1998) and many others.

The Library is home to the personal collections of comedy legends Bob Hope, Groucho Marx, Danny Kaye, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz, Sid Caesar, Johnny Carson, Milton Berle and, most recently, Jerry Lewis, to name a few. The careers of many of these icons date to vaudeville and exemplify the transition from the variety stage to the big screen, radio and television. Lewis, the son of a vaudevillian, began in the 1940s as the comedic foil to Dean Martin’s straight man in a popular nightclub act. He went on to have enormous success in films, many of which he wrote, directed, produced and starred in.

“What makes the Library of Congress unique is the depth and breadth of its collections as well as the wide variety of formats represented,” said motion picture curator Rob Stone.

The Marx Brothers, top to bottom, Chico, Harpo, Groucho and Zeppo, 1931. Ralph F. Stitt/Rivoli Theatre, Prints and Photographs Division
The Marx Brothers, top to bottom, Chico, Harpo, Groucho and Zeppo, 1931. Ralph F. Stitt/Rivoli Theatre, Prints and Photographs Division

The Library’s Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division houses a gold mine of film, television and radio broadcasts–many featuring comedy classics–from the beginning of these industries to the present day. Many of these comedic films and beloved television comedies can be viewed in the Motion Picture Reading Room, while radio broadcasts can be heard in the Recorded Sound Reference Center.

Thousands of images can be viewed in the Prints and Photographs Division’s online catalog–including those of famous comedians; vaudeville and theater playbills, and film posters. The division also houses a treasure trove of U.S. political cartoons, which satirize the most important issues of the day since the nation’s founding.

The Manuscript Division contains highly treasured scripts from the golden days of radio and television, as well as the personal papers of some of the biggest stars. Whimsical compositions can be found among the 5 million pieces of sheet music housed in the Music Division. Pre-1925 comedic songs and vaudeville skits can be heard online through the Library’s National Jukebox. Comic books–including those featuring popular comedians–are housed in the Newspaper and Current Periodicals Reading Room.

Groucho Marx perhaps best explains the importance of the Library’s comedy collections. In a television clip of his 1965 appearance on “The Tonight Show,” Marx discusses “a rather impressive” letter he received from then-Librarian of Congress L. Quincy Mumford requesting the comedian’s personal papers. Johnny Carson read the letter aloud.

Then Marx said, “I’m so pleased, having not finished public school, to find my letters perhaps lying next to the Gettysburg Address, I thought was quite an incongruity in addition to being extremely thrilling. I’m very proud of this thing.”

Comments (3)

  1. Amerykańscy komicy potrafili spojrzeć z przymrużeniem oka na otaczającą ich rzeczywistość.
    i dlatego są ponadczasowi tak jak Chaplin, Keaton ..czy wspaniałe filmy
    Some Like It Hot czy Singin’ in the Rain.

    American comedians could look with a wink at the surrounding reality.
    And why they are timeless as Chaplin, Keaton ..czy great films
    Some Like It Hot or Singin ‘in the Rain.

  2. Would the Library of Congress be interested in purchasing a collection of books and pamphlets on comic history?

  3. Daniel Blazek – I really love the work you are doing with the LoC. I read your essay about Mort Sahl and this article here, and am so thankful for your attention to important American comics. Thanks!

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