Variety Arts #24: New Vaudeville
New Vaudeville is a term that nearly everyone ever associated with it disavows, and one that, for that matter, no longer obtains. The movement of artists it refers to mostly came to the fore in the 1970s and 1980s, although the roots extend back into the 1950s and 60s, and most of the artists in question remain active today. These artists were mostly circus-based acts (clowns and jugglers) and magicians, and baby boomers, who had a certain counter-cultural approach to their presentation that gently poked fun at performing tradition (or outright rejected it) even as it experimented with it. Artists and organizations typically associated with the mantle include The Flying Karamazov Brothers, Avner the Eccentric, Pickle Family Circus, Bill Irwin, Big Apple Circus, Bill Irwin, Harry Anderson and Paul Zaloom.
I’ve always found the label an egregious misnomer that mistakenly identifies vaudeville with its most outre factions and performers who are as much “circus” as they are “vaudeville”. Far more numerous (and successful) were the historical vaudevillians whose skill sets were identical to what we think of as musical comedy performers and stand-up comedians. But of course we never stopped having musical comedy performers and stand-up comedians so there was no reason to burden them with a brand name.
Still, there was definitely something interesting going on in pop culture at this time and there were a number of acts who achieved even greater success than those I just mentioned who seem related to them in sensibility. Artists I might include in this wider net are Jim Henson, Steve Martin, Andy Kaufman, Bette Midler, David Letterman, Doug Henning, Buster Pointdexter, etc etc etc – a long and much more variegated list of artists who were in dialogue with the past and injecting it with new life. This artificial grouping stands out somewhat as a generation (and they are obviously no longer “New”) because they came along during the death throes of television variety (or immediately afterward) and yet predate the current environment, where the national variety scene (burlesque, vaudeville, circus and sideshow) is thriving to such an extent that it doesn’t have to label itself in reference to anything besides itself — it simply is what it is.
To find out more about the history of vaudeville, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.