Duffy and Sweeney: Legendary Irish Comedians

It is only fitting (both comically and tragically) that I was unable to locate any images of the legendary vaudeville comedy team Duffy and Sweeney, and substitute this cool, frosty mug of beer. I like to think they would have approved.

Duffy and Sweeney were the last of the great Irish knockabout comedy teams. Such teams stretch all the way back to the post Civil War era in the saloons of New York and were a staple of show business’s first phase, when it was dominated by the sons of Erin. Teams like Needham and Kelly, and the Kernell Brothers played the part of drunken Irishman, and wound up punching, hitting and committing all manner of mayhem on each other. They were the forerunners of Weber and Fields, the Three Stooges, and countless others.

Duffy and Sweeney came along in 1918, when Jews, African-Americans and other groups were also making their mark in show business, but the Irish were still a major force. There was perhaps a tinge of nostalgia to such an act by the twenties, when the team really came into their own. Jimmy Duffy was born into the British music hall in 1889, joining his parents in the family act as a child. After moving to the U.S. he formed a romantic light comedy act in 1910 with a young woman named Mercedes Lorenz. By the late teens, though, drinking had stolen his good looks, his timing and his memory. Fortunately, that didn’t preclude another kind of vaudeville act.

Meanwhile, Philadelphia native Freddy Sweeney (b. 1894) was performing in Charles Ahearn’s trick bicycle act. Duffy and Sweeney paired up for an act that was as improvisational as the Marx Brothers’, and sort of dangerous and out of control — because the two men were quite drunk when they performed it. In the most notorious anecdote, when they didn’t like a certain audience, Duffy announced, “My partner will now come down the aisle with a baseball bat and beat the bejesus out of ya”. Edward Albee canned them at a certain point, but Duffy persuaded him to hire them back after pointing to a nearby child and saying “Would you let him starve?” The child wasn’t his.

The act amused because of the disparity between their politeness (they referred to each other as Mr. Duffy and Mr. Sweeney) and their rough-housing.  One of their favorite gimmicks was to come onstage and simply laze around in the shade of a grand piano, as though performing their act was far too much work. They were big time performers (in later years Groucho Marx recalled their act with fondness, and Alexander Woollcott was a fan), and in the 20s, Duffy, a gifted sketch and lyric writer, was involved with a couple of editions of Earl Carroll’s Vanities and a show called Keep it Clean, which flopped.

The team’s story is a tragic one. Like so many rock and roll acts that came later, their substance abuse got to be such a problem it completely killed the act…and then it killed the actors. By the 30s, they’d split up. Duffy was found dead one day not far from Times Square in 1939. Sweeney lasted a few more years, playing extremely small uncredited bit parts in Hollywood movies through the kindness of his old vaudeville colleagues. This account by journalist Will Fowler of W.C. Fields‘ funeral in 1947 is heartbreaking in what it reveals:

A little man, stooped and unshaven, tugged timidly at an attendant’s sleeve. His eyes were hollow, his cheeks sunken. A newspaper grew out of his coat pocket. He wore a spotted sweater under the coat. His collar and cuffs were wilted.

“Where is Mr. Fields’ crypt?” he asked softly. “I knew him for 35 years, in vaudeville first. Duffy and Sweeney…” The attendant said he couldn’t say where the crypt was. The little stooped man’s eyes narrowed and seemed to flood with reminiscence. “Well, I guess it was all right that I just came here anyway,” he said. He shuffled away and nobody took his picture.

Sweeney rejoined Duffy in 1954.

To find out more about these variety artists and 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.

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