Arthur Roberts: The Man Who Invented “Spoof”

Arthur Roberts (1852-1933) was a star of British music hall, pantomime, farces, burlesques, revues and musical comedies. He started out busking at seaside resorts in the early 1870s, quickly making his way to the halls. Though his songs were often rated risque, he had migrated to other forms by 1880.

In 1884 Roberts invented a comical card game called “spoof”, which involved all kinds of crazy nonsense and tricks. The term came into general use to mean “nonsense”, but eventually evolved into shorthand for “burlesque” or “parody”, which is how we use it now. More thoughts on how that came to be here. 

Roberts was in demand as a pantomime dame at Drury Lane and elsewhere, and was appearing in burlesques and musicals by the ’90s. Though Vesta Victoria had already scored a hit with the song “Daddy Wouldn’t Buy Me a Bow-Wow” in 1892, Roberts was associated with it by the middle of the decade. In 1907 he was one of the leaders in a strike of music hall performers. He popularized the song “Topsy Turvy” in 1926, performing it in a DeForest Phonofilm the following year.

Roberts’ 1927 memoir was entitled Fifty Years of Spoof. 

For more on vaudeville and music hall, please see No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous,