PRINT December 1985


station breaks. The electronic vaudeville circuit.

VAUDEVILLE ISN’T DEAD; it just moved to the station break, where it thrives happily in the world of the pitchman. There, in 30- and 60-second spots, the endangered folk talents have found a niche that will preserve them from extinction.

Radio and talking pictures are said to have killed off vaudeville. Its refugees scattered to the borscht belt, to Hollywood Extra-land, to carnivals and arcades. Variety acts lingered for a while: the jugglers, contortionists, double-talkers, musical seals, counting horses, and one-man bands. There was the dream of making it onto the Ed Sullivan Show and then heading out on a long national cabaret tour.

Then Ed Sullivan was gone, and almost all of the cabarets. Who knows what killed them. Rock ’n’ roll, CinemaScope, color TV, and cable all chipped in. As the Woody Allen film Broadway Danny Rose (1984) testifies, it became harder and harder for a woman who plays “Clair de lune” on crystal goblets to find a booking.

But today vaudeville acts are flourishing in two venues—performance art and television commercials. (Performance-art vaudeville and the TV-commercial variety differ only in length of the act, compensation, audience, and context. Talent and style seem identical.) Fast-talker John Moschitta talked his way on to the Tonight Show and then on to a featured role in a comedy series after achieving stardom on some extremely successful Federal Express commercials in which he was featured as the ultrabusy, hyperefficient executive. The latest Federal Express commercials have replaced fast talk with fast action, and the nimble-fingered clerk handles his desk work like a juggler, tossing around packages, stapling, sharpening pencils, answering phones with ambidextrous agility. These are vaudeville talents. These are the gifts of the extraordinary ordinary person. Someone does his or her mundane job so well that it is elevated to entertainment. That is the fantasy behind the ad, anyway, and that is the fantasy of vaudeville. The tobacco auctioneer and the rivet-catching ironworker are just a step away from the stage: “There, but for my seniority and pension, go I.” It is true folk art.

Everyone knows someone who talks almost as fast as the man on the Federal Express ad, and that’s part of the fun. Everyone knows a crochety old woman nearly as intense Clara Peller, Wendy’s hamburgers’ “Where’s the beef?” lady, and that’s what made her a star, a TV vaudeville star. Peller is a fantasy creature; the fantasy is that it’s never too late for your big break. You might not get 15 minutes of fame, but 30-second spots in heavy rotation add up and so do the royalties. The smallest talent, under the TV electron microscope, can prove to be enormous. And you can be discovered anywhere. The next time you sidle up to a bar and say “Gimme a light,” you don’t know what the bartender is going to throw at you, but if you can juggle it before you specify “Bud Light” it could be your big break.

The new vaudeville commercials have created a great demand for jugglers, and juggling is perhaps more in now than it has been in the last eight hundred years. Contortionists and facial contortionists, in decline since the ’50s revival, are probably reaching a post-Dark Ages peak in popularity. And mimes and mimics are also career choices with enormous growth potential. Even if your only talent is an uncanny ability to mimic Kirk Douglas, the sky is the limit for you in television advertising. You don’t have to have range—how much range can you display in 30 seconds? You have to have . . . what’s the opposite of range?

IBM can never have enough Charlie Chaplins. A dancing pussycat could be worth millions. The ability to swallow one’s chin could provide a career. The television commercial is the most obvious outlet for the concentrated or short-duration talent, but the expansion of music video to three 24-hour cable channels and many broadcast formats promises continued opportunities for the narrowly talented. Videos need something that will work fast, and the vaudeville talent is just what the casting director ordered. Modern montage is really fast, so today’s talent needs to be able to entertain with commandolike precision, getting in and getting out quickly.

Cynics might complain that the attention of the American audience has eroded—that no one can follow anything lasting longer than 30 seconds. But that comes from looking on the down side. It might be countered that television, combined with speed-reading, has created an audience that understands, absorbs, and makes decisions quickly This audience needs only 30 seconds to do what old-fashioned audiences needed half an hour to accomplish.

By concentrating information and entertainment into smaller temporal units, and by utilizing narrower ranges of talent—the highly specialized talents of the neo-vaudevilleans—we may be achieving a more democratic form of entertainment, a star system based on hard work. Old Hollywood stars were demigods who lived bigger-than-life lives. James Deans are born, not made. But John Moschittas are born of their own labor, suggesting that you too can talk at the edge of comprehension if you work hard enough at it. It may be that the little routine that never fails to crack up the office during coffee break, or the face you make when the tactless boss turns his back, could amuse the nation, or even the world. “The beef,” a wise man once said, “is where you find it.”

Glenn O’Brien writes reviews and a column on advertising for Artforum.