Vaudeville comedian Marshall WilderAll vaudeville comedy acts were dependent, in some part, on stock materials for inspiration. This tradition has continued in variety comedy entertainment in all of its forms, from stage to television, drawing upon what theater historian Brooks McNamara calls, “a shared body of traditional stock material.” The situation comedies popular on television today are built from many of the same raw materials that shaped medicine and minstrel shows in the early nineteenth- century as well as shaping vaudeville.

Stock materials include jokes and song parodies; monologs—strings of jokes or comic lectures; bits—two- or three-person joke routines; and sketches—short comic scenes, often with a story. To these stock materials comedians add what cannot be transcribed in words, the physical comedy, or the “business”—the humor of inflections and body language at which so many vaudevillians excelled.

Vaudeville Comedian Marshall Wilder

Marshall Wilder (1859–1915) was a popular vaudeville monologist who was notorious in his time for stealing jokes from other performers. Like Bob Hope, Wilder organized his favorite jokes by topic. Shown here is The Riddle House comic monolog from the Library's Wilder Collection. It consists of a series of jokes, many of which can be found in the collection in handwritten form.

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Al Boasberg

Al Boasberg (1892–1937) was one of the most prolific comedy writers for variety acts. He wrote for vaudeville, nightclub appearances, motion pictures, and radio. At one time Al Boasberg was said to be receiving royalties from 150 different acts. Boasberg wrote for Bob Hope's acts in 1930 and 1931. Among his other clients were Block and Sully, the Marx Brothers, Sophie Tucker, Eddie Cantor, Jack Benny and Burns and Allen. Boasberg was responsible for the treasured Burns and Allen routine, “Lamb Chops,” and the stateroom scene in the Marx Brothers' A Night at the Opera. At the time of Boasberg's death, Jack Benny called him "America's greatest natural gagman.

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Bob Hope's Jokes

Bob Hope, like all professional comedians, constantly honed his act and added new material. These jokes, in Hope's hand, were presumably written for his stage act of the early 1930s. The smaller sheet is indicative of the content of comedians' archives and the frustrations often encountered when using them. Many comedians recorded only the punchlines of their jokes, as a brief memory aid. Bob Hope's “buck teeth” joke, shown here, is probably lost to posterity.

Bob Hope's manuscript jokes, ca. 1930s. Page 2. Bob Hope Collection, Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress (113.1a, b)

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Marx Brothers Radio Script

The Marx Brothers' radio series, Flywheel, Shyster, and Flywheel, aired for twenty-six weeks in 1932 and 1933. Very little was known about the series until a researcher discovered a nearly complete set of scripts in the Copyright Collection of the Library of Congress Manuscripts Division. Those scripts have now been published.

The Marx Brothers. Flywheel, Shyster and Flywheel, January 23, 1933. Typed manuscript. Copyright Deposit Drama Collection, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress (116)

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Mud, Blood and Kisses

This skit, a satire of nineteenth century melodrama, as well as early-1930s radio fare, is believed to have been part of Bob Hope's 1930 vaudeville act.

Charley Williams. Mud, Blood and Kisses script page. Typewritten manuscript, ca. 1930. Bob Hope Collection, Motion Picture, Broadcasting & Recorded Sound Division, Library of Congress (113A)

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Abbott and Costello Routine

In 1940 the comedy team Abbott and Costello registered a copyright for a scene they called “Hole in the Wall.” It is not known if the duo used this routine, but it is typical of their style. It includes their trademark circular logic and aggression, and requires the comic timing of the team's fast-talking exchanges to reach its full effect. The word-play of Abbott and Costello often extended into the realm of the absurd. Their work was acknowledged by comedian Jerry Seinfeld as a major influence on the Seinfeld television series.

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Seinfeld Script

Situation comedies on radio as well as television are evolutionary descendants of the vaudeville sketch. Recent half-hour broadcast comedies, such as the popular Seinfeld, mix amusing dialogue, jokes, improbable circumstances, and often, broad physical comedy in much the same way as sketches did ninety years ago. The script above was deposited with the Copyright Office in the Library of Congress to accompany videotapes of the Seinfeld series.

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  • Larry David. Seinfeld script for “The Finale,“ May 14, 1998. Typed manuscript. U. S. Copyright Office Archives (119)

  • Jerry Seinfeld and Jason Alexander. Copyprint. Courtesy of Castlerock Entertainment (120)

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The Simpsons Cartoon Cel

The animated series The Simpsons remains, after more than a decade on television, one of the most popular series on the air. It is acclaimed—and condemned—for its biting satire on contemporary American life and values. The series commands so much respect that many celebrities are eager to lend their real voices to animated caricatures of themselves which are not always flattering. Bob Hope showed his good sportsmanship by taking part in a 1992 episode.

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