The most successful tricks or jokes are all based on the idea of pain or embarrassment. Tacks made of rubber, matches that explode or refuse to light, exploding cigars or cigarettes, fountain-pens that smear ink over the fingers immediately they are put to use, “electric” bells with pins secreted in their push buttons, and boutonnieres that squirt water into the face of the beholder, are a few familiar examples.
Here, then, we have the bits of business that three of the ablest producers of the legitimate stage—all graduates from vaudeville, by the way—agree upon as sure-fire for the vaudeville two-act. Paradoxically, however, they should be considered not as instructive of what you should copy, but as brilliant examples of what you should avoid. They belong more to vaudeville’s Past than to its Present. Audiences laughed at them yesterday—they may not laugh at them tomorrow. If you would win success, you must invent new business in the light of the old successes. The principles underlying these laugh-getters remain the same forever.
7. Sure-Fire Laughs Depend upon Action and Situation, Not on Words
If you will read again what Weber and Fields have to say about their adventures in human nature, you will note that not once do they mention the lines with which they accompanied the business of their two-act. Several times they mention situation—which is the result of action, when it is not its cause—but the words by which they accompanied those actions and explained those situations they did not consider of enough importance to mention. Every successful two-act, every entertainment-form of which acting is an element—the playlet and the full-evening play as well—prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that what audiences laugh at—what you and I laugh at—is not words, but actions and situations.
Later on, this most important truth—the very life-blood of stage reality—will be taken up and considered at greater length in the study of the playlet. But it cannot be mentioned too often. It is a vital lesson that you must learn if you would achieve even the most fleeting success in writing for the stage in general and vaudeville in particular.
But by action is not meant running about the stage, or even wild wavings of the arms. There must be action in the idea—in the thought—even though the performers stand perfectly still.
So it is not with words, witty sayings, funny observations and topsy-turvy language alone that the writer works, when he constructs a vaudeville two-act. It is with clever ideas, expressed in laughable situations and actions, that his brain is busy when he begins to marshal to his aid the elements that enter into the preparation of two-act material.
THE STRUCTURAL ELEMENTS OF TWO-ACT MATERIAL