But if this is impossible, the writer should bring to the old theme a new treatment. Indeed, a new treatment with all its charm of novelty will make any old theme seem new. One of the standard recipes for success in any line of endeavor is: “Find out what somebody else has done, and then do that thing—better.” And one of the ways of making an old theme appear new, is to invest it with the different personalities of brand new characters.
From the time when vaudeville first emerged as a commanding new form of entertainment, distinct from its progenitor, the legitimate stage, and its near relatives, burlesque and musical comedy, there have been certain characters indissolubly associated with the two-act. Among them are the Irish character, or “Tad”; the German, or “Dutch,” as they are often misnamed; the “black-face,” or “Nigger”; the farmer, or “Rube”; the Swedish, or “Swede”; the Italian, or “Wop”; and the Hebrew, or “Jew.”
Not much chance for a new character, you will say—but have you thought about the different combinations you can make? There is a wealth of ready humor waiting not only in varying combinations, but in placing the characters in new businesses. For example, doesn’t a “Jew” aviator who is pestered by an insurance agent or an undertaker, strike you as offering amusing possibilities?
But don’t sit right down and think out your two-act on the lines of the combination I have suggested on the spur of the moment. Others are sure to be ahead of you. You can only win success with new characters that are all your own. Then you are likely to be the first in the field.
As a final warning, permit the suggestion that bizarre combinations of characters very probably will be difficult to sell. Make your combinations within the limits of plausibility, and use characters that are seen upon the stage often enough to be hailed with at least a pleasant welcome.
“Comedy” and “Straight”
The characters of the two-act are technically called the “comedian” and the “straight-man.” The comedian might better be called the “laugh-man,” just as the straight is more clearly termed the “feeder.”
In the early days of the business the comedian was always distinguishable by his comedy clothes. One glance would tell you he was the comical cuss. The straight-man dressed like a “gent,” dazzling the eyes of the ladies with his correct raiment. From this fact the names “comedian” and “straight” arose.
But today you seldom can tell the two apart. They do not dress extravagantly, either for comedy or for fashion effect. They often dress precisely alike—that is, so far as telling their different characters is concerned. Their difference in wealth and intelligence may be reflected in their clothes, but only as such differences would be apparent in real life. Indeed, the aim today is to mimic reality in externals, precisely as the real characters themselves are impersonated in every shade of thought and artistic inflection of speech. There are, to be sure, exceptions to this modern tendency.