Shaw and Lee: Vaudeville’s Loony Futurists

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Throughout their 30-year career as a comedy team, Al Shaw and Sam Lee had a fairly standard vaudeville act consisting of comic songs, fast patter, one-liners and lots of mugging. Still, thanks to their razor-sharp timing and off-kilter jokes, they became legendary among audiences of the 1920s and ’30s, and it was no surprise when the Warner Brothers Vitaphone division signed them to make a string of short subjects. Beginning in the mid-’20s, with talking pictures growing fast in popularity and vaudeville beginning to stagger a bit, the Vitaphone shorts offered seasoned vaudevillians not only a shot at a broader audience but also a potential bridge to a much more lucrative career in movies.

What is surprising is that for their first short, in 1928, Shaw and Lee would take that opportunity to present themselves to movie audiences with an act that was a departure from their usual routine — and one that was just so, well, odd.

As The Beau Brummels opens, a curtain parts, revealing Shaw and Lee standing shoulder to shoulder on a bare stage, almost perfectly still as they stare into the camera. They are dressed identically, in dark suits, bow ties and bowlers. They sing a parody of “The Merry Month of May,” trade a long string of one-liners, sing another song and break into a very brief soft-shoe (sans music). They return to their original positions and tip their hats, and the curtain closes.

The magic of Shaw and Lee is in the presentation. They don’t do pratfalls, they don’t mug for the camera, they don’t even smile. They shoot each other the occasional worried glance but not much else. When they move at all (which is rare), their movements are perfectly synchronized. The jokes are recited in a monotone one after another, with no pause for an audience reaction:

“Twenty people fell off a 10-story roof, and nobody got hurt.”

“How’s that?”

“They were all killed.”

Their timing is flawless, even when they begin talking at the same time or the wrong man delivers the punch line. It’s a bit like watching an animatronic comedy team at Disneyland (though at Disneyland they’d be livelier). Beyond even that, there’s just something a little off about the jokes themselves (“So tell me, when were you born and, for instance, if?”).

If Samuel Beckett had written a vaudeville routine, he would have created Shaw and Lee. They strip away all the fat — the juggling, the pie gags, the trained dogs in tutus — to present what is essentially a deconstruction of a standard vaudeville act. It’s reminiscent of what Dick Shawn and Andy Kaufman would do to stand-up in the ’60s and ’70s. Even the closing number is a deconstructed song about itself.

Regardless of how much I hate the term, Shaw and Lee may have been among our first postmodern comedians. Seeing them now, more than 85 years after the short was made, it’s pretty astonishing how far ahead of their time they were.

Other, far more traditional shorts would follow, none with the radical experimental zing of The Beau Brummels. And the leap into movie stardom never really panned out the way it did for the Marx Brothers or W.C. Fields. Over the next three decades, along with increasingly rare stage appearances and the occasional guest spot on early TV variety shows, Shaw and Lee appeared in maybe a dozen films, but always in tiny, often uncredited supporting roles. By the late ’50s, they’d vanished.

Once one of the biggest acts in vaudeville, Shaw (who died in 1985) and Lee (who died in 1980) are all but completely forgotten today. But of course, if you’re working that far ahead of your time, you’re doomed.

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