As you might know, one of my passions is Burlesque as performing arts (I run Cabaresque as a part time adventure on top of my dayjob). I found myself without any actual, proper knowledge of the subject, other than having watched the movie with Cher and Christina. I figured I would need to expand my awareness a bit and thus I invested in a few books on Burlesque.
“The Best Burlesque Sketches – as adapted for Sugar Babies and other Entertainments” by Ralph Allen, is one of the books I found, and here is my review of it – enjoy!
Genre: Nonfiction piece/history/collection of dramatic works
Okay, so I’m not quite certain my genre game is on point, but it was as close as I could get to describing this book. The foreword by Dick Martin tells the reader how he (Martin) grew up experiencing burlesque firsthand and came to love the artform and the comedy aspects of Burlesque. The rest of the book is a mix of personal anecdotes, burlesque history (primarily from the English speaking end of the world), sketch descriptions and dialogues from scenes used in Burlesque productions as told by Allen.
As the book blends both historical pages with sketches and dialogues, I don’t see it as a particularly scholarly read, nor is it a dramatic collection of known sketches that are now in written form. It is more of a memoir of some previously grand personas and a time when Burlesque was mostly comedy sketches and art was differentiated between “low brow” and “high brow” entertainment, when comedians where paired up with a “straight man” and were the main parts of the show – at least that’s the impression I’m getting from “The Best Burlesque Sketches”.
For me, as a Burlesque producer, it was an interesting read, since I found it very male-centered as opposed to my practical experiences with Burlesque – the neo Burlesque world from my point of view has been very female dominated so far, with few male identifying persons involved. It seems to me that the comedians (comics and ‘straight men’) have taken a step back, since the author of this book knew Burlesque.
Allen provided me with valuable insight into both the form and structures of using jokes and different kinds of punchlines and I thought this was rather interesting since I have not encountered any of those sketches in a professional setting yet. The mechanisms of a Burlesque show was centered around these comics and their well-known sketches and the (half-)naked ladies were often a punchline or a plot-driving prop in those sketches. Allen often seem a little nostalgic during the book and I can see why – this kind of Burlesque is rarely seen as such anymore and would be mostly referred to as revue or variety comedy nowadays, in my area at least (I live in Denmark, where the Burlesque scene is still fairly new).
I found it super informative and all the sketches written out like manuscripts were like a window into watching them being played out in my imagination, aided by the wonderfully rough sketch drawings throughout the book. The book gave me a greater understanding of some of the humor that the Burlesque of today is also built on/from and I am actually working on incorporating the essence of some of these sketches into my productions, because of that specific type of satirical and lighthearted, ‘easy’ comedy setup-joke-punchline. It works wonders as a filler element between performances, when hosting a show!
“The Best Burlesque Sketches” is a great piece for learning about some of the staging terms, Burlesque comedy slang and how to build a ‘classic’ burlesque sketch show, as Allen is continually describing different scenarios and effects used in (or made for, but never used in) the production of Sugar Babies.
Allen mentions some sketches with roots in Minstrel Show material, which I won’t comment much on here, but let’s just say that you definitely shouldn’t want to produce those. (I might write a separate post on Minstrel Shows and blackfacing, let me know in the comments if you’d like to read more about blackfacing in arts and what I – and other producers – think of those! In the meantime, check out this wiki article for more info).
I think it’s one of the good features about this book, not negating where a lot of the material is ‘borrowed from’, but at the same time highlighting that this is no longer the time for these things, which brings the book into relevance for new performers and producers alike.
All in all, I enjoyed reading it and often read just 2-3 sketches at a time, in order to let them unfold and also give myself time to reflect on the bits of history included between the sketches. As a performing arts producer, this was a great read and as a burlesque producer, it was even better – it made me reflect on my own praxis, and it will most likely read it again, a bit here and there.
Are you interested in performing arts or burlesque? – or do you want to hear more about “The Best Burlesque Sketches”? Let me know in the comment section below!