Origins of Vaudeville

comedy club montreal - Origins of Vaudeville

Comedy has seen a steady evolution over time with modern comedy owing its origins to many different things. One of the primary influences that led to modern stand up comedy that you see in our Montreal comedy clubs was Vaudeville. Let’s take a look at the origins of Vaudeville in this article.

What Was Vaudeville?

You’ve likely heard the term Vaudeville before. However, if you aren’t a huge fan of theatre or comedy, you may be a bit unsure of what exactly it refers to. Vaudeville was a type of theatre that developed in France in the late 1800s that is very similar to a variety show. It was very popular throughout Canada and the United States until the 1930s.

A typical Vaudeville show would consist of several distinct, unrelated acts. Show attendees would see things like acrobats, jugglers, animal tricks, feats of strength, songs, one-act plays, and comedians. Comedy during Vaudeville often took the form of slapstick and physical humor. However, it gradually grew to approximate a situation similar to modern standup in some acts.

Origins of Vaudeville

The origins of Vaudeville are complex and actually quite hotly debated. The term itself is believed to be derived from val-de-Vire, a river in Normandy. French poet Oliver Basselin wrote popular humorous drinking songs called chansons du vau-de-Vire. Nearly two centuries later, these songs were revived with new lyrics and performed at agricultural fairs as short sketches called vaudevilles.

Some people may highlight Paris’ Theatre du Vaudeville as part of the evolution of Vaudeville. While it did play a part, the majority of its life was a traditional theatre company that produced multiple act plays. However, in the late 1800s, it did begin to experiment with programs that provided a variety of short plays and poetry readings together. However, this still varied significantly from what is considered as Vaudeville today.

While the name Vaudeville does owe its origins to France, the origins of the content of Vaudeville is much more varied. Vaudeville was ultimately more of an organic synthesis, highlighted by the merging of many different cultures. It has been described as a fusion of a number of century old traditions including English Music Hall, antebellum minstrel shows, and Yiddish theatre.

Vaudeville Theatre - Grand Theatre - Buffalo, New York

Grand Theatre in Buffalo, NY (1900s)
Source: American Studies at the University of Virginia.
(Category: Theaters in the US)

Vaudeville largely transitioned into its modern meaning in New York City, where performances were a way to bring theatre to the common man. Performances were designed to provide many short acts, helping keep an audience’s attention with rapid humor to generate lots of laughs. Many of the first stand up comedians had their beginnings on Vaudeville including Abbot & Costello.

Comedy Classics: “Who’s on First”Abbott and Costello performing
“Who’s on First?”
(Public Domain)

Does Vaudeville Still Exist?

Vaudeville lasted for roughly 50 years in the United States and Canada. Beginning in the 1880s and running through the 1930s. However, there are examples of Vaudeville that can still be seen if you were to look hard enough. More on that in a bit.

Why did something so immensely popular and widespread as Vaudeville see such a sudden end. Like many things, the growth of technology saw the death of Vaudeville. During the 1930s, talking motion pictures and a standardized method of film distribution created a cultural shift. Traditional theaters begin being wired for sound and motion pictures quickly overtook the variety show as the popular means of entertainment. While a few of the most popular theatres persevered for a time, the Great Depression shuttered them.

The best of the Vaudevillian performers found a new like in the evolution of entertainment. In fact, standup comedy largely originated from Vaudeville as some of the top comedians began performing on television and radio. Comedians like Milton Berle, Lenny Bruce, Don Rickles, and Sid Caesar found success here as well as in nightclubs that started springing up in major cities. Others like Abbot and Costello went on to make many movies.

In a way, you could say that Vaudeville did not technically die. Rather, it evolved.

What is Modern Vaudeville?

While Vaudeville’s days as an entertainment mainstay are long past, you can still find aspects of modern Vaudeville today. A good place to look is the circus, which combines lots of short acts including juggling, acrobats, strong men, and animal entertainment. It is done much in the same style as classic Vaudeville and, in many ways, is a lens to the past.

Of course, it is possible to find some throwbacks to Vaudeville. If you go to Las Vegas, you can see shows like Absinthe or the Atomic Saloon Show from Spiegel World Entertainment Group. Their offerings have earned accolades as some of the best shows in the city and are based on the traditional Vaudeville format with short acts interspersed with comedy.

However, perhaps the most popular approximation of Vaudeville in today’s world are the popular late-night comedy shows that you can find on television networks. Television shows like The Tonight Show, The Late Show, The Hour, and Jimmy Kimmel Live all borrow a bit from the classic Vaudeville recipe. They break up interviews with comedic monologues, slapstick, funny skits, and musical acts.

While you may find it difficult to catch a glimpse of Vaudeville in the world today, you can definitely see one of the art forms that evolved from it at Montreal comedy clubs. Comedyville Comedy Club prides itself on providing top Montreal stand-up comedy. We would love for you to come check out one of our shows on your next night out in Montreal!


Post by Eddie Case, exclusively for, All rights reserved.
Comedyville is a Comedy Club located in Downtown Montreal. 

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