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Vaudeville Returns as Televised `Vaudeo'

FROM the outset television was dominated by humor. From lavish comedy-variety revues to predictable situation comedies, Americans laughed with TV. By April 1952 one ratings service calculated that 42.7 percent of all network TV programming (24.8 percent comedy-variety, 17.9 percent situation comedy) was comedy-based. Interestingly, this dichotomy between comedic types reflected the emphases of the major networks, NBC, CBS, and ABC. At NBC, comedy-variety programs were paramount. Here the marriage of the old vaudeville format and new video requirements produced the first great form of TV comedy, the ``vaudeo'' style, which dominated the Golden Age of TV. Vaudeo resurrected the essentials of stage variety entertainment. Here were singers, dancers, animal acts, acrobats, jugglers, and ventriloquists. Here, too, were live music, clamorous studio audiences, and the perception at home that this was authentic theatrical performance. But above all, the effect of vaudeo was to surrender to the comedians - historically, the most popular performers of vaudeville - the fate of television.

NBC offered, and Americans embraced, vaudeo comics such as Milton Berle on The Texaco Star Theater, Jimmy Durante on All-Star Revue, and Sid Caesar and Imogene Coca on The Admiral broadway revue and later Your Show of Shows. The premier network employed the premier comedians of the age, among them Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, Eddie Cantor, Jerry Lester, Danny Thomas, Martha Raye, Bob Hope....

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Permeating such diversion were the fundamentals of vaudeville comedy: opening monologues filled with puns, topical references, and farcical jokes; and pratfalls, pies in the face, and spirited interchanges between comedians and their studio audiences, all delivered at frantic pace with occasional muffed lines and slips of the tongue. As Milton Berle suggested, vaudeo was nothing less than a revival of the past. ``Despite the really arduous task of putting on a full hour video show each week,'' he wrote in 1949, ``it has really been a pleasure to have had a part in bringing back to the people of the United States what I consider one of the greatest forms of entertainment we've ever seen. What I'm referring to is vaudeville....''

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