A History of Black Excellence: The Man Who Invented Laughter

Illustration for article titled A History of Black Excellence: The Man Who Invented Laughter
Image: Stephanie Garcia Mullins (Shutterstock)

We are the culture.

We created jazz, blues, soul, R&B, hip-hop, swing dancing, the Lindy hop, the Charleston, the jitterbug, tap dancing, the moonwalk, the slide (both the cha-cha and the electric one) juking, the James Brown, the robot, breakdancing, pop-locking, graffiti, freestyling, dunking, running fast, jumping high, Cabbage-Patching during touchdowns, frying chicken and candying yams.

Who else but a Black person would think of seasoning their salt? Without Black people, American art, music, food and fashion would be as bland as 2 percent low-fat, skim, lactose-free, vegan powdered milk.

To be fair, white people played a great part in America’s culture. They were great at taking our creations, watering them down and making them acceptable for Caucasian palates.

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Sister Rosetta Tharpe invented rock & roll. Jack Daniels took Nearest Green’s recipe and made a fortune. If not for an enslaved African named Onesimus, instead of vaccines, we would be trying to cure COVID-19 with leeches and crystals.

But perhaps none of these cases are as important as the story of Charlie Case, a gifted entertainer who sang, wrote his own songs and was considered one the greatest vaudeville acts of his time. And because intellectual property wasn’t really a thing, other entertainers simply stole his material. But Case’s groundbreaking contributions to American culture may be more important than any single artist. What did he do that was so revolutionary?

He talked.


The product of an interracial relationship between an Irish woman and a free Black man who was reportedly the first Negro in New York to enlist to fight the Civil War, Charles Case was born on August 27, 1858, in Lockport, N.Y. He attended college and trained as a lawyer, opening his own firm as a $5 lawyer. But, because he wanted to see more of the world, Case gave up the legal profession and became a traveling salesman, according to a 1909 profile in the Pittsburgh Post.

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As a salesman, Case was an abject failure. Some of the companies he represented refused to believe he was so bad at selling products because his protective customers followed him everywhere he went. But they soon realized that the audiences were there to hear Case’s sales pitches and could care less about the products. Because of his light skin, Case could infiltrate the beer halls where he began to cultivate his talent for storytelling. He would often captivate local bars with long-winded rants that ended with him roasting everyone in attendance. His barroom antics entertained other traveling showmen, earning Case tickets to minstrel performances around New York. In the late 1880s, when one of his showbiz friends from the road fell ill, Case organized a talent show to raise money and decided to try his bar act.

A star was born.

He started out with three partners but it soon became evident that Charlie was a solo act. Curiously, Case was a well-known neurotic who would fiddle with a string during his act to ease his nerves. He would famously swing his arms to amplify the point of his hilariously fascinating stories. This would become his signature.

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His sense of humor was sly and very natural, quick-paced, and somewhat distracted,” wrote Ramona S. Baker. “He spoke very quickly and slipped in small things here and there in a story that one was just trying to get the whole idea of, and just as the audience understood the story’s setup, he would throw in a small comedic thing, and give almost no time for the audience to laugh, he would just keep on going with the story.”

During the vaudeville years, there were few entertainers who commanded an audience just by their name. Case was one of them. By the 1880s, Charlie Case commanded large audiences in nightclubs and theaters on the Loews circuit. He was called the “funniest human being who ever broke into vaudeville” and eventually became the highest-paid blackface in America.

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Illustration for article titled A History of Black Excellence: The Man Who Invented Laughter
Image: Chicago Tribune/Buffalo Morning Express/Camden Courier Post/

But that’s not why you should know Charlie Case.

Because most artists—especially Black performers—wore blackface, and because Netflix was just a butterfly-catching technique in the late 1800s, Case “suffered from more pirates than anyone in show biz,” wrote Vaudeville chronicler Joe Laurie Jr. “In fact, entertainers are still using his stuff on the radio and TV but it’s not like it’s Charlie Case.”

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When Laurie wrote that, Case had been dead for nearly forty years.

Most of Case’s stories were about his family—especially his father—and he usually peppered his tales with biting but hilarious lines. Artists who “borrowed” from Case would readily admit that the “greatest master of the unexpected statement in the world.” While others were known for their humor, Case, at the very least, perfected the technique of ending a story with an arm-swinging, funny line. Although etymologists claim the origin of the term is unknown, vaudeville experts agree that he was the first person to call his technique a “punchline.”

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But that’s not why you should remember Charlie Case.

Perhaps the most famous of the movie vaudevillians was W. C. Fields, the “genuine comic genius” whose entire career was essentially a Charlie Case impersonation. In 1928, Fields copyrighted all of his live sketches, including the sketch that later became the movie The Fatal Glass of Beer.

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The sketch, the movie and even the song that opened the film were all created by Charlie Case.

But that’s not why you should remember Case.

In the early 1900s, Case began having trouble. Some called it a “nervous breakdown,” while those close to him insisted it was because of his profession. He often revealed the reason for his neurosis to his colleagues:

He hated blackface.

But, instead of quitting, Case changed his entire act. He stopped wearing costumes and blackface. He didn’t even use props. Except for an occasional parody song for which he was known, he did away with all of the pretenses of music and live bands.

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He was known as the “purest monologist of the vaudeville era” but the greatest marketers in show business didn’t even know how to describe his act. Desperate for a title, they called him “The Man Who Talks About His Father”

“He stands in one place on the stage throughout his act,” wrote one astounded reviewer in 1909. “Once in a while, he moves his hands but never his feet. He meanders from story to story, each one funnier than its predecessor and you are really wishing he would stop long enough for you to get your breath but he just keeps right on.”

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Case died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1916, just before his talent agency decided to get into the brand new film industry by forming Metro Goldwyn Mayer, now known as MGM. In announcing his death, the reviewer for the New York Evening World said: “If all the minutes of joy he gave to the public could be added up it would cover hundreds of gladsome years.”

While it might not sound so revolutionary now, the idea of a live performer of any color working without music, dancing or tricks was unheard of back then. Although he is not a household name, nearly every vaudeville historian and chronicler of American theater agrees:

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Charlie Case was the first stand-up comedian.

World-renowned wypipologist. Getter and doer of "it." Never reneged, never will. Last real negus alive.

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DISCUSSION

feministonfire
FeministOnFire

Ok, for real, this dude’s story is so similar to that of my maternal grandfather’s people that it’s eerie! They had an Irish slave surname and were renowned Vaudevillians per what little is known about them in my mother’s family. What is known is that my grandfather was a charming-ass slickster storyteller (very much in the Irish Rake tradition) who connived my churchmouse grandma’s parents into letting them marry. Then every single one of the eleven resulting kids are SUPER multi-talented: All my aunts and uncles can sing like nobody’s business (y aunts sang with the Winans and the Clarke Sisters in church competitions) and my 2-3 of my uncles auditioned for Motown! What’s crazier is they are also all master storytellers and comedians who can do spot-on vocal impressions and pantomime too! My family would outdo each other having people literally peeing their pants at our picnics just relating how they stood in a line.

My mother only recalls seeing those Vaudeville aunts once as a young child. But years later, my staunchly church-y grandma knew exactly where my aunts’ inclinations toward big hair, lots of makeup, flashy outfits(!) and big, unladylike, take-no-crap personalities came from! Hell, even my uncles have the same flashy, never seen without an expensive hat & coordinated outfit, life of the party styles despite having never met the Vaudevillians!

In the absence of any other cause, I believe my rep as a storyteller comes from the Vaudevillians too! I mean, huh, ain’t we all cousins?!

Thank you for this Little Known Black History tidbit!