MY WONDERFUL WORLD OF SLAPSTICK
by Buster Keaton & Charles Samuels
Excerpt from Chapter One :
‘If I say I “officially joined” my folks’ act in 1899 it is because my father always insisted that I’d been trying to get into the family act unofficially meaning unasked, unwanted, and unbilled practically from the day I was born. Having no baby sitter, my mother parked me in the till of a wardrobe trunk while she worked on the stage with Pop. According to him, the moment I could crawl I headed for the footlights. “And when Buster learned to walk’ he always proudly explained to all who were interested and many who weren’t, “there was no holding him. He would jump up and down in the wings, make plenty of noise, and get in everyone’s way. It seemed easier to let him come out with us on the stage where we could keep an eye. “At first I told him not to move. He was to lean against the side wall and stay there. But one day I got the idea of dressing him up myself as a stage Irishman with a fright wig, slugger whiskers, fancy vest, and over-size pants. Soon he was imitating everything I did, and getting laughs.
“But he got nothing at all at the first Monday show.. we played at Bill Dockstader’s Theatre in Wilmington, Delaware. Dockstader told me to leave him out of the act. But he had a special matinee for kiddies on Wednesday and suggested that children, knowing no better, might be amused by Buster’s antics.” On Wednesday Bill noticed that their parents also seemed amused and suggested I go on at all performances. Pop said he didn’t want to use me in the night show as I had to get my rest like any small child. Dockstader then offered to pay the act ten dollars a week extra. My father agreed to try it I had no trouble sleeping through the morning and played night and day with the act.
Even in my early days our turn established a reputation for being the roughest in vaudeville. This was the result of a series of interesting experiments Pop made with me. He began these by carrying me out on the stage and dropping me on the floor. Next he started wiping up the floor with me. When I gave no sign of minding this he began throwing me through the scenery, out into the wings, and dropping me down on the bass drum in the orchestra pit. The people out front were amazed because I did not cry. There was nothing mysterious about this. I did not cry because I wasn’t hurt. All little boys like to be roughhoused by their fathers.They are also natural tumblers and acrobats. Because I was also a born hambone, I ignored any bumps or bruises I may have got at first on hearing audiences gasp, laugh, and applaud. There is one more thing: little kids when they fall haven’t very far to go. I suppose a psychologist would call it a case of self-hypnosis. Before I was much bigger than a gumdrop I was being featured in our act, The Three Keatons, as “The Human Mop.”
One of the first things I noticed was that whenever I smiled or let the audience suspect how much I was enjoying myself they didn’t seem to laugh as much as usual. I guess people just never do expect any human mop, dishrag, beanbag, or football to be pleased by what is being done to him. At any rate it was on purpose that I started looking miserable, humiliated, hounded, and haunted, bedeviled, bewildered, and at my wit’s end. Some other comedians can get away with laughing at their own gags. Not me. The public just will not stand for it! And that is all right with me. All of my life I have been happiest when the folks watching me said to each other, “Look at the poor dope?” Because of the way I looked on the stage and screen the public assumed that I felt hopeless and unloved in my personal life. Nothing could be farther from the fact As long back as I can remember I have considered myself a fabulously lucky man. From the beginning I was surrounded by interesting people who loved fun and knew how to create it. I’ve had few dull moments and not too many sad and defeated ones…’
‘My Wonderfull World of Slapstick’
DaCapo Press (1960)