Wednesday, October 26, 2016

The NRR Project #24: 'No News; or, What Killed the Dog?'

Nat Wills, in tramp costume.
‘No News; or, What Killed the Dog’
Nat Wills
Recorded October 14, 1908

Nat Wills was the prototype of the modern standup comic. He used personas, most notably his tramp character, the visual of which became the template for the stereotype until Chaplin came along. He told funny stories and sang parodies of songs of the day. On Broadway, he appeared in sketches in variety shows such as the Ziegfeld Follies.

He was a natural for the recording studio. His strong delivery and diction, developed in theaters across the country, came through loud and clear. This routine, his most familiar, is a bit that’s been traced back at least to 1817. In it, a master returns home and asks his servant for the news. “No news,” replies the servant, “except the dog died.” “How did he die?” asks the master, and thus unravels a long, escalating list of disasters that have engulfed the home while the master was gone.

The idea of the add-on story is as old as nursery rhymes such as “The House That Jack Built,” “The Old Lady That Swallowed a Fly,” and others. The repetition, combined with the surprise of each added piece of the story, is an essential lesson about the power of narrative. This routine is hilarious the first time, mildly amusing the second, and annoying from thenceforth. Let us move on.

The National Recording Registry Project tracks one writer’s expedition through all the recordings in the National Recording Registry in chronological order. Up next: ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame.’

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