Cliff Arquette's Alter Ego

The name Cliff Arquette may not immediately ring any bells, but those of a certain (older) age will recognize Charley Weaver, the persona he donned for stage and television appearances. Arquette, who died 40 years ago this week, was a comedian who transitioned from the radio microphone to the small screen with his own show and multiple guest appearances on talk and game shows in the 1950s and '60s. The patriarch of the Arquette entertainment family – he is the grandfather of Rosanna, Patricia and David Arquette – was known for his double entendres and jokes about his family and other residents of the fictional small town of Mount Idy. Some said Arquette's jokes were dated even during their day, but his delivery and timing still drew laughs.

In remembrance of Arquette, spoke to performer-writer and comedy scholar Trav S.D., whose books include 2005's No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous.

Some in the modern audience think of vaudeville as silly, easy, obvious. Your thoughts?

"Yeah, what's interesting is that it's the opposite. Vaudeville comedy requires a lot MORE work. When I think of, say, contemporary standup or acting in comedy films, it's all very relaxed and naturalistic and observational. And there were actually many vaudevillians who had that sort of style, too – Will Rogers foremost among them. But the other guys, even if you think their jokes are corny, rehearsed every pause, every vocal inflection, every line reading, every glance at the audience for DECADES. Much like a magician – it looks like they're just doing it, but it's deceptive sleight of hand. Whereas, modern comedians just seem to sort of roll out of bed and wing it.

"Another point I'd make is that good slapstick, the kind practiced by the likes of (Charlie) Chaplin and (Buster) Keaton and (Harold) Lloyd, is the hardest work of all. Every muscular movement is in control. Crappy slapstick, like that practiced by somebody like Lou Costello, any shmo can do. But real slapstick comedians are masters of an ancient, difficult art form."

Although Cliff Arquette was the son of a vaudeville player, he didn't create Charley Weaver, the standard "rube" in vaudevillespeak, until after the genre's heyday. (He even dressed the part, with a goofy hat, glasses, suspenders and a tie that was too short.) What made Weaver popular? Why was he found funny and not the source of mockery?

"Believe it or not, as outré as he was, his character was a recognizable human type, the small town or farm country eccentric. When I was a kid (in the 1970s), such characters were already vanishing faster than the dodo, but my parents and grandparents and other relatives, all from rural backgrounds, all really appreciated his antics. It's a cultural thing, a traditional thing. You'd only turn your nose up at it if it was alien to you. Otherwise it spoke to something you knew deep down in your gut. It was manifestly familiar, just like a popular song or a folk song."

Where do you see the Arquette-Weaver influence in modern comedy?

"I'd say the biggest influence somebody like Charley Weaver (Arquette) would have had on younger comedians would be guys like Andy Kaufman and Steve Martin, maybe Martin Mull and Fred Willard, and Pee-wee Herman ... guys who were like performance artists and comic actors. They come out in character, and they don't drop character. They are putting you on the whole time. In today's comedy – some will wince – I'd point to somebody like Larry the Cable Guy. Arquette is an interesting bridge. He was simultaneously behind the times and ahead of his time. I mean, look at Hollywood Squares. He didn't resemble anyone else on that show. No one else was doing anything like that."

Arquette created the fictional town of Mount Idy. During performances, Weaver shared Letters From Mamma, introducing a cast of characters that is reminiscent of Lake Wobegon (from Garrison Keillor's A Prairie Home Companion). What are your thoughts on that comedic style?

"One thing I find sad, is that this country has changed so rapidly that the rural culture he and people like the Hee Haw comedians (Minnie Pearl, Stringbean, etc.) used to gently satirize simply isn't there anymore. The electronic media has made it so that even people who live far out in the country or work on farms or whatever have become fairly sophisticated about the outside world, relatively speaking. When you try to do a traditional rustic, there's nothing for most younger people to latch onto; they simply don't get it, in the way their ancestors did. But that's a digression."

Is that comparison to Keillor an apt one?

"Oh absolutely apt; I didn't mean to ignore that comparison! I actually adore Keillor's work, and yes, the idea of the rural cast of characters is absolutely in the same vein. Although Keillor's work of necessity represents a yearning for a vanished time, place and people. He occasionally drops in modern references, but on the whole he's presenting a dream world, a remembered world. I'm from New England, where there's a similar tradition, a very rich one, of mocking rural 'Yankees.'"

Would Charley Weaver appeal to today's audiences?

"Well, he would appeal to ME! And yeah, I think he would appeal to others. Cliff Arquette was a talented guy; he would have figured out an angle. You'd either have to tweak Charley to skew a little more modern OR stick with the thing as is, and let it be a sort of post-modern anachronism, which is kind of what he was already doing in the '70s. Pee-wee Herman is a similar idea: 'OK, this is a freak from another time, we'll just roll with this fantasy.'"

Do you have a favorite Charley Weaver skit?

"Believe it or not, I'm way too young to have seen his skits! Until recently, I knew him almost entirely from his appearances on Hollywood Squares, and have only gotten to see his earlier work from clips on YouTube. I don't have any particular favorite sketch, I'm happy to take him 'whole cloth.' I buy Charley Weaver by the bolt."

Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. Her lifelong love of obituaries raised eyebrows when she was younger, but she's now able to explain that this interest goes beyond morbid curiosity. Says Pompilio, "Obituaries are mini life stories, allowing a glimpse into someone's world that we're often denied. I just wish we could share them with each other when we're alive."