Bert Williams: “The funniest man I ever saw.”

“I don’t know how to talk about art. I don’t know much about it. My job is to make ’em laugh. When they laugh I know it’s going.”  – Bert Williams

Vintage black and white studio portrait of Bert Williams, an African-American vaudeville performer. He stands confidently, arms folded, wearing a three-piece suit, bow tie, and a bowler hat. His expression is serious and contemplative. In the bottom right corner, there's a photographer's imprint that reads 'Bushnell, S.F. CAL'. The photograph is credited to Harvard University, Houghton Library, with the reference number W549994_1.
Bert Williams, circa 1920

Bert Williams Snapshot Biography

Bert Williams was simple and kind, many liked him. He was also one of the best comedians of his time. “The funniest man I ever saw,” one fellow comedian described Bert. 

Born in Nassau, The Bahamas, in 1874, Bert moved to Florida with his family at eleven and California a year later, where they settled. After high school, he went to college at Stanford, where he studied engineering. But needing to support himself financially, and having a gift for imitation and “a splendid singing voice,” Bert began performing in minstrel shows to earn funds. This would mark the beginning of a lifetime in show business.

Pairing up with a fellow performer, the troupe sang, and danced, performed skits, exchanged comedic dialogue. They slowly grew in stature, until coming into much fame with their musical, In Dahomey, in 1902. The popular show also took them abroad for a performance in Buckingham Palace.

The pair worked together until 1911, when Bert’s partner passed away. At that point, Bert joined a production company. 

While Bert made others laugh, he coped with much pain. The same description of him being the funniest man was followed up with Bert is “the saddest man I ever knew.” He dealt with significant racism, often having to find his own accommodations, eating alone, taking backroom elevators, and though being black, having to perform in blackface. Remarking about a time when fellow performers went on strike, he said. “I went to the theatre as usual, made-up and dressed. Then I came out of my dressing room and found the stage deserted and dark, the big auditorium empty and the strike on. I knew nothing of it: I had not been told. You see, I just didn’t belong. So then I went back to my dressing room, washed up, dressed up, and went on the roof. It all seemed like a nightmare.”

Through the racism, the frustrations, Bert continued to perform, always doing his best to please a crowd and support the show organizers. His last performance came during a time of illness. Feeling so weak that he needed help to dress, Bert still went out for his role. He collapsed during his performance and soon after passed away at the age of forty-seven.

Notes:

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Click here to read a snapshot biography of another performer – Josephine Baker.

This story was updated on March 27, 2024.

“Bert Williams: ‘The funniest man I ever saw.'” sources:

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“Bert Williams: ‘The funniest man I ever saw.'” Historical Snapshots.