The word "burlesque" can refer either to a type of parody or to a theatrical performance whose cast includes scantily-clad women. The second art form grew out of the first: "burla" is Italian for "trick, waggery," and the adjective "burlesca" may be translated as "ludicrous." Borrowed into French, "burlesque" came to mean a takeoff on an existing work, without any particular moral agenda (as opposed to satire). The genre enjoyed a robust life on the French stage throughout the nineteenth century, and found ready audiences in British theaters as well.
The first American burlesques were imports from England, and chorus lines of attractive women were part of the show almost from the start. In 1866, Niblo's Garden in New York presented The Black Crook, its forgettable plot enlivened, as an afterthought, by some imported dances from a French opera, La Biche au bois. Public reception was warm, according to burlesque historian Irving Zeidman: "The reformers shrieked, the 'best people' boycotted it," but the bottom line was "box receipts of sin aggregating over $1,000,000 for a profit of $650,000." The show promptly spawned a host of imitations—The Black Crook Junior, The White Crook, The Red Crook, The Golden Crook —capitalizing shamelessly, and profitably, on Niblo's success.
Two years later an English troupe, Lydia Thompson and Her Blondes, made their New York debut at Woods' Museum and Menagerie on 34th St., "sharing the stage," writes Zeidman, "with exhibitions of a live baby hippopotamus." The play this time was F.C. Burnand's classical travesty Ixion, in which the chorus, costumed as meteors, eclipses, and goddesses, thrilled the audience by flashing their ruffled underpants in the Parisian can-can style.
The Thompson company was soon hired away to play at Niblo's in an arabesque comedy called The 40 Thieves. The orientalist turn soon worked its way into other shows, including those of Madame Celeste's Female Minstrel Company, which included numbers such as "The Turkish Bathers" and "The Turkish Harem." (Even as late as 1909, Millie De Leon was being billed as "The Odalisque of the East," i.e., the East Coast.) Orientalism was just one avenue down which American burlesque in the last three decades of the nineteenth century went in search of its identity in a tireless quest for plausible excuses to put lots of pretty women on stage while still managing to distinguish itself from what were already being called "leg shows." Minstrelsy and vaudeville were fair game; so were "living pictures," in which members of the troupe would assume the postures and props of famous paintings, preferably with as little clothing as could be gotten away with. (This method of art-history pedagogy was still being presented, with a straight face, half a century later as one of the attractions at the 1939 New York World's Fair.)
By the turn of the century, burlesque shows could be seen on a regular schedule at Manhattan's London Theatre and Miner House and across the East River in Brooklyn at Hyde and Behman's, the Star, and the Empire Theatres. Philadelphia offered burlesque at the Trocadero, 14th Street Opera House, and the Arch, Kensington, and Lyceum Theatres. Even staid Boston had burlesque at the Lyceum, Palace, and Grand Theatres as well as the Howard Atheneum, where young men who considered themselves lucky to catch a glimpse of an ankle if they stood on street corners on rainy days (according to Florence Paine, then a young businesswoman in the Boston shoe trade), "could go to see women who wore dresses up to their knees. " (And wearing tights; bare legs would not come until later, even in New York.)
A "reputable" burlesque show of the Gay Nineties, according to Zeidman, might have a program such as was offered by Mabel Snow's Spectacular Burlesque Company: "New wardrobes, bright, catchy music and pictures, Amazon marches, pretty girls and novelty specialty acts." By 1917, according to Morton Minsky (proprietor, as were several of his brothers, of a famous chain of New York burlesque houses) the basic ingredients of burlesque were "girls, gags, and music." Minsky describes in detail the first time he saw one of his brothers' burlesque shows at the Winter Garden that year, the first half of which included a choral number (with much kicking of legs in unison, Minsky notes), a comedy skit, a rendition of Puccini's "Un bel di," a turn by a "cooch dancer" (or hootchy-kootch, vaguely derived from Near Eastern belly dancing and the prototype of what would later be called "exotic dancing"), a serious dramatic sketch about a lad gone wrong who commits suicide, a second chorus, an appearance by the company soubrette (originally the saucy maid-servant in French comedy, the term later came to mean a woman who sang such parts), another comedy skit, a third chorus, some vaudeville acrobats, and a choral finale with the entire company, reprising the earlier numbers. A similar but shorter mix followed the intermission. This would remain the structure of Minsky shows for the next two decades.
Nor was such entertainment limited to the East Coast. Burlesque prospered at such houses as the Mutual Theater in Indianapolis, the Star and Garter in Chicago, and the Burbank Theatre in Los Angeles. The Columbia Amusement Company, under the leadership of medicine-show veteran Sam Scribner, operated a circuit called the Eastern Wheel whose chief rival, the Empire Circuit or Western Wheel, it absorbed in 1913. Scribner managed to balance business instinct and a personal goal of creating a cleaner act, and for a time the Columbia Wheel offered what it called "approved" burlesque while competing with upstart organizations (such as the short-lived Progressive Wheel) with its own subsidiary circuit called the American Wheel, whose "standard" burlesque featured cooch dancers, comic patter laced with double-entendre, and runways for the chorus line extending from the stage out into the audience (an innovation first imported to the Winter Garden by Abe Minsky, who had seen it in Paris at the Folies Bergére). The American Wheel offered 73 acts a year, playing to a total audience of about 700,000 in 81 theaters from New York to Omaha.
Though Scribner's quest for clean burlesque ultimately proved quixotic, he was neither hypocritical nor alone. The founding editor of Variety, Sime Silverman, took burlesque shows seriously as an art form, though he too recognized that this was an uphill fight at best, writing in a 1909 editorial that "Were there no women in burlesque, how many men would attend? The answer is the basic principle of the burlesque business." (Billboard's Sidney Wire concurred, flatly asserting in 1913 that "Ninety percent of the burlesque audiences go to burlesque to see the girls.") This fact was not lost on the Mutual Circuit, which arose to put Columbia Entertainment out of business in the 1920s, nor on the Minskys, whose theaters flourished until the final crackdown on New York burlesque under Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia and License Commissioner Paul Moss in 1937.
Although the leggy chorus line was an indispensable element of burlesque shows from the start (and would survive them by a half-century with the perennial Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall) the cooch dance became a burlesque standard only after promoter Abe Fish brought Little Egypt and Her Dancers, a troupe of Syrians specializing in the sexually suggestive "awalem" dances performed at Syrian weddings, to the World's Columbian Exposition at Chicago in 1893. The transition from cooch dancer to striptease was gradual. Soubrettes in the earliest days of burlesque often showed off their youthful bodies even as they sang and danced in solo numbers, but some, like Rose Sydell of the Columbia Wheel, were star clotheshorses instead, displaying breathtakingly elaborate costumes on stage.
Still, as the public responded favorably to more flesh and less clothing as the years wore on, the soubrette's song-and-dance role came to be supplanted by the striptease artist. By 1932, according to Zeidman, there were "at least 150 strip principals, of whom about 75 percent were new to the industry." The sudden rise in demand for strippers was partly a corollary of rising hemlines on the street, so that, as one writer for Billboard pointed out, "leg shows lost their sex appeal and, in self-defense, the operators of burlesque shows introduced the strutting strips … as far as the police permitted." (Ironically it was one police raid in 1934, at the Irving Palace Theatre, that eliminated runways in New York, somewhat to the relief of theater owners, for whom they were ill suited to the innuendo and soft lighting effects that were part and parcel of an effective strip act.)
Star strippers included Sally Rand, whose two-fan dance got a nod in the popular song "I'm Like a Fish Out of Water," and Gypsy Rose Lee, who solved the jammed-zipper menace by holding her costume together with pins which she would remove one by one and throw to the audience. (Lee would go on to write a mystery novel, The G-String Murders, and an autobiography, Gypsy, also made into a movie). Other celebrated strippers included Anna Smith (said to have been the first to cross the line between above-the-waist nudity and baring her bottom), Carrie Finnell, Margie Hart, Evelyn Meyers, and Ann Corio.
By the late 1930s many burlesque shows had ceased to be much more than showcases for strippers. A burlesque troupe which would have had one soubrette and a half-dozen comics at the time of the World War I now often had at least five or six strippers and as few as two comics and a straight man. In New York, burlesque was effectively put out of business by LaGuardia and Moss by the end of 1937, although it survived in New Jersey for a few more years in theaters served by shuttle buses running from Times Square until its mostly-male audience was called off to war.
Though many performers from the burlesque circuits toured with the USO during World War II and the Korean conflict, burlesque itself barely survived into the postwar world, and most houses were closed for good by the mid-1950s. (Boston's Old Howard, vacant for several years, burned beyond repair in 1961.) In 1968 Ann Corio's book This Was Burlesque and Norman Lear's film The Night They Raided Minsky's were released, both nostalgic retrospectives on a vanished era.
Nevertheless, "legitimate" American entertainment, especially comedy, owed a lasting debt to burlesque throughout most of the twentieth century, for many of the nation's stars had either gotten their start or worked for some time in the genre, including Fannie Brice, Eddie Cantor, Lou Costello, Joey Faye, W. C. Fields, Jackie Gleason, Al Jolson, Bert Lahr, Pinky Lee, Phil Silvers, Red Skelton, and Sophie Tucker. Burlesque enriched America's vocabulary as well, with such terms as bump and grind, flash, milking the audience, shimmy, and yock.
Alexander, H. M. Strip Tease: The Vanished Art of Burlesque. New York, Knight Publishers, 1938.
Allen, Ralph G. Best Burlesque Sketches. New York, Applause Theatre Books, 1995.
Allen, Robert C. Horrible Prettyness: Burlesque and American Culture. Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1991.
Corio, Ann. This Was Burlesque. New York, Grosset and Dunlap, 1968.
Lear, Norman, producer. The Night They Raided Minsky's. Culver City, MGM-UA Home Video, 1990.
Lee, Gypsy Rose. The G-String Murders. New York, Simon and Schuster, 1941.
——. Gypsy/Gypsy Rose Lee. London, Futura, 1988.
Minsky, Morton. Minsky's Burlesque. New York, Arbor House, 1986.
Scott, David Alexander. Behind the G-String: An Exploration of the Stripper's Image, Her Person, and Her Meaning. Jefferson, McFarland and Company, 1996.
Smith, H. Allen. Low Man on a Totem Pole. Garden City, Doubleday, Doran & Company, 1941.
Sobel, Bernard. Burleycue: An Underground History. New York, Farrar & Rinehart, 1931.
Zeidman, Irving. The American Burlesque Show. New York, Hawthorn Books, 1967.
Burlesque, like nearly all of American popular culture, began in the hurly-burly of the Victorian age. Industrialization, the creation of a large working class in opposition to a newly powerful middle class, a new mass culture of consumption, and a system of racial and national hierarchies within an empire created the perfect climate for burlesque, a working-class entertainment in which all rules could be broken for comic effect and profit. Indeed, it was exactly this "slap in the face" aspect of burlesque that made it such an important part of the growing entertainment industry. Burlesque routines rewrote so-called higher art forms, such as opera, as comedy and farce. For instance, one of the most popular burlesque acts in America was Lydia Thomson and the British Blondes, whose 1868 production of the Greek myth Ixion attracted large crowds not because of its classical cachet, but because all the women in the show wore body-revealing costumes.
Thumbing their noses at the pretentiousness of bourgeois culture was surely part of burlesque's appeal, but its real naughtiness, and therefore its real attraction, was how it laughed at the Victorian myth of the ideal woman. The ideal woman was emotional (not rational), engaged in the domestic sphere (not the market), innocent of sexual desires, and lily white. (Women of color were not part of this idealized version of femininity because part of the cultural work of the ideal woman was to show that whites were superior.) Burlesque slapped the ideal woman in the face by allowing white women to strut their desires and their bodies across stages all over North America and Europe. Not only were the actresses scantily clad, but they were also aware of their sexual power in ways that made critics rage and audiences blush. In Victorian America, these vamping women in flesh colored tights could shock and thereby attract huge crowds.
As the Victorian age dissolved into the twentieth century, however, competition from other forms of entertainment, including a burgeoning movie industry, pushed burlesque from a primarily satirical art form to a primarily erotic one. The evolution eventually resulted in what has become known as the striptease. Although no one knows exactly when or how the striptease developed, by the late 1890s, burlesque performers were regularly disrobing on stage. Perhaps stripping began accidentally, when a performer's strap broke, as many sources would have it, or perhaps it began at Chicago's Columbian Exhibition in 1893 when a Syrian belly dancer, Fahreda Mahzar (1849–1902), billed as Little Egypt, set off a national craze of hootchy-kootchy dancers.
Regardless of how the striptease began, the incorporation of scantily clad women into popular culture owed much to the carnival midway, dime museums, and other displays of curiosities. One of the first such erotic acts was brought to the American public by none other than P. T. Barnum (1810–1891). As early as 1864, Barnum was looking for a woman from the Caucasus to display in his American Museum. Playing on Victorian notions of racial types and purity, Barnum sought the whitest of white women, thought to be from Circassia in the Caucasus (thus the term Caucasian). Because the Caucasus were imagined as the center of white racial purity and were simultaneously next to the Ottoman Empire, Barnum concocted a story of a girl nearly sold into sexual slavery to a Turk, but rescued by white men and brought to New York for his audience's viewing pleasure. As Linda Frost notes, "The unsullied purity of the Circassian Beauty therefore seems in part to represent a Northern anxiety about racial mixing, particularly in regard to the anticipated effects of emancipation" (Frost 2005). The quote might help explain why the hundreds of Circassian beauties who popped up around the country were, in fact, not clearly white given that they always had large, bushy hair; nor were they clearly pure, given that Circassian beauties were also displayed in their undergarments.
The craze for Circassian beauties in the 1860s set the tone for consuming white women as sexual objects while simultaneously reinscribing them as racially and sexually pure. (The beauty had been saved from the beastliness of the Turks who would have sexually enslaved her.) The fact that the Circassian beauties were also clearly gaffs, that is, fakes, who spoke English, but had mysteriously forgotten their native tongue, was part of Barnum's general mode of display. In Barnum's freak shows, it was all completely true unless it was not, and then it was a good joke. This Barnumesque wink and nod was so thoroughly familiar to a Victorian audience, that the humor of burlesque was derived directly from Barnum and the American tradition of displaying bodies for fun and profit.
Thus as the striptease developed into the central component of burlesque, it was always mixed with the comedic, "just in good fun" character of earlier modes of display. By the 1920s and 1930s, burlesque was enjoying its golden age, with comedic starts such as Jackie Gleason (1916–1987), Red Skelton (1913–1997), and (Bud) Abbott (1897–1974) and (Lou) Costello (1906–1959) in addition to striptease legends such as fan dancer Sally Rand (1904–1979) or Gypsy Rose Lee (1914–1970), who paired stripping with highbrow recitation, making it both funny and sexy. However, as with many working-class pleasures, a moral panic developed among middle-class reformers about the supposed dangers of burlesque. In New York City, the center of burlesque, Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (1882–1947) managed to shut down the last of the remaining burlesque theaters by 1937. By then, many performers had moved from burlesque and vaudeville into the film industry. Those who did not make it in Hollywood moved from the theaters of burlesque to the backrooms of strip joints and into the two-dimensional spaces of illicit photograph and film.
Although in the 1970s there were still approximately 7,000 women working as stripteasers, the occupation was considered to be dirty and immoral, even by the performers themselves. Burlesque as a grand theatrical expression of working-class mockery of bourgeoisie prudishness was dead. As a ghost of its former self, stripping survived at the edges of so-called respectability, refusing to disappear. Yet, stripping could not be incorporated into popular culture the way other pieces of burlesque had been. Then, in the 1990s, just when cable television and satellite dishes made stripping and pornography as everyday as sitcoms, burlesque was reborn. The New Burlesque came out naughtier, more clearly critical of the ruling elites, and funny enough to make nearly everyone laugh. At the same time burlesque was being reborn, so were many of the other earlier forms of mass culture, such as freak shows and circuses. In part, people interested in live theater were interested in saving these dying art forms. In part, a post-feminist, post-politically correct, and highly ironic sensibility allowed people to both perform as freaks and hootchy-kootchy girls and simultaneously make fun of the racism and sexism that created these performances in the first place.
One of the best examples of this New Burlesque and its illegitimate marriage to the New Circus is the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus, a New York City troupe started in 1995 as a hybrid of vaudeville, circus, burlesque, and sideshow. Early Bindlestiff performances included classic burlesque routines, such as plate spinning, but the plates were spun not with fingers, but by attaching the pole to a dildo, inserting the dildo into the vagina of Ring Mistress Philomena (Stephanie Murano), and by the contraction of Philomena's kegel muscles. Other New Burlesque performers started showing up for regular Friday night performances at the Coney Island Sideshow, a traditional ten-in-one freak show started in 1983. Coney Island Friday night burlesque also included old burlesque routines, such as Dirty (Linda) Martini's fan dance, and bathing the dancers in red wine at the end and serving it to the audience after their bodies had been washed in it, a homage to an early twentieth-century Coney Island performer named Tirza.
These acts were not necessarily for the audience's unadulterated pleasure. Often New Burlesque was just as interested in invoking disgust as it was desire. For instance, Bambi, the Corn Star, would come out dressed like a chicken (itself a homage to Tod Browning's [1880–1962] classic 1932 horror film Freaks), squat, lay a hard-boiled egg out of her vagina, peel it, and force-feed it to an audience member. Across the country, in Los Angeles, Michelle Juliette Carr, creator of the Velvet Hammer Burlesque, was putting on shows with post-punk and postmodern performers of all shapes and sizes debating feminism and swilling champagne in G-strings and pasties. All this edgy performance occurred alongside a general critique of the government, capitalism, and greed as well as a variety of novelty acts from sword swallowing to playing music on tampon applicators.
Unlike the shocking burlesque of the Victorian era, or the sleazy burlesque of the early twentieth century, the New Burlesque has attracted a variety of middle-class fans, from artists, photographers, and performers, to academics and activists. It is both straight (the majority of acts are still performed by genetic females) and queer (the production of straight femininity is poked fun at, for instance, by female to female impersonator BOB). The audiences are mixed women and men, straight and queer. The New Burlesque is generally controlled by the women on stage (i.e., not necessarily exploitative) and it is not necessarily for profit (i.e., none of the performers are getting rich on burlesque).
If burlesque has come back to reintroduce the promise and pleasure of the striptease, it has also come back to reinvent that striptease as a way out of the messiness that seemingly comes along with flesh and desire. In a culture where there is an increasing demand that all bodies look the same and all female bodies be constantly on display, the New Burlesque puts women of all shapes, sizes, and bodily configurations on stage who can hootchy-kootchy even while they make fun of themselves and their audience for wanting them to perform. These are women able to laugh at femininity and the heterosexual imagination even while they celebrate it. Most importantly of all, it shows women who cannot liberate themselves from the chains of sexism and racism, but who can, nevertheless, twist and turn and even jump rope with those chains, all the while tying their audience into knots of painful laughter.
Allen, Robert C. 1991. Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Buszek, Maria-Elen. 1999. "Representing 'Awarishness': Burlesque, Feminist Transgression, and the Nineteenth-Century Pinup." TDR: The Drama Review 43(4): 164.
Essig, Laurie. 2005. "The Pleasure of Freaks." Proteus 22(2): 19-24.
Frost, Linda. 2005. Never One Nation: Freaks, Savages, and Whiteness in American Popular Culture, 1850–1877. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Kasson, John F. 1978. Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century. New York: Hill and Wang.
Latham, Angela J. 1997. "The Right to Bare: Containing and Encoding American Women in Popular Entertainments of the 1920s." Theatre Journal 49(4).
Skipper, James K., and Charles H. McCaghy. 1970. "Stripteasers: The Anatomy and Career Contingencies of a Deviant Occupation." Social Problems 17(3): 391-405.
"The Golden Days of Burlesque Historical Society." Available from http://www.burlesquehistory.com
BURLESQUE, a popular dramatic and literary form in which parody, coarseness, mockery, and innuendo provide many of the laughs, has a long history. Literary burlesque may be traced back to Greece, where dramas presented at festivals were sometimes satiric and received with joviality. Some of the earliest burlesques were Batrachomyomachia (The Battle of the Frogs and Mice), an anonymous burlesque of Homer, and the comedies of Aristophanes (fifth and fourth centuries b.c.). Burlesque evolved throughout Europe, always relying on satire and parody. Fifteenth-century Italian burlesque mocked chivalry, while seventeenth-century French burlesque portrayed the clash between the "moderns" and the "ancients." English burlesque was primarily dramatic, although it included some notable burlesque poems and prose. In the nineteenth century, English burlesque began to rely on pun as much as parody and it was this new, pun-filled burlesque, influenced by a rich history of satire and staging conventions, that was brought to America.
Burlesque, sometimes called "burleycue," came to the United States from England shortly after the Civil War in the form of variety shows that included dirty jokes, parody, and chorus girls performing "leg shows." One of the first, Lydia Thompson's British Blondes, sponsored by P. T. Barnum, toured the United States parodying, or burlesquing, current events and popular plays. Another popular show of the time was the High Rollers troupe's parody of Ben Hur, titled "Bend Her" and featuring female performers suggestively costumed as Roman warriors. In saloons, especially in the western territories, chorus girls who offered bawdy dance performances were sometimes known as "honky-tonk girls."
Many burlesque performers, especially comedians, moved into the similar but more respected form of entertainment known as vaudeville. Others went on to the films of Hollywood or the stages of Broadway. Al Jolson, Fanny Brice, Sophie Tucker, Bert Lahr, W. C. Fields, Mae West, Jackie Gleason, Bobby Clark, Phil Silvers, and Bob Hope began their careers in burlesque. Some burlesque striptease artists also graduated to stardom, most notably fan dancer Sally Rand and stripper Gypsy Rose Lee.
Although burlesque was always risqué, it was not originally merely striptease. In the 1920s, as new competition such as nightclubs and movies grew, the popularity of burlesque declined. In an effort to remain in business, burlesque houses evolved into soft-pornography strip shows. In 1937 Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia closed New York City's burlesque houses.
In 1979 the tradition and spirit of burlesque was honored on Broadway with the show Sugar Babies. The lavish production, starring Mickey Rooney and Ann Miller, featured chorus girls, classic songs, and the traditional risqué humor of burlesque.
Allen, Robert C. Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1991.
Lee, Gypsy Rose. Gypsy: A Memoir. Berkeley, Calif.: Frog, 1999.
Rothe, Len. The Bare Truth: Stars of Burlesque of the '40s and '50s. Altgen, Pa.: Schiffer, 1998.
See alsoVaudeville .
burlesque (bûrlĕsk´) [Ital.,=mockery], form of entertainment differing from comedy or farce in that it achieves its effects through caricature, ridicule, and distortion. It differs from satire in that it is devoid of any ethical element. The word first came into use in the 16th cent. in an opera of the Italian Francesco Berni, who called his works burleschi. Early English burlesque often ridiculed celebrated literary works, especially sentimental drama. Beaumont and Fletcher's Knight of the Burning Pestle (1613), Buckingham's The Rehearsal (1671), Gay's Beggar's Opera (1728), Fielding's Tom Thumb (1730), and Sheridan's Critic (1779) may be classed as dramatic burlesque. In the 19th cent. English burlesque depended less on parody of literary styles and models. H. J. Bryon was a major writer of the new, pun-filled burlesque. The extravaganza and burletta were forms of amusement similar to burlesque, the latter being primarily a musical production. They were performed in small theaters in an effort to evade the strict licensing laws that forbade major dramatic productions to these theaters. American stage burlesque (from 1865), often referred to as
began as a variety show, characterized by vulgar dialogue and broad comedy, and uninhibited behavior by performers and audience. Such stars as Al Jolson, W. C. Fields, Mae West, Fannie Brice, Sophie Tucker, Bert Lahr, and Joe Weber and Lew Fields began their careers in burlesque. About 1920 the term began to refer to the
show, which created its own stars, such as Gypsy Rose Lee; in c.1937 burlesque performances in New York City were banned. With the increase in popularity of nightclubs and movies, the burlesque entertainment died.
See studies by C. V. Clinton-Baddeley (1952, repr. 1974); R. P. Bond (1932, repr. 1964), and J. D. Jump (1972).
bur·lesque / bərˈlesk/ • n. 1. a parody or comically exaggerated imitation of something, esp. in a literary or dramatic work: the funniest burlesque of opera [as adj.] burlesque Shakespearean stanzas. ∎ humor that depends on comic imitation and exaggeration; absurdity: the argument descends into burlesque. 2. a variety show, typically including striptease: [as adj.] burlesque clubs. • v. (-lesques , -lesqued , -lesqu·ing ) [tr.] cause to appear absurd by parodying or copying in an exaggerated form: she struck a ridiculous pose that burlesqued her own vanity.