The Comedy Wife
If you’re a comedy aficionado, you know all about Moms Mabley, the mother of modern stand-up. But you may not know about the comedy duo who discovered her—Butterbeans and Susie.
Susie Hawthorne was a young blues singer and actress when she met singer-dancer Jodie Edwards in the Black touring revue “The Smart Set.”
In 1917, Susie and Jodie married on stage as part of a publicity stunt for which they received fifty dollars, and they began performing together regularly.
The same year, comedian Butler “Stringbeans” May died. He and his wife, Sweetie, had been a popular comedy duo on the T.O.B.A. (Theatre Owners Booking Association, aka Black Vaudeville, aka “Tough on Black Asses”).
A promoter approached Susie and Jodie and asked them to take over Stringbeans and Sweetie’s act. Jodie adopted the stage name “Butterbeans,” and the couple became known as Butterbeans and Susie.
This new duo was a big hit. Butterbeans and Susie sang and danced like they always did, but now they had the added bonus of jokes centered on their marital dynamic.
Their humor could be brutal, with rough insults and threats of violence—a far cry from their happy marriage offstage. Butterbeans played the role of henpecked husband, and Susie was the overbearing wife. Given white people’s penchant for cultural appropriation (aka stealing), it should be no surprise that versions of Butterbeans and Susie’s signature bickering appeared later in comedy acts like Burns and Allen and the TV show The Honeymooners.
When they weren’t hating on each other, Butterbeans and Susie got downright raunchy. They sang “dirty blues” filled with raw sexual innuendo. When they began to record some of their songs in the 1920s, their record label refused to release Susie's suggestive number “I Want a Hot Dog for My Roll.” Yes, that song is about exactly what you think it’s about. And it rhymes “disgusted” with “mustard,” which is one of the most hilarious lyrical choices of all time.
In the early 1920s, Butterbeans and Susie discovered a young comedian called Moms Mabley on the T.O.B.A. She was making $12 a week, which they thought was too low for such a stand-out talent. They gave her guidance and helped her get access to better venues like the Cotton Club. By the height of her fame, Moms Mabley was making $10,000 a week at the Apollo.
After a long and successful performing and recording career, Susie died in 1963. Her daughter took over the act until Butterbeans died onstage while performing in 1967.