Frank Tinney | The Rise and Fall of America’s Most Racist Comedian

There is nothing better than ringing in the New Year with laughter and good cheer. But be careful who and what you choose to laugh at – not every joke is told with the best of intentions. Indeed, the final week of 2023 was bookended by the release of two highly contentious stand-up comedy specials on Netflix. Both Ricky Gervais’ Armageddon and Dave Chappelle’s The Dreamer have been received with intense criticism for their flippant treatments of terminally ill children and the transgender community, respectively. On social media and in the press, there have been widespread accusations that these comedians are punching down on vulnerable people with crass humour and insensitivity. In turn, the usual battle cry of “YOU CAN’T MAKE JOKES ABOUT ANYTHING ANYMORE!!!” has been echoed time and time again by conservative commentators in the media.

But such controversy is actually nothing new. Comedians have always made headlines. Sometimes for the right reasons – pushing artistic boundaries, breaking new creative ground, defending democratic principles – and sometimes for the wrong ones. People have been arguing about what’s right and what’s wrong since long before the term cancel culture was in use.

You probably haven’t ever heard of Frank Tinney before, but silent film star Buster Keaton once called him an even greater comedian than Charlie Chaplin (My Wonderful World of Slapstick, Keaton, 1960 – pg. 126). That’s a pretty lofty claim! So how did somebody like Tinney earn a place of such esteem in the minds of his colleagues in show business? And how did one of the biggest stars of his time end up all but forgotten in the annals of entertainment history? Well, no matter how skilled a performer Tinney may have actually been, it is clear to us in retrospect that his act was racist and offensive. He was primarily known for his work as a blackface comedian and he began his career as a performer in a travelling minstrel show before making the leap to vaudeville and Broadway. As a young man, he reached the highest heights of success. And then… Well, his personal life became somewhat messy.

Let’s take a deep dive into Tinney’s career and see what we can learn about the dark side of show business in the early twentieth century.


Tinney was born in Philadelphia in 1878 to first generation Irish-American parents. In the United States at this time, working-class Irish Catholic immigrants like the Tinneys were looked down upon by their WASP neighbours. They faced social barriers when applying for jobs and the phrase No Irish Need Apply was a common addendum to advertisements for vacant positions. On stage, they were ridiculed as thick Paddys and drunken Micks in exaggerated pantomime. But for better or for worse, performers have always had to reckon with the changing tides of public and opinion. Case in point, Mr. Frank Tinney. through their own cruel mocking of African Americans, Irish performers like Frank Tinney shifted this negative attention away from themselves and onto others.

In his essay ‘Paddy Jumps Jim Crow’, Robert Nowatzki argues that it was through their participation in stage minstrelsy that the Irish purchased their status as white people in America. Unfortunately, the racism of Irish-Americans against their black countrymen took more violent forms too. The New York City draft riots of 1863 came as a direct result of Irish immigrants protesting against the American Civil War and led to the deaths of up to 120 innocent civilians, most of them black — including eleven men hanged in public over five days.

The riot remains the deadliest in US history.

In 1910 Frank Tinney made his New York debut in a vaudeville revue. Over the following fourteen years he performed in many Broadway hits and appeared onstage in the famous Ziegfeld Follies. He took just a brief break from his stage career to serve as a captain in the army during the First World War. In 1919 the performer appeared in perhaps his most significant show yet, a musical comedy called Tickle Me. It opened with a short skit in which Tinney appeared as his usual blackface alter ego — before abandoning the role to appear in character as a Hollywood producer for the rest of the musical. He dropped his old blackface routine from his act altogether when the show concluded its run.

His profile grew as his success continued and he was able to demand up to $1,500 per week for his act. His name appeared often in the pages of the press. Hilariously, a New York Times clipping from 1920 notes that Tinney had helped recapture a live turkey that had flown out the window of a moving taxi cab. The comedian appeared in at least two silent films during this period, one called ‘The Governor’s Boss’ and another called ‘Broadway After Dark’. He also recorded a short novelty record which can still be heard today on Youtube.

In 1924 both Frank Tinney’s career and his marriage came to a controversial end. In May of that year, Tinney was arrested at his home in Long Island for assaulting his girlfriend Imogene Wilson. Wilson was a dancer in the ‘Ziegfeld Follies’ and the comedian had begun a secret relationship with her while she was still just a young teenager. It was not until Tinney’s arrest that his wife Edna Davenport discovered the affair. Despite the fact that Wilson was covered in bruises, a grand jury found Tinney innocent of her assault and accused the young woman of seeking publicity.

By August Tinney and Wilson had resumed their abusive relationship. But the comedian’s violent temper reared its ugly head again that month when he attacked a press photographer and destroyed his camera after he and Wilson were photographed leaving a nightclub together. Within twenty-four hours, his wife filed for divorce while he set sail for England. It was in London that Wilson finally ended her relationship with Tinney and left him to pursue a career in the film industry. When the comedian returned alone to New York, his old friends turned their backs on him and he discovered that his popularity had plummeted.

Tinney briefly moved back in with his wife but his attempts to save his marriage failed and he was forced to sell his house to pay Davenport an expensive settlement. Furthermore, he was unable to achieve the great comeback he so desperately needed to make a living on stage again. By 1926 he was suffering from a series of health issues after an injury to his ribs sustained during a fall — and he soon experienced a terrible mental breakdown. He was forced to move in with his father back in Philadelphia and later sought shelter in a veterans’ home on Long Island. It was there that Tinney died in 1940 at the age of just sixty-two. By this time, he had lost all his wealth to legal troubles and medical bills. Nevertheless, he was given a military funeral and his death was noted in the newspapers. Charlie Chaplin would later say that his film Limelight was partly inspired by Tinney’s life story. (My Autobiography, Chaplin, 1964. pg. 257)

It can be difficult to separate the art from the artist, especially with something like stand-up comedy, where the performers themselves are an intrinsic part of what is presented on stage. Even something as deeply personal as a song can be covered and reclaimed. When Rick Astley teamed up with Blossoms for a tribute to The Smiths at Glastonbury last year, Jenessa Williams noted in The Guardian that there was none of the “moral queasiness” that would be found amongst fans at a Morrissey gig. That is to say, there was no need for anybody to feel any guilt or to question their own ethics. Astley and his erstwhile backing band carried none of the baggage that Moz himself would have. And the show was arguably a success because of that as much as anything else.

But comedians cannot cover each other’s material. It’s often said that it’s not the joke that counts, it’s how you tell it. And it’s true. A performer’s routines are always personal to him, though not necessarily in an autobiographical sense. Rather, the choices they make in their delivery – their inflections, their gestures, their tone of their voice, their subject matter – are theirs alone. So too are the choices they make in their lives off stage. And choices have consequences. The culture wars are nothing new. Show business has always been dominated by controversy. Changing tastes have shifted the goal posts, sure, but this can only be a good thing. Frank Tinney’s blackface act was a sensation in his time but it would never pass muster on a modern stage. With so much public outcry following them already, will Dave Chappelle and Ricky Gervais find their material similarly taboo in years to come? Only time will tell.

Featured Image: The Governor’s Boss (1915), starring Frank Tinney. Credit