When you read “pigmeat,” you probably think of bacon–the breakfast meat or Kevin. But today’s funny name is no strip nor link nor patty; today we discover comedian, singer, actor, and dancer Dewey “Pigmeat” Markham (April 18, 1904 – December 13, 1981). And yes, there is “ham” in his last name. Can you ever have too much pork?
Born in North Carolina (a state famous for pulled pork), his nickname came from a stage routine, in which he declared himself to be “Sweet Poppa Pigmeat.”
Incidentally, if you were wondering what his Bacon number was (the degrees of separation from his movie career to Kevin Bacon’s), it’s 3.
Pigmeat began his career in traveling music and burlesque shows, running away from home at the age of just 14. He took up with a white showman referred to as “Mr. Booker” who “came over to us before the show with a can of Stein’s burnt-cork and showed us how to put it on in front of the mirror.” After working in a “gully” (girly) show, he toured across the South with carnivals and medicine shows.
According to Last Man in Blackface: The World of Pigmeat Markham by Kliph Nesteroff:
Pigmeat adopted a variety of monikers, including David Markham, Dewey Markham, Dewey Alamo, Black Rock or Rock Markham. “Pigmeat,” it has been said, was slang for “young stuff” – as in “jail bait.” He settled on the handle after performing in Gonzelle White’s Traveling Show. The name Pigmeat was…the name of a character in one of the comic skits. Markham took it with him when he left; and he took it into the big time.
The “big time” included becoming one of The Apollo’s most frequent performers. In the 1940s, he started making film appearances.
In the 1950’s, Pigmeat performed his “Heyeah (here) come da judge” signature routine on Ed Sullivan’s show. Mocking the formal courtroom atmosphere, Pigmeat would sit at a judge’s bench (in a black graduation cap-and-gown), and pass down “judgments” on criminals. Frustrated with the accused, he would often lean over the bench and smack them with an inflated bladder-balloon.
I know. That sounds super crazy.
“It’s a real bladder,” Pigmeat explained. “Someone at a slaughterhouse picks them up for me. I tried many things, but this is the only thing that gives me that real good sound when it crashes on someone’s head.”
Pigmeat’s daughter Kathy admitted, “He would bring several bladders home, soak them in water overnight, grease them up with Vaseline. [He] had a pump contraption that inflated the prepared bladder.” (http://blog.wfmu.org/).
Pigmeat’s most famous routine was “discovered” by the general public after Sammy Davis, Jr. performed it as a guest on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In television show. Soon his routine’s entry line become a catchphrase on the show, as did his phrase “Look that up in your Funk and Wagnalls.” Ironically, most white audiences had been unfamiliar with Pigmeat until then, as he had almost exclusively performed on the “chitlin’ circuit” of vaudeville, theatres, and night clubs. Chitlins=pig intestines=more pork. My apologies to any vegetarians.