For classic comedy fans in lockdown, The Silent Comedy Watch Party provides a weekly ray of sunshine. This wonderful weekly live streaming event takes place every Sunday on YouTube and is the brain child of Silent film accompanist and historian Ben Model and author/historian Steve Massa.
Presenting three comedy shorts with Ben’s terrific piano accompaniment and Steve’s insightful intros (streamed in via FaceTime), the watch parties make for wonderful viewing and are preserving the essence of live silent cinema in the most difficult circumstances. They are especially a joy for those outside of the US, who wouldn’t normally get to see the shows put on by Ben & Steve!
Ben very kindly took the time to give some insight into the shows for us:
The Lost Laugh: Hi, Ben! Thanks so much for taking the time to answer these questions. Can you tell us a little about the silent comedy watch party and how the idea for the shows came about?
Ben: I’ve had the idea to do a live-streamed silent film show for a few years, actually. I was always reticent to take the plunge and give it a shot because my main interest is in promoting attendance at shows. I didn’t want to do something that would make staying home from an art house or museum or whatever palatable. Then the week of March 8th I watch all my gigs topple like dominoes, gradually over the course of a week. One thing that occurred to me was that a cancelled show meant two things: that I wasn’t going to do a show and, maybe more importantly, that each of those shows meant 50 or 100 or 400 people weren’t going to get to see that silent film they were looking forward to.
I already had all the bits of equipment I needed, tech-wise. Some I had picked up in my recent years’ interest in iPhone filmmaking, and some I’d had for a while. And I had this light-bulb moment where all the puzzle pieces came together in my head — including the fact that my YouTube account was approved for live-streaming — and I decided to give it a shot. The response has been, frankly, moving. Even from the first test pilot show we did on March 15. Folks had been in their homes a week already and were looking at movie theaters and more shutting down, knowing they wouldn’t be going out for movies for a while.
This became more than a replacement for a live show for people, almost immediately. It meant so much more to people who were watching, to be able to go into that crazy universe of silent film comedy to laugh and get relief from what everyone is going through.
Have there been any challenges in setting up and performing these live streaming events?
Most of it came together for the first show, and we’ve just gotten used to the routine of it. My wife and I practically have to have a sign-up sheet to figure out what function our living room will be at any given moment, since we’re both teaching our university courses, and having Zoom meetings and coffee klatsches and phone calls. My wife’s a musical theater educator and performer, and hasn’t done camera work like this before, but she’s gotten the hang of it pretty well.
I’m looking at a few different softwares that allow you to bring in a second performer or guest in a split screen, and to feed the video signal directly into the streamed feed. We want to keep the informal and home-made feel, of course, but if there’s an opportunity to tidy up some of the presentation so parts of it look and sound better, I’d like to head in that direction. I’m getting close, testing out one particular program, and we’ll see if I can get it to do what I want.
It’s also given me an opportunity to try and keep the piano in some semblance of being in tune, and I tidy it up every week or two.
Programming the shows hasn’t been too difficult. Steve Massa and I have programmed lots of comedy shorts shows over the years at MoMA. We’ve been very fortunate in the cooperation we’ve gotten from the people who’ve released these films on DVD or online as far as permissions, like Kino Lorber, Milestone Films, the EYE Filmmuseum, and Lobster Films and the Blackhawk Collection. Between that and the great responses we’ve had to films with really obscure comedians from my Undercrank Prods releases, we’re like kids in a candy store.
How do you go about creating the music for the films you accompany?
Most of it’s improvised, like it is at a regular show. What’s different for me, and it took me about 2 or 3 shows to realize this, that I’m playing for someone who’s six feet away. I’d initially been playing like I was at a theater, and I had to remind myself to dial it back. I was already doing this in my intros, trying to talk like the person watching was in the room with me. It’s like doing radio, where you are performing for an audience of 1. It’s what Ernie Kovacs referred to as “an intimate vacuum”, where it’s just you and the person at home, and you don’t have to project or have a bigger energy.
Can you remember your first encounter with silent film? What was it that hooked you in?
I can’t remember it — my parents tell me I discovered Charlie Chaplin on TV when I was a toddler. Back in the 1960s the Chaplin comedies were on TV in the daytime, and that’s what got me hooked. For some kids it’s trains or construction equipment or zoo animals; for me it was silent comedies.
Looking ahead to the world beyond lockdown… Have you thought about continuing with some live streaming events once we’re on the other side?
You know, I’ve gotten emails and social media comments from people all over the world about the show, people for whom there wasn’t a place for them to go see silent film with live music before March 8th. Initially I’d figured I’d stop once the cinemas opened up again and public gatherings resumed. But I’ve realized, from connecting with so many people who are watching every week, that this is the show with live music they can attend. I don’t know that I’ll be able to continue on a weekly basis — ordinarily, I have shows a two or three times a month on Sunday afternoons — but I think I’d consider continuing the live-streamed shows in some way.
You’ve also produced some fantastic DVDs through your label Undercrank Productions, including the ACCIDENTALLY PRESERVED series, and recent volumes of Alice Howell & Douglas MacLean films. Do you have any plans for future DVDs that you can share?
I had about a half dozen projects percolating when everything shut down in March. Until everyone can go back to work and films can get pulled, inspected and scanned, there’s no sense in talking about anything. At the moment, the companies that do DVD duplication are still duplicating, and the MOD company I work with is still MOD-ing for orders that come in on Amazon, TCM Shop, DeepDiscount et al. I do have one project that could actually move ahead, but I need to wait at least a month before I can consider launching a Kickstarter for it, and it’s another bunch of silent comedy shorts that haven’t been available to the public since they were in release in the 1920s. (It’s not Hank Mann, though.)
You can find out more about the shows, and the link to the latest episode (8pm CDT, 3pm GMT) here:
Why not support the shows by becoming a patron on Patreon?
Or you could buy one of the many great DVDs from Ben’s label Undercrank Productions! I especially recommend the Marcel Perez and Alice Howell collections! Real gifts to fans of obscure silent comedy.
Steve Massa has also produced several wonderful books. No self-respecting silent comedy shelf should be without LAME BRAINS AND LUNATICS, SILENT COMEDY DIVAS, or his newest opus, REDISCOVERING ROSCOE: THE FILMS OF FATTY ARBUCKLE (These also come in extremely reasonably priced kindle editions if postage is a problem for you at the moment).
Huge thanks again to Ben for answering this Q & A -and of course for putting on the shows and helping to spread the laughter in these trying times! It really is a wonderful idea.
Finally, here’s last week’s show for you to view, while you wait for Sunday to roll around!