Time flies when you’re getting nothing done. So I will forgive you if you don’t believe me, but this weekend the Silent Comedy Watch Party will webcast its 50th edition, a year to the day since the first show, back at a time when we were just getting our heads around this new word “lockdown”. That’s a whole year in which our Sundays have been blessed by silent comedy, live music and erudite introductions courtesy Ben Model, Steve Massa, and friends.
Silent London couldn’t let a milestone like that pass without a chat, and Ben and Steve were kind enough to take part in an interview with me, socially distanced at a range of around 3,500 miles.
Congratulations on a year of webcasting live silent film and music shows from your homes. It’s an awesome achievement. My first question has to be: why did you start the Silent Comedy Watch Party?
Ben Model: I’d played a weekend of shows in Nebraska and came home – then two days later things started shutting down and all my gigs were cancelled. I thought of the people who’d have gone to them who were now at home and couldn’t. I’d had the concept for the show in my head for a few years but with all silent film showings cancelled, this seemed like the moment to give it a shot. The tech of it worked, thankfully, and even more overwhelming was the response we got on socials and in emails.
Steve Massa: Since all our live shows were suddenly cancelled it seemed like the perfect way to stay in touch with the silent comedy universe. Ben told me he thought that we could technically do it and asked what I thought. Of course I was onboard immediately. Once we started we discovered how therapeutic laughter really is, and it became a mission to provide a little needed relief during the pandemic.
Did you ever think it was too much to take on? The work involved, all the technical challenges?
SM: This is really a question for Ben as he’s producer, technical director, film historian and accompanist. In addition to co-hosting, I gather the photos and information on the films, but he’s got the real burden of technically making the shows happen.
BM: Yes. Every week. But also, where was I going? Where was anybody going? The responses we got on socials and emails from day one were so moving, that’s what’s kept me going. No matter what the tech issues I’ve dealt with have been – and thi sis the thing my wife Mana keeps reminding me – there are hundreds of people out there who count on the show being there, for the laughs they need to get through all this.
I’ve developed an even greater respect for projectionists – what I’m doing tech-wise is pretty much like what happens in a booth during a show. And I’m doing that while I’m also hosting and accompanying, plus the factor of functioning as the tech director of a small TV studio.
Why did you two decide to collaborate? How long have you known each other?
BM: We’ve known each other since 1997 when Steve showed up at a Silent Clowns Film Series screening. We’ve been collaborating on silent comedy film stuff going back to a two-month Arbuckle retrospective we did for the Museum of Modern Art in 2006 together with MoMA’s Ron Magliozzi. We’ve done other programming for MoMA, and done shows together at the Library of Congress, and worked on the DVDs I’ve been releasing. Co-hosting anything is easier for me if there’s two of us, so I can mentally catch my breath after playing for a film. So having the Silent Comedy Watch Party be a Ben & Steve programme was a natural extension of all that.
SM: We started working together 25 years ago, and have done shows at the Museum of Modern Art, Library of Congress, Bristol Slapstick, the AFI Silver, and tons of other places. Plus there are the many DVD projects we’ve put out. It’s been a good fit.
If anyone reading this hasn’t tuned in yet, tell us what is so special about the Silent Comedy Watch Party?
SM: I think it’s a friendly place to tune into, get some laughs, and hopefully for a time forget all the craziness that’s swirling around us.
BM: There’s something special and unique about the laughter you have from watching a silent comedy. Because you’re literally getting the jokes, assembling parts of them in your right brain, it’s a more satisfying and therapeutic kind of laughter. The other part is the informality and intimacy of the format. From day one my idea wasn’t to try and replicate an in-cinema show in the virtual realm, it was to make it feel like we Steve and I and the folks watching were visiting and watching old movies together in our homes. That’s why I have that pan me at the piano up to the film projected and then back afterwards. As pioneering TV comedian Ernie Kovacs, put it, the medium of television is an intimate vacuum.
What was the most challenging episode to produce?
BM: Besides the first one? Every few months we have a show that is challenging to produce, usually because of some digital-tech-bandwidth gremlin I haven’t quite learned to navigate or some aspect of YouTube’s “Content ID” digital fingerprinting system. I’ve learned a lot – a LOT – about how livestreaming works, and am still learning. And I’m still thinking of other things to try.
SM: I think the most challenging was the recent episode where we had both Serge Bromberg and Rob Stone as our guests. When you multiply the number of people involved it just ups the ante on the possibility for things to go wrong (but everything worked smoothly).
What have you learned from a year of Silent Comedy Watch Party?
BM: I’ve picked up a lot about digital video and live-streaming tech, and my piano-tuning skills are less rusty, that’s for sure. I’ve learned something about the human condition, about what entertainment can mean to people living through a crisis or through a long and difficult period.
SM: We’ve learned how truly important and therapeutic laughter is. Also how important it is to bring the films to people around the world who don’t live near a big city where they can see films like these live.
Which has been your favourite show, or the one you were proudest of creating?
BM: That’s hard to say. We’ve had pretty basic shows with a pair of two-reelers that just went over really well and gotten amazing comments, and there’s also the high-wire act of having multiple guests on. I think the programme we did with Ina Archer where we were showcasing Ernie Morrison was particularly good, and it was an important one as well. It’s not easy finding silent comedy shorts with Black performers in them where they’re not merely a stereotyped punchline, and Morrison’s role in the Our Gang shorts was anything but that. Hal Roach built Our Gang around Morrison, which most people don’t know.
SM: I love doing the show, so every week is really a treat, but my favorite episode is where we did a tribute to the late Eileen Bowser. Eileen had been head of MoMA’s Department of Film and an officer in FIAF, and was a mentor to both of us. She had just passed away at 91 in December of 2019, so it meant a great deal to do a remembrance of her life and career.
The Silent Comedy Watch Party is wonderful for championing lesser-known comedians. If there were one talent you’d love more people to know about, who would it be?
BM: Marcel Perez has been a revelation for both of us. He was an exceptionally gifted physical comedian and a talented director as well. Plus, during a time when most people in show business might have traded a Hispanic/LatinX surname for something more Anglicized, he was always credited in his US-made films as Marcel Perez.
SM: Over the past few years Ben and I have spent a lot of time promoting Marcel Perez and Alice Howell. But lately I’d love audiences to know more about Wanda Wiley and Mr. & Mrs. Carter De Haven. We’ve shown both on the Watch Party and have gotten tremendous response. The main problem with getting the word out on them is that there are few surviving films available. But of course, putting focus on them may help more of their films to turn up.
What can we expect from your anniversary show on 21 March?
SM: For the anniversary show we’re going to re-show a couple of our early favorites, and a new Wanda Wiley rarity. We’re also going to have some surprises that involve our Watch Party family.
Cinemas are reopening … what are you most looking forward to about IRL screenings?
BM: Not being the projection booth and the accompanist at the same time! I’ll miss doing these shows with my wife – who’s seen more silent film in the last 12 months than she had in our entire marriage – I do miss just walking to the piano and waiting for the film to start. I also think it will be fun to get to meet people who’ve been watching the Silent Comedy Watch Party whom I’ve never seen.
SM: To have the in-person give-and-take with our audiences, and be able to hear their laughter at the films.
What other projects do you both have in the pipeline?
SM: I have a few online programmes coming up for places like the Niles Film Museum, but there are two main projects. The first is the DVD of Edward Everett Horton silent comedies that Ben and I are putting out through his Undercrank Productions. These are two-reel shorts made in 1927 and 1928 that star Horton and were produced by no less than Harold Lloyd. People don’t think of silent comedy when they think of Mr Horton, but he actually had a substantial career in silent films, and this series of shorts is part of the final peak of silent slapstick along with the films of Laurel & Hardy and Max Davidson.
BM: We are in the final throes of production on the Edward Everett Horton silent comedies DVD project. The scores have been recorded, the digital restoration is nearly complete, and we are hoping to be able to release this to the public during the summer. I have a few other DVD projects in mind, but it’s too early to divulge anything.
SM: The other project is my new book Lame Brains and Lunatics 2: More Good, Bad, and Forgotten of Silent Comedy. This a sequel to my first book, Lame Brains and Lunatics, with new essays on more overlooked aspects and people of silent comedy. The book will be out sometime in the middle of 2022, and so far includes pieces on the silent comedy animal stars, the influence of the English music hall on Hollywood slapstick, the careers of the directors Leo McCarey and Edward Luddy, the series The Mishaps of Musty Suffer, and a history of Christie Comedies.
And will the Silent Comedy Watch Party have a life after lockdown?
SM: I think the answer is definitely yes – but just not every week.
BM: I expect that as we all gradually resume whatever we were able to do in whatever safe way we’re able to over the coming months, the Silent Comedy Watch Party may gradually move to a twice-a-month format, and even to being just monthly. But I don’t anticipate it ending – we’ve connected so many people of all ages around the planet with the fun and wonder of experiencing silent movies with live musical accompaniment, and we know many of those fans can’t experience this any other way because of where they live.
• Catch up with the Silent Comedy Watch Party here, and tune in on Sunday for the 50th edition!
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