When the Silent Comedy Watch Party launched in March of 2020, film accompanist Ben Model and film historian Steve Massa weren’t sure how long it would last but they had a goal in mind: lift the spirits of classic comedy fans around the world with century-old films. The weekly series features expert commentary from Model, Massa and expert guests, as well as live piano accompaniment and has been a bright spot in a tragic year.
As the show neared its one-year anniversary and 50th episode, Model and Massa were kind enough to chat with me via Skype and tell me about their adventures in livestreaming. The conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Ben: The shutdown had just happened, and nobody knew where this was going or for how long, but it clearly wasn’t going to be over quick. And I thought of all the people who couldn’t go to shows now, and I’d had the concept and tech for this already — and decided to do a pilot show to see what the response would be like. Well, we got a response all right, not so much the numbers but people who were telling us this was helping them de-stress.
The lockdown orders were beginning to be issued and people were stressed and scared, so offering them relief through laughter was important. And, even better, the New York-based streamed shows were available to fans who may have never seen a silent film with live accompaniment. Fans watch from Hungary, Poland, Sweden, Argentina, Japan and more.
Steve: We’re getting people globally. We get emails from people from Brazil and Moscow and all these places where, of course, they’d never be able to see us.
Ben: Yeah, and there are people who live in countries where there might be silent film screenings, but they themselves don’t live nearby. People who haven’t had a chance to experience silent film with live music at all. I remember the first month we got an email from a family is sitting in a farmhouse in Ireland with their TV in their living room having a good time.
Steve: As a rule, at a show in New York we have anywhere from 200 to, tops, 400 people, whether it’s at MoMA or Library for the Performing Arts. This is so much more than that.
With audiences regularly in the thousands, the Silent Comedy Watch Party is a rousing success. While fans may have initially come for big names like Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd or Roscoe Arbuckle, Model and Massa see their events as an opportunity to showcase forgotten talents and win over new fans.
Ben: There’s a lot of discoveries that people are like, “Oh my god, I can’t believe I’ve never heard of so-and-so.” Wanda Wiley, I think had the most enthusiastic response. “When are we going to see more of her stuff?” And so, we’re going to show another Wanda Wiley comedy.
Steve: Gale Henry, Alice Howell, Wanda Wiley. Hank Mann’s gotten huge response as well.
Ben: We’ve shown a couple of Marcel Perez comedies.
Steve: Oh, and Mr. and Mrs. Carter deHaven got a lot of response too.
Ben: It may not be a specific star, we showed a film last week called A Fraternity Mixup, which is so absolutely insane and people just really loved it. It’s completely obscure, but it got such a reaction. We’ve shown two Harry Langdon comedies and people have enjoyed seeing him as well.
Steve: Yeah, and we always try to have what we refer to as a headliner, you know, someone like Chaplin or Keaton or Harold Lloyd, which is a little bit of a hook, but then we get in the mostly-overlooked people or get films that maybe don’t have a big star, but, like A Fraternity Mixup, are really funny.
Ben: Yeah, you have something that’s a draw. It’s kind of a mix. We want Chaplin and Keaton and Arbuckle and Chase and Lloyd. It is a mix but now that we have established a pattern like “Okay, we’re going to have a Chaplain Mutual or Essanay once a month. We have a Keaton short once a month.
And the program is in no danger of running out of content. The Silent Comedy Watch Party has sourced films from personal collections, the Library of Congress, the EYE Film Museum, the Danish Film Institute, etc. Model’s experience as a producer of home media editions of silent films has also been a help on the technical side of the series.
Steve: People have been extremely generous as far as permission.
Ben: Between making up discs and and files for shows also producing DVDs, it’s just something I don’t really have a problem with it. And, like Steve says, we’ve been very fortunate in the number of people who said yes.
Steve: And we wouldn’t be able to do this show if it weren’t for Ben’s knowhow. He’s really the tech director and he’s enabled everything to happen.
Ben: I am also functioning as a small television studio using software on my Mac.
Steve: Well, you’re basically doing the functions of three people. You’re the director, you’re the accompanist and you’re a film historian all at the same time.
Ben: On top of this, Steve’s wife and my wife are functioning as stage managers, co-piloting this show by text, sending messages to me or Steve when there are things we forgot to mention or the sound goes off.
Steve: My wife, Susan, is watching it live online so she can see what it looks like to the audience.
Ben: Sometimes I’ll be playing the piano with one hand while trying to troubleshoot something or watching the laptop. It’s kind of like a Charlie Bowers short.
Model and Massa are out to show their audience a good time with their comedy selections but during the lockdown, they developed a more serious mission.
Ben: This is way more than just showing funny old movies. In the second month, somebody emailed us and said, “A friend of mine is in a rehabilitation center and I go over to there and I hold the laptop up to the window because I can’t go in.
There’s this huge virtual audience who tune in live, and while we’re doing the live-stream we’re aware that there’s four or five hundred or more people watching simultaneously around the planet at the same time. We can’t hear everyone laughing but we know they are, out there somewhere, and that there’s something about that helping people laugh that’s helping them get through what they’re going through.
Steve: It really helps structure the week, which be a little free floating sometimes.
Ben: It’s 45 minutes of film and 45 minutes of talks but the people really look forward to this every week. I think that’s the main thing for me.
Steve: We’ve been incredibly lucky.
Ben: This is also why we put this show up for free instead of putting it behind a paywall.
Steve: It’s really trying to be more of a service. It’s really just to get the films out there and give people a reason to laugh because we all need it.
Here’s to more laughs for everyone thanks to new technology and old motion pictures.
One one-year anniversary show will livestream on March 21, 2021 at 3:00 p.m. ET. You can catch up on past episodes and watch the livestream of the Silent Comedy Watch Party on Ben Model’s YouTube channel. Model’s home video label, Undercrank Productions, has a complete catalog listing on its website. Massa’s excellent book, Rediscovering Roscoe: The Films of Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, can be purchased here.
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