Thursday, July 8, 2010

Time's Prop Arrow

They have perhaps at no time ceased, but that will never be known, they are, after a while, so easily lost: and one hears them once again with a quiet sort of surprise, that only slowly becomes the realization, or near certainty, that they have been there all the while.

James Agee
Let Us Now Praise Famous Men

Accident, synergy, karmic alignment, or a random moment in fleeting time: hearing Jack Benny's radio show from the 1940s was an unexpected but beautiful surprise. Over a year ago, a friend in LA sent me several CDs filled with Benny's brilliance, and I stored them in my iPod and forgot they were there. Last night during the blue collar gig, the strains of "Love in Bloom" filled my head as Don Wilson introduced Benny and special guest Fred Allen. My mood instantly lightened, and not even the yuppie narcissists I clean after could sully the feeling.

Benny and Allen played a bad vaudeville team begging for work; and while naturally funny (seasoned with Benny cracking up on mike to Allen's ad libs), it tied right into the vaudeville mindset I've been in for the past week. In The Jazz Singer's DVD set, there's a bonus disc featuring vaudeville acts filmed on the Vitaphone soundstage in the late-1920s. For many, it was probably the largest audience they ever reached, with a few exceptions, like George Burns and Gracie Allen, who do their well-known-at-the-time "Lambchops" routine. Their timing is subtle and sharp, polished by countless performances before god knows how many audiences. Burns and Allen are a delight to watch, even if some of their jokes are from another world. For me, that adds to the pleasure.

These vaudeville acts spoke a lost language and moved at a different speed. Not slower per se, though compared to today's CGI mindfuck they're practically in marble. They possessed a casual energy that crackled when needed, but eased back into set-ups and exchanges with no trace of effort. The comedians were especially adept at this, gliding from puns to slapstick to songs, their timing fluid and intact throughout. There's also a lot of fake bumbling and acting like sorry amateurs who belong nowhere near a stage. Again, this is all precisely rendered, establishing a form that Albert Brooks and Andy Kaufman later made their own. I don't know of any contemporary comedian who does this, as phony badness might be seen as the real thing. Too much "reality" programming has killed it off. People prefer their shit to be genuine, not conceptual. The essence of democracy.

This isn't nostalgia. All of these acts predate me by decades. But my love of and appreciation for performance, primarily comedy, places me right inside their world where I can almost touch the scenery and smell stale cigar smoke. These energetic ghosts pay me no mind as they repeatedly go through their paces. To some that may sound like hell, but for these performers, as long as there's interest, they have a steady engagement.