Cruel & Unusual: shows #1 – #4

Our first four Cruel and Unusual Comedy shows at MoMA have gone extremely well. We’ve had great houses – I’d guestimate 200+ people, and lots of new (and younger!) faces – at every program. Eileen Bowser came to our first show, and will be guest speaker at our last show on June 1st. It’s the automobile program, which she spoke at when we did our class in Nov/Dec; when we were coming up with show concepts we wanted Eileen to speak and, at the time, was writing something about Mack Sennett and Henry Ford, and Sennett’s adopting the assembly-line production techniques of the automobile factory. So that became one of our shows.

The films have gotten lots of laughs, especially the last two. The Gratuitous Violence and Kids and Animals programs have a lot more out-and-out slapstick in them than the drag and race programs’ films did. The Violence show went extremely well, with Mack Sennett frying Ford Sterling in the electric chair and Paul Parrott and Kalla Pasha attacking each other and vomiting being big hits.

We’ve had great publicity as well, with Dave Kehr mentioning the series at the top of his regular Thursday “Film Series and Movie Listings” column two weeks in a row, plus the Village Voice, and several blogs including the Sundance Channel’s.

Musically, it’s been a little trying but having survived every single Slapsticon I’ve gotten used to playing for several programs of non-stop slapstick. During the pause between each film, if I haven’t come up with something beforehand as a main theme to weave through the score for a short, something will either pop into my head in a split-second or sometime I just put my hands on the keys and a tune just comes out. Often I’ll try to create a melody that fits the rhythm of how you’d say the title of the film, as if a piece of popular sheet music had come from/for the film. [My score for The Wonders of Magnetism on the Edison set uses a theme that goes “Tho-o-o-ma-a-as ED-i-son…hey, he’s a real smart guy!”]

Sometimes, because there are only so many things one can do with comedy music, a familiar melody accidentally gets improvised in the heat of the moment. A friend who was at the 4pm show on Weds 5/27 told me afterward he caught me stuck on a theme that bore a striking (though totally inadvertent) resemblance to “What Would We Do Without You?” from Sondheim’s “Company”, and I’ve avoided the rhythm of that piece ever since, just to be safe. Sometimes you improvise something that sounds familiar to you and get right off it, and sometime it sounds similar to something someone in the audience, even without trying. At the April 19th Silent Clowns’ Chaplin program someone asked me if I’d played a theme from Limelight during one of the films (I hadn’t).

One happy accident that fit another one happened at the first show. In the brief pause before the Arbuckle Good Night Nurse was to start, I was trying to come up with a theme to play, and the theme I’d written years ago for the Lupino Lane Good Night Nurse popped into my head and I began playing it. I looked up from the keys to see to my — and everyone’s — surprise…the Lupino Lane Good Night Nurse (with foreign flash titles). I heard a little groan from the audience, but didn’t want to stop the show. I stopped playing for a moment and announced to the audience that this was another silent comedy called Good Night Nurse, starring Lupino Lane, and that it was really funny. Which it was, and it played really well. WDidn’t really bother us, as the Arbuckle is on DVD and the Lupino Lane is rarely shown . A number of people came up to Steve and me aftwards asking about Lupino Lane and telling us how much they liked the short. We’ve sorted this all out now, ordered the Arbuckle, and this will open our last show so we can include this in the series.

Can’t believe the series will be over on Monday!

See you at the silents!

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