How Entertainment is moving back to Vaudeville through YouTube and Facebook

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Editorial and Opinion  |  House: Booksie Classic
In watching Youtube clips and old clips of vaudeville, I was struck by the similarities and how Facebook is helping clips go viral as each user becomes a kind of Press Agent so I looked into it and wrote about it. Just my observations on it and where it might be headed from a historical perspective.

Submitted: February 28, 2016

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Submitted: February 28, 2016

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How Entertainment is moving back to Vaudeville through YouTube and Facebook by Chris Chabot

I am listening to my teenage stepson laugh heartily at a game on his computer. It is a first-person survival game where you are trying to fend of attacking zombies while dressed up in full combat gear. It is completely from the point of view of the player. You run along calling out to your team (other players elsewhere in the world) while running between the remnants of buildings looking for the undead. It looks a lot like the footage we see from the wars in Iraq or Afghanistan.

But here’s the thing. My stepson is not playing the game. He is watching someone else play the game. That person is talking away, sometimes screaming, sometimes swearing. My stepson is riveted. I shake my head in disbelief. Why would someone just sit and watch someone else play a combat game. He never plays it himself and may never play it. “He’s just sitting there listening to all the noise,” I think. “He should be out playing and running around!”

Then two images pop into my head. One is my grandfather shaking his head at the Beatles on TV, calling it noise and saying he doesn’t understand teenagers. The second is me growing up, watching sports on TV. I have spent probably thousands of hours in my life watching football. I played football for one season in seventh grade and was in only two plays. In one a guy ran past my feeble blocking and sacked the quarterback and in the other I ran out onto the field as the clock was counting down the final seconds. I argued with the team to stay on the field and get in one more down so I could play, but then the gun went off. Those were my two plays on the field. For the rest of my life, I watched a sport I did not play and had no plans to play.

But now all this watching of gamer clips and short six-second skits called “vines” weirded me out. I watched dozens of vines to see what the fuss was about. It was mostly bits with people making faces or talking in strange high pitched voices (not even imitations of anyone) and saying one line. For every 30 vines that played I chortled at two. I mean chortled as in a short brief “ha”, but not a hearty laugh. To me there was no set up to give the punch line a more comedic impact; at six seconds long, it was just the punch line. That would be like a comic coming out and just giving punch lines:  to get to the other side, that was no chicken - that was my wife, Thursday it’s your turn in the barrel. There is no set up, but millennials are laughing anyway. I wondered where this was going culturally and I realized there was a historic precedent to it: vaudeville.

Early in the twentieth century, the biggest form of entertainment for the masses was vaudeville. Filled with a variety of acts, it had something for everyone. It ranged from talented actors performing monologues or reciting poems like “Casey at the Bat” to then-famous people in history like Buffalo Bill or Chief Sitting Bull or Helen Keller. It also had more eccentric talents like the super tall or super small or circus acts. It relied heavily on animal acts like jump roping dogs, dancing monkeys on top of horses and harmonica playing mice (done by smearing food across the harmonica and the mice would breath while eating and the harmonicas would play).

To the cultural elite who loved museums, opera and plays, it was vulgar, bawdy and a sign that civilization was decaying. The arrival of radio (which was free) and silent movies for a nickel took away a lot of the best talent of vaudeville and stole its thunder. With the arrival of “talkies” in 1927, vaudeville was done. Many of the acts recorded their performances on film for pay, but it was a one-time payment. Since most of them never changed their acts or jokes, audiences moved on once they had seen their performance on film.

Those who did credited their hard work on vaudeville and their ability to learn with keeping their career afloat. Al Jolson created a hit radio show for years and credited his years on the vaudeville circuit with keeping him fresh and creative. Comedian Jackie Gleason once had a stage curtain refuse to open and he had to stand in front and entertain the crowd for hours. He said by the time he was done he had performed every joke, skit and stunt he had done and a few he had only seen. He once told talk show host Johnny Carson something that Carson passed onto other comics:  there will come a time when something will happen and you will use everything you ever learned to survive.

You can now see all those old vaudeville on YouTube. In fact, you can see everything on YouTube. With new stars showing talents that go viral monthly, YouTube has become the new vaudeville. It contains everything vaudeville had from people performing skits to unknown singers to eccentric talents to animal acts. This has shifted the tastes of millennials immensely. Their cultural influences are vastly different from Generation X and Boomers.

Now I happen to love YouTube. I have found just about any problem I have whether it is my car making a funny noise or my central heating at home acting up, someone on YouTube is explaining and fixing it. I love that any kid in rural America can watch just about every Ivy League class lecture online – not that any are watching. None of those are getting the big hits. The ones getting the big hits are the same ones that were making people laugh over a century ago: cats, dogs, pranksters and jokesters. All that is missing is a partner spraying a giant seltzer bottle in the jokester’s face.

I began to see signs of this trending in the fall of 2007. I was observing high school classes in preparation for student teaching. I began asking a series of questions for a school profile I was assigned. I started with a few warm-up questions to ask and was surprised at the answers. I asked what their favorite actors were and they answered that they had none. I asked what their favorite movies or TV shows were and almost all of them said they didn’t have any and watched little TV. Most watched YouTube clips. I warned a friend of mine and he shook his head and said people would always go to movies and watch TV shows as they were the staple of entertainment. This was the same person who in the early 1980s scoffed at CDs and said people would always buy records because they all had record players at home. Three years later I accompanied him as he tried to find an album and ended up in a basement where an employee who looked like the crypt-keeper blew dust off album covers protected in plastic and told him the prices were three times what the record price said. They were now antiques like wind-up Victrola record players, jukeboxes and old telephones you clicked to get the operator.

Today a millennial finds an Oscar-winning film or a big tent pole popcorn studio flick no more enjoyable than a series of YouTube clips. They are of equal value. The Avengers fighting a villain or cats leaping frantically away from cucumbers: little difference. Studios have had to up the ante with ten times more fights and explosions than ever before leaving very little time for character development or story arc in an attempt to keep their attention. Millennials still don’t put it over watching gamers kill zombies or guys fall on skateboards or cats that bark. It is all equal. They are all the same.

Granted, there were a series of steps Baby Boomers took to become serious music or movie buffs. When I was little, movies were all the same. My parents would take us to a film for kids and we would eat popcorn and gummy bears and watch the film. Each was rewarding just for being able to get out of the house and see something. Then a film would come along that made a big difference.

With films there were those seminal moments that affected us:  Chief getting a piece of chewing gum from McMurphy in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and talking for the first time, Al Pacino waving a handkerchief in “Dog Day Afternoon” and screaming “Attica”, Robert Redford asking a lawyer what he is doing at a hearing for some burglars when they didn’t make any calls in “All the Presidents Men.”  In each one I sat there thinking, oh, this is what film is supposed to be like. I walked out of “All the President’s Men” wanting to be a journalist breaking a big story with hours and hours of research and interviewing and little sleep. It was the same with songs and albums. I grew up listening to my parents songs without any affect. I liked their music, but it didn’t speak to me until my parents brought home the Beatles “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album. That album with all those people on the cover made me stop and look. The songs affected me – especially the song “Getting Better” as my grades in school and recently improved. The lyrics written inside helped and I memorized all of them.

As I got older, other albums made an impact. Friends would get a new album and call me and I would go over and we would just sit and listen to the album and I would become a big fan. I still remember the emotional impact of hearing albums by the Eagles, Fleetwood Mac, Kiss, Dan Fogelberg, Led Zeppelin and Chicago and listening to them over and over. The impact of Peter Frampton’s live album and its 14 minute song “Do You Feel Like We Do” that seemed to turn my living room rug into a flying carpet as I sat in front of my record player. There was the guy in college who grabbed me as I walked by his dorm room and made me listen to Alan Parson’s “I Robot” from beginning to end. I ran out and bought a copy the next day. There were those landmark albums that affected our group culturally.

There is a scene in Cameron Crowe’s movie “Almost Famous” where the lead’s sister moves away, but tells her brother to look under his bed to be set free. He pulls out a stack of albums and listens to them as it sets him on his path to be a rock critic for “Rolling Stone” magazine. Each generation needs those defining moments in their life, whatever the technology that whispers to them about the future. That time when you are young and your life is a large blank canvas with only a small portion of it painted in. You need those songs, albums, movies and books to tell you how to fill in the rest and suggest what you can do with your canvas and all the colors and images you can use instead of voices that just tell you there is nothing more to add to your canvas or that your canvas doesn’t even exist and is not worth painting.

Each technological change and cultural embrace by an age group eliminates another. Shortly before Vaudeville, in the 1870s and 1880s, a real man in America was defined by his ability to speak Latin or French and recite poetry and read Shakespeare. He was considered cultured. Twenty years later, that person was called a “fop” or a “dandy” and made fun of. Boxing was now in and Edgar Rice Burroughs “Tarzan” was the big hit. Cultured people were now two old people babbling along in the jungle about science, while Tarzan had to save them. They were the comic foils.

Vaudeville itself was killed off by silent movies and radio. Why pay for an evening of skits, songs and eccentric talents when you could see it for a nickel in a movie theater or listen to it free on the radio?  Many of the best and brightest of vaudeville departed for radio or movies:  Al Jolson, Jack Benny, W.C. Fields, and George Burns. The other lucky ones managed to keep some kind of travel circuit and maybe make it on the one variety show and its host that kept the remnants of vaudeville alive:  Ed Sullivan. Sullivan was famous for having dancing dogs, spinning plate acts and novelty acts. When his show left the air in 1971, it was said the last of vaudeville ended.

YouTube answers a question in the 1980s from a popular song by the Dire Straits “Money for Nothing.”  In the song, furniture movers ask why the musicians on their TV screens are getting all this money and women for dancing around and singing, while they barely get paid for moving heavy equipment. It was an old question. Legendary actor Richard Burton used to say his father was completely perplexed by the fact that he got well paid to recite speeches and say lines and couldn’t understand how anyone could even make a living at it. A common line was “I could do that!” 

When I made a visit back to my hometown from Los Angeles, a guy in a bar (who admittedly had been drinking) kept asking why people got paid so much money to recite lines and run around shooting at people. “I could do that!” He said. He then brought up Robert DeNiro in “Taxi Driver” and did a very bad imitation of the movie as he quickly said “You lookin’ at me?” three times and said “See? I could do that?  What’s the difference?”  I pointed out that DeNiro actually said, “You talkin’ to me” and that was the difference. Well, that and talent.

There lies the difference in YouTube as well. When I first saw “Markiplier” and his gaming videos, I just thought it was a bunch of screaming and cursing, but a closer look revealed more. No one gets over ten million subscribers and three billion hits without some talent. It turned out he was a voice actor who built a base by keeping a close relationship with his viewers and turning them into fans.

He worked very hard and earned very little in his first years of making videos. Success did not come overnight. Many thought with YouTube, Andy Warhol’s statement in the 1960s that in the future everyone would be famous for 15 minutes. Over the years, I came across a number of people who believed that ands excitedly putting skits or performances on YouTube convinced it would go viral and make them rich and famous. At most they would get a few hundred views and it would end at that. Markiplier put in the hard work and had the talent to become one of the top earners on YouTube.

Many of the popular skits done on YouTube are by groups of people around the country who form an acting group or dance group and perform an impromptu public performance (after days or weeks of practice) at a mall or park to surprise a crowd or help someone propose marriage. These are like the small acting troupes that toured England in medieval and renaissance times and put on plays or skits for food or money. Often their pay was barely above subsistence levels and for the vast majority of YouTube performers that kind of pay level remains.

To get by back then they would add a medicine show; hawking magic bottles of ointment or a potion that revitalized the body. They might do a tent show revival to get crowds to repent and donate to the temporary church and religion they had suddenly become. Anyone in a village could start one of these little groups, but to make it successful took hard work, talent and luck. They remained in small towns across Europe and America until vaudeville took over, siphoning off the best from those troupes. The only places they now remain are at a Renaissance Faire.

If movies and radio ended vaudeville, what will end the dominance of YouTube clips and vines and where will the most successful people from there go?  Many of the top YouTubers will probably have the skills and foresight to leap onto the next technology and hold onto its reigns. Others will not see it coming. In the 1970s, if you had told me my typewriter, radio, record player, tape player, records, stationary store and photo lab where I took my pictures to be developed would someday disappear I would have laughed in your face. Because I have now watched those disappear, I know other technology will as well. I know iPods, iPads, laptops, big screen TVs, DVDs, printers and other things I depend on will be replaced by something else.

It took a long time for the movie and music industry to realize their current system was collapsing and about to disappear. The days of rock groups raking in millions while going on super tours are gone. The purchase of CDs and albums are now only for aging nostalgic boomers. To millennials without that background of being affect by movies or albums, there is little difference between enjoying an album by a formerly famous rock band and enjoying a local group on YouTube. Gone are the days of people piling into theaters to attend movies regularly. Gone are the crowds of people lining up to see movies or rock groups. Movies today may make more money, but that is because the cost of going has risen dramatically, the number of people actually attending has dropped. Gone are the days of a TV show dominating the country. A TV show will get a rating share that declares it a hit, when twenty years ago, that share would have gotten it quickly cancelled.

If YouTube is the new vaudeville, Facebook is its public relations manager. Facebook helped accelerate the success of YouTube as people can now share clips and promote them. On Facebook, everyone is a press agent as they share and press “like” on all those skits, songs and elephants that befriended dogs. With everyone talking about the divisiveness in America and either blaming the president or the news media, people forget that the main carrier of all this news and opinion now is Facebook. Having someone join your page, whether it is someone you just met or someone you haven’t seen since grade school is like going through a scrapbook of their life, but an unedited, raw one.

When I was little if we went to someone’s house, inevitably their scrapbook came out and parents explained pictures as we looked through it. The Facebook scrapbook is one with highs and lows. You’ll be going through it and it is like “Well, here we are at the community picnic and this is Tommy in his new clothes and here is Jimmy throwing a brick through a church window. This is my wife sitting naked on a bear I shot. This is her delivering our first child. This is me, face down in a mop bucket after I had too much beer. This is my brother trying to light his farts. This is little Cindy’s ashtray she made out of mouse poops from behind the fridge. Finally you are saying “TMI! TMI!”  It is all there in your face constantly.

The best of YouTube and Facebook remind me of those boxes of 64 crayons we used to get at kids; letting us now there were so many colors we could choose to paint our own canvas. At its worst, it is merely fishing poles with feathers at the end to distract us and makes us chase it like the cats we watch. We don’t get work done and we don’t get any dreaming time in.

We know that new technology will arrive someday and abruptly and jarringly shove the current technology and all its users and creators out of the way. The question is, will the arrival of the new technology cause those in the current technology to be like my Grandpa and shake their head and call it noise until it has taken over? When the new wave hits, who will have learned the skills to surf it to the next level and who will drown?

 


© Copyright 2020 Chabot1977. All rights reserved.

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