Rob King

 

On his book The Fun Factory: The Keystone Film Company and the Emergence of Mass Culture

Cover Interview of August 14, 2009

Lastly

If there’s one thing that I’d hope for this book, it is that it stirs up interest in the early phase of film comedy’s development – that is, in comedies produced prior to the more well-known features of the 1920s.

Of course, silent comedy remains popular to this day; yet its image has long been dominated by the comedians of the late silent era – people like Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Laurel and Hardy.  Show an audience an acknowledged classic like Keaton’s The General (1927) and you’re going to get a lot of laughs; show a short comedy from the 1910s and, like as not, it won’t play quite as well.

Early comedy can often seem a quite alien terrain, especially to those encountering it for the first time.  And yet, rather than dismiss these films for lacking the polish of their later counterparts – a very unhistorical thing to do – we need to let them pique our curiosity, and let our curiosity guide us toward new discoveries.  We need to see that the classic comedies of the 1920s are the culmination of a process; the history of earlier companies such as Keystone show that process in development.

There’s much to be learned, I believe, from studying that process.  The parameters of what made people laugh a century ago are obviously quite different from today; but in that very difference lies the possibility for considerable historical exploration and insight.

Fortunately, there now exists an increasing number of venues where these films can be viewed and discussed, studied and debated – annual conventions like Slapsticon in Washington, DC, and the Slapstick festival in the UK, websites like silentcomedians.com and silentcomedymafia.com, as well as media companies putting hard-to-find comedies on commercial DVDs, like Laughsmith and AllDay.

The historical work to be done here remains enormous, of course, but there’s a lot of fun to be had in doing it.


© 2009 Rob King