K. Brian Neel was running a fever the entire time he was performing Vaud Rats on Wednesday night. I found this out afterward while we talked about his interest in the rich history of vaudeville.
As we talked about the play within the play aspect of his show, he asked me what I thought of the ending (don’t worry, there’s no spoiler here). He asked if it were buoyant and hopeful. I had to be honest. No, it wasn’t. Fatalistic is more like it. He agreed that there might be something to that reading, but that’s not what he normally does. Vaud Rats usually ends on an up note. It must have been the fever, we thought.
Perhaps it was a happy accident. The note of fatalism gave Vaud Rats a level of gravitas that hadn’t been apparent to Neel before, he said. The end of vaudeville was a brutal time for stage performers, most of whom were left out of work and impoverished after the rise of mass entertainments like film and radio.
There’s an alternate theory about the death of vaudeville, Neel said. Performers couldn’t adapt. They couldn’t come up with new material week after week, a pattern that’s standard and expected these days. Neel said that vaudevillians would come up with a shtick and just do it over and over again.
Like the guy who did regurgitation on command. He’d swallow kerosene, then water. He’d first vomit the kerosene on to a fire, then vomit the water to extinguish the fire. When film came along, guys like this, who were merely freak shows, would lose out very quickly. Their bosses would film them doing their shtick, then fire them. No need to hire a guy day after day, road show after road show, to do the same thing when you can use a new kind of media to do the same thing and only pay for it once.
I told Neel that that pattern reminded me of the current woes in journalism. Newspapers aren’t in control of their products as much as they used to be. Many on the business side of the newspaper industry are blaming new media, like Google, and sounding the tones of fatalism, like they too have a fever. Journalists and critics are unable or unwilling to adapt are finding themselves furloughed or retiring early. Others are saying that those who adapt to the changes are the ones who will succeed.
Then Neel says that YouTube is just like vaudeville. There have always been people out there who have a talent at something and they want to share it. Like the vomiter. YouTube is spreading these unique talents the way that vaudeville did in the pre-digital age. The difference is that at one time, people would pay to see that kind of thing. When the media changed, they no longer did. Performers had to change as the media changed. It took a long time to figure but eventually they did. Perhaps the same will happen in journalism of the 21st century.
(above Brian Neel after Wednesday’s performance at Lance Hall at the Circular Church. You can tell he had a fever, but he performed his guts out anyway)