Recently I’ve been reading Make ‘Em Laugh: The Funny Business of America, by Laurence Maslon and Michael Kantor.
An entertaining, anecdotal overview of twentieth century American comedy, the book got me comparing the rate of past change in the entertainment industry with more recent developments in e-communications and marketing.
Sure, today we can construct a timeline of recent innovation where the dates are more closely spaced, but the prior century was marked by more dramatic changes in the entertainment industry that left stars in one medium out in the cold despite their best efforts to keep up with the times.
Recently we’ve seen a startling pace of innovation, what with blogs, social networking, ezines, YouTube, easy-to-post photos and audios, smart phones, Kindle, instant messaging and more.
In comparison, the first years of the last century saw vaudeville storming America. Silent movies took off until the first talkie (1927’s The Jazz Singer) made earlier films seem dated. Then came radio, with many of the most popular vaudevillians taking to this medium in the early 1930s. Television came along in the late ‘40s.
The biographies of the leading names of the era show them adapting repeatedly to explosive change. George Burns and Gracie Allen first appeared together in vaudeville in 1923, and movie shorts soon followed. Then on to radio in 1932 and television in 1949, with their own TV show in 1950.
Jack Benny’s career followed a similar pattern. The vaudeville circuit for two decades, radio in 1932, TV in 1948, his own show in 1950.
And so went the stories of Bob Hope, Milton Berle, Edgar Bergen, Groucho Marx and others. Exceedingly successful in every medium they attempted.
Then there was Fred Allen. Allen (a rarely heard name today but very famous in his day) played vaudeville for years and then Broadway comic revues. He also was introduced to radio audiences in 1932 and hosted seven shows. But he proved a disaster on TV, mounting a variety of shows, each failing, before his death in 1956.
Call it profound observation or sour grapes when Allen pointed out how radio was intellectually superior to TV:
The trouble with television is, it’s too graphic. In radio, even a moron could visualize things his way; an intelligent man, his way. It was a custom-made suit. Television is a ready-made suit. Everyone has to wear the same one. Everything is for the eye these days: Life, Look, the picture business. Nothing is for the mind. The next generation will have eyeballs as big as cantaloupes and no brains at all.
Accusations that lower-quality but newer media are dumbing down the population continue today but interestingly, we look back further in time for the superior formats as e-media and even film are blamed for impairing imagination relative to the traditional book.
The more things change, the further back we look for the “better” predecessor. But change itself is nothing new. Change is the only constant.