The Ancient Art of Falling Down: Vaudeville Cinema Between Hollywood and China

Last fall, I ran a three part interview here with Christopher Rea, an associate professor of Asian studies and director of the Centre for Chinese Research at the University of British Columbia, Vancouver. (See Part One, Part Two, Part Three). Rea is the author of a recent book, The Age of Irreverence: A New History of Laughter in China (California, 2015), which explores the emergence of new forms of popular humor in China in the early 20th century.

Rea had contacted me because he had drawn some inspiration for this project from one of my early books, What Made Pistachio Nuts?: Early Sound Comedy and the Vaudeville Aesthetic. I had traced the emergence of new styles of comic performance from the variety stage to Hollywood over the first three decades of the 20th century. This was work I had done almost 30 years ago, so while I was intrigued to learn more about what scholars were saying on this topic today, it was ancient memory for me.

When Rea was invited to come to USC, he asked me to come out and play. Together, we put together a cross-cultural conversation about slapstick comedy, which was hosted by the fine folks at the USC Department of East Asian Languages and Cultures. Rea shared with me some of the clips he wanted to discuss from Chinese slapstick cinema, and I pulled together some clips for American silent and early sound comedy that explored some of the same themes and motifs. We pooled slides into one massive power point presentation, but otherwise, what emerged was unscripted and unrehearsed.

We met for the first time in person just moments before we went onto stage together. But what emerged was pretty amazing, if I do say so myself. There are clearly unexplored connections between comedy in China and the United States during this period. Seeing clips side by side evokes all kinds of memories and associations, and a great discussion emerged around those connections. The result has left me wanting to dig back into my roots in comedy studies and explore this territory once again.

We are sharing the video of that session here for your amusement (some pretty funny material) and your reflection (We would love to hear from others who have researched slapstick comedy in either country and might have insights to share about the topics we discussed.)