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Author Simon Louvish talks about silent era film comedians

READERSVOICE.COM aims to give people a few good reading suggestions.Simon Louvish is the author of several excellent biographies of film comedians, and numerous novels. His biographies include Man on the flying trapeze: The life and times of W.C. Fields; Monkey business: The lives and legends of the Marx Brothers; and Stan and Ollie: The roots of comedy.In this interview for readersvoice.com, Simon Louvish talks about Vaudeville and comedians, and recommends some interesting books.Also I went along to see Love in the first degree, a romantic comedy filmed in Sydney, and I spoke to director Michael Egan about the film and his favorite books.First up, Simon Louvish.

READERSVOICE.COM: Where have you just traveled to and for what purpose?
SIMON LOUVISH: My latest travels have been to Planet China, via the Trans-Siberian Railway through Russia, discovering new worlds, also chasing an obscure family connection from the 1920’s that involves Harbin, Manchuria, where they’ve never even heard of the Marx Brothers (don’t know about Laurel & Hardy, they might be known as Lu Li and Ha Ti)…
RV: A lot of the comedians you’ve written about have come from Vaudeville before crossing into the first days of silent film.
Do you think there’s a chance that Vaudeville could be reinvented and revived on a much smaller, maybe boutique, scale?
SL: Live shows will always be popular when everything is ultra-mechanised and endlessly replicated, but Vaudeville belongs to its period: When it, rather than the movies, was the mass entertainment of the time.
You can’t recapture either the small-time seedy halls of turn of 20th century Bowery, or the 1500 or 2000 seater Palaces where great stars had 15 minutes each to shine.
Maybe if we turned up in our time machine we’d think it all pretty cheesy – even Houdini’s magic was worked behind a curtain or screen, we’d never accept that today.
And at least you could throw rotten fruit at them.
I try that with today’s TV, but it’s not very satisfying.

RV: Is there anything like Vaudeville operating today, where actors could get training the way the comedians you wrote about did?
SL: There’s still a club-cabaret circuit, but it’s not as hard boiled.
People who played Nagagdoches, Texas, or a working men’s club in old Yorkshire had to have pretty tough skins.
RV: Would you consider writing a book about Vaudeville?
SL: There is a new book on the history of Vaudeville, published by Faber & Faber US (look it up); so I’ll pass for the moment.
RV: What is it that interests you the most about the era of comedians you wrote about?
SL: The turn-of-the-century comics were of an age when they were self-made: You pulled yourself up by your bootstraps and created your own personality and your own world; you were not stamped in a mould.
This is the main attraction, and the social world in which they worked.
What is the biography of a present day Hollywood actor? grew up in L.A., went to school in Beverly Hills, did some drugs, rehab, bad “relationships”, trouble dealing with fame……..Zzzzzzzzzzzzz.
Not that they’re without talent, but that’s the story of their films.

RV: In what ways do your approaches to your fiction and non-fiction writing differ?
SL: My fiction and movie biographies seem separated by a vast gulf.
The world of my fiction has been the modern Middle East, its troubles and travails and madness; I suppose this too has become mainstream, but not the way I tell it…
Too many taboos, forbidden zones, and how can satire survive the present day reality?
In any case the fact is I can hardly get published at all, in my vein of fiction, because people want something easily digestible, or that suits their own political ideas.
The truth – which is the satire itself, is too scary; the fuck-ups and their consequences too profound.
I’d love to do some film-related fiction, but the economic fact is that the movie biographies pay the rent; my volunteering is in other spheres.
Nowadays an author is expected to stick to one mode – its called “branding.”
The difference between the old and new branding is they do it to your brain instead of to a cow’s ass.
So that covers point 7, too, I guess.
My fiction can be picked up on Amazon, or at least some of it can, for those with a robust constitution…
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