The Vaudeville aesthetic and the Compilation video

In his piece ‘Youtube and the Vaudeville Aesthetic’ Henry Jenkins draws comparisons between the nature of early Vaudeville performances and the content displayed on Youtube presently. A key similarity between the two is the fast-paced variety that creates a particular comedic trope, whereby the audience or viewer is not required to engage on theoretical or analytical levels. The diversity of performance techniques or subject matter allows for loose narrative structure that hold’s the viewers attention and amusement. Just as vaudeville actors or performers often independently choreographed their routines, individuals on Youtube can have complete control over the ways they showcase their content.

However there are instances where the individuals in the videos, do not have control over the consequential outcome captured on camera. Since the birth of Youtube and other video based social media, the concept of capturing someone’s unfortunate ‘fail’ or humorous mishap on camera has created a new form of amusement. It delivers instant gratification through a mixture of shock, second-hand embarrassment and hilarity. These personal moments have become such a popular form of entertainment that they are now often compiled as consecutive clips where we can view moment after moment of varied attention-grabbing situations. As with vaudeville performances, it is the spontaneity of these videos that maintains engagement. Just as each act differs from the next, trying to ensure a memorable performance, each short clip aims to outdo the last.

Many clips feature individuals who have pre-determined or even rehearsed their amusing demonstrations and this of course was the case for vaudeville performers. Yet, as Jenkins puts, ‘There was no time for elaborate characterization or plot development’ in Vaudeville acts- similarly in compilation videos there is no time to discover who we are watching or what their story is. We simply instinctively respond to their situation or comedic point and then move on to a new topic. This is especially the case with the rise of TikTok which follows the same pattern of a compilation but allows the audience to control when they see the next ‘act’.

References: Jenkins, Henry Confessions of an Aca-fan ‘Youtube and the Vaudeville Aesthetic’ November 19th, 2006

4 comments

  1. I love that you brought in the idea of “fails” being similar but different to Vaudeville gags. This was actually one of the things that crossed my mind in writing my own blog post! I just think it’s interesting in general how we have found so much joy in watching people fail/hurt themselves for over a century of comedy!

  2. Similarly to what Alexis has said as well I think the idea of finding humour or joy in “fails” is really interesting. I think there’s an argument to be made that it has a similar effect to what Gunning described in his article where he talks about erotic display and uses the example of the woman being caught in the seesaw and her dress hiking up. Both examples have the same accidental victim trope, the only difference being one is voyeuristic where as the other relies on finding pleasure in other forms of suffering from the victim.

  3. You make an excellent point here about TikTok “try not to laugh” compilation videos. This type of comedy entertainment has long been a tradition of British television, the show You’ve Been Framed (1990—) originally asked public to post video cassettes of their family ‘fails’ or funny moments caught on tape. The clip you have included shows the same concept as YBF but updated for 2021’s internet audience.

  4. Your mention of the ‘unfortunate “fail”’ made me think of Rob Dyrdek’s Ridiculousness (Oh Chanel Westcoast!) and America’s Funniest Home Videos which is essentially compilation videos being aired on television. I do think the spontaneity of the videos is what maintains engagement as home videos are associated with a naturalness and realness.

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