Laughter as Medium
FINE ARTISTS PERFORMING LIVE COMEDY IN A BAR. BRING THE PAIN.
Over the years, the worlds of art and comedy have seen very little exchange in relation to venue and audience (premiering “Jackass 3-D” at the MoMA was like a doctor treating malnutrition with a lollipop). Historically, there are many examples of artists borrowing ideas and aesthetics from comedy, and of comedians doing the same with art. Bruce Nauman’s “Walking in an Exaggerated Manner around the Perimeter of a Square,” 1967, for example, takes aesthetic influence from the locomotion of physical comedy (the stylized walks of Groucho Marx or Charlie Chaplin certainly come to mind). Pacing in his barren studio space, Nauman conjures images of Tex Avery filming a kinesiology study for his cartoons (it was Marx, after all, who served as a character influence for Avery’s Bugs Bunny). In turn, it may have been Nauman’s gesture that informed the abstractions of human movement in Monty Python’s “The Misnistry of Silly Walks,” 1970. To the same effect, Andy Kaufman’s reading of The Great Gatsby in the early 70’s required a level of audience-endurance that I cannot help but relate to the repetitious banality of Dan Graham’s “Performer/ Audience/ Mirror,” 1979. If Graham’s intention was, at all, to alienate his audience with his hermetic monologue, it was only Kaufman’s frustrated audience who left mid-performance.
Abjection is a common thread through both art and comedy. In the realm of comedy, Sarah Silverman is the ruling monarch of all things scatological. Silverman’s concert, “Jesus is Magic,” 2005, presents a deluge of verbal diarrhea that repulses her audience, while reminding them of their own bodily obsessions. Silverman’s rendition of “Amazing Grace,” which she sings along with her vagina and her asshole, is the closest thing to genitalia-as-performer since Carolee Schneeman’s “Vagina Painting,” 1965. In the sense of abjection as self-deprecation, Woody Allen’s, “My only regret in life is that I’m not someone else,” sensibility is paramount. I see a similar study of self-humiliation in Peter Land’s “The Cellist,” 1998, in which the pudgy artist dances in the nude with a stringed instrument as his partner. Both the comedian and the artist offer us their shortcomings as a catalyst for meditation upon our own human imperfections.
So, what exactly has stopped artists from contextualizing their work as comedy, and visa-versa? Is the format of stand-up so singly focused on entertainment that it cannot support conceptual experimentation? Would unapologetically-comedic performance undermine the perceived ‘seriousness’ of the contemporary art institution? In an attempt to find out, I have invited a dozen fine artists and comedians to perform in a sketch comedy bar during the Arts in Bushwick festival. Both the venue and the festival will provide a context for the expansive possibilities of comedy, when comedy is taken seriously.