ART HAS ALWAYS had a sense of humor. Scenes from Greek theatrical comedies are immortalized on classical vases. Bawdy sexual jokes are common in the art of the Dutch Golden Age. And many of the paintings favored by 18th-century French aristocrats were inspired by commedia dell’arte pageantry. The history of art can be a lens through which to examine the ever-evolving cultural forms, dramatic genres and literary conventions that fall under the heading of comedy. Whether reveling in the pleasures of everyday life or skewering the cultivated manners of the elite, art with a comedic sensibility can reflect the values of a dominant class, challenge ruling ideologies—or sometimes appear to accomplish both at the same time. Erupting from perceived incongruities in otherwise conventional situations, comedy can effect a “victorious tilting of uncontrol against control,” as anthropologist Mary Douglas has observed. Laughter, however, can also accompany a feeling of self-satisfaction—what Hobbes called “sudden glory”—that comes from witty assertions of superiority.
The essays that follow explore some intersections of contemporary art and comedy while reflecting each contributor’s singular sense of humor. The comedic forms they consume, spanning from experimental improv to late-night talk shows, are as diverse as the work they produce. Comedian Kate Berlant performs at both galleries and comedy clubs, manipulating the expectations embedded within different venue types. Self-described conceptual entrepreneur Martine Syms identifies kernels of truth within the sometimes pallid fare offered by television sitcoms and romantic comedies, even as she is drawn to the memes shared within online subcultures. While new media defines new contexts for humor, a remarkable reliance on physical comedy and the immediacy of performance remains, whether through the spontaneity and responsiveness of the improv techniques that Amy Sillman applies to her abstract paintings or the dynamics of slapstick that animate Aki Sasamoto’s performances.
PICTURE A HOLE. Place yourself at the center of the hole. Did you do it? If so, you might be a comic! Also, you might be an artist!
I don’t know how comedy and art are related. I’ve been asked to discuss their relationship, and I’ve met the topic with full-body paralysis. To quote Deleuze (a gorgeous fisherman I met while performing on the outskirts of Prague): “I am less afraid of being seen or touched than I am of being put into words.” It is for exactly this reason that writing about art and comedy feels like sterilization. I’ve been so moved to avoid writing this article that I watched Eat, Pray, Love (again), ate two undercooked yams and left scathing feedback on an online baby-shower registry.
Stand-up comedy is my favorite thing in the world, though my attachment to it can hurt. But I’m not going to write about that. I’m not going to write about corporeality’s effects on identity, or how women comics become commodifiable only when they adhere to patriarchal structures of femininity (e.g., asking what time it is with a mouth full of cake). I’m not going to write about the temptation to disappear into someone else’s desire just to get cast as a broom on a network sitcom. I’m not here for that! Instead, I want to write about my resistance to separating art from comedy, and why this resistance feels so personal.
I have performed in art galleries and in museums. I have also performed in comedy spaces, including clubs in Nashville where the walls are proudly plastered with what seems to be the same man’s headshot over and over. I have performed in a cement basement in Berlin and at the epicenter of comedy nerd-dom, in Hollywood. I’ve had a male audience member scream, “Who’d want to fuck you?!” in the middle of a set, and I’ve had a stone-faced art babe roll her eyes at me while clutching a bejeweled egg. Both hurt. Both were fine.
Art and comedy are deeply connected in that both are intensely capitalist, self-important and exclusionary worlds. Entering either is hard. Staying is even harder. Comedy in particular is a growing business. According to a recent article on New York magazine’s website, “over 10,000 people will take improv classes in the U.S. this year.” It’s the “Second Comedy Boom,” New York says, following the explosion of stand-up’s popularity in the ’80s.
The labor practices previously associated with comedy—tour until you die, write 12 network sitcoms, etc.—have been transformed wildly, along with the audiences and performers. Ten years have passed since I started doing comedy. In that time, Twitter has provided aspiring comics with a platform where they can get instant feedback on their jokes in the form of retweets, and the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre has mobilized a comedy army through cheap improv classes at a network of locations in major U.S. cities, attracting everyone from hopeful actors to PR agents. Never before has comedy been more popular or more written about. With countless podcasts and think pieces emerging daily, we are talking ad nauseum about comedy, and like sex, it has lost mystique and intrigue. Everyone bangs and everyone’s cousin’s boss wants to do stand-up.
This widespread proliferation of comedy has created the conditions for “art comedy,” a non-genre I’ve often been described as being a part of. Ever seen a sculptor do stand-up comedy? Now you can! I like to be inclusive, but I wonder if art-school graduates will be able to tolerate the deeply anti-intellectual and unrefined world of comedy venues. You could say these artists are trying to find a new way to approach a genre that is choking on its own popularity. If you stumble into a performance space, how will you know if what you’re seeing is art comedy or comedy comedy? Here’s a quick test: Do you think a person with a robot shirt reading Tinder messages onstage is weird art comedy or mainstream comedy comedy? I’d say it’s mainstream. I bet my cousin thinks it’s weird.
But weirdness has failed us. Hence the crisis of categorization. One of the defining qualities of what I’m calling art comedy seems to be an attempt to derive performance from theory. Art comedy knows too much. It was raised on the Internet and, despite live gigs, it’s trapped there. It exclaims, “I’m not that!” (i.e., not mainstream) but fails to offer an alternative.
Comedy has become so widespread that comics are desperate to stand out in any way, even if it means gluing a basket on a hat and asking for suggestions. But I’m not necessarily against this transformation, as it may give way to a less precious treatment of what comedy is or isn’t.
For me, stand-up was a form of resistance. I wanted to say: “I’m a woman, but I refuse to be what you think a woman is” and “I’m a comic, but I refuse to be what you think a comic is.” Now I’m apparently an art comic, but I refuse to be what you think an art comic is. I don’t want to be humiliated by a category. My insistence on remaining fluid becomes tricky in a world where profitability hinges on labels. Comedy that thrives on confusion doesn’t exactly inspire belly laughs from a CBS executive. But it’s exactly within the confines of this potentially cramped space that I’ve found huge potential. Stand-up has allowed me to interrupt prevailing narratives of how to be, how to desire and how to move through the world. It’s also helped me get hella likes.
My stage persona comes from a refusal to adhere to one point of view, in spite of the expectation that comedians should have a clearly definable voice. Ideally this voice should be confessional, but unambiguous in any case. I don’t want my comedy to be read as purely autobiographical, but I don’t want to be seen as a fictional character either. I want to be confusing, and for this reason the cowards at the top (who run on fear, Propecia and fear) may be less likely to give me a job. The only way I could have my own sitcom is if it’s called “Crazy Kate!” and features me 15 pounds lighter working at a futuristic spaghetti factory.
Stand-up has taught me to make space for myself within a fairly inhospitable genre by gently mutilating it. The only way out of hell is to walk through hell. (Hell in this case is a comedy show where people look at you as if you’re a wound.) I don’t want to adjust my comedy for a particular context; I want to transform the context to accommodate my desires. Doing stand-up has taught me the importance of insisting on these desires, and in demanding space where you’ve been told there isn’t any. Part of resisting genre is forcing yourself to change, and lately I’ve wanted to speak in “my” voice, to talk about actual things that have happened to me. But I wonder if a turn toward autobiography would diminish my appeal in the art world. Why is the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles asking me to perform and not Louis C.K.? Just kidding. They can’t afford him, and I’m way younger. But is laughter becoming so banal that it’s more important just to stand out than it is to be funny? It would be tight to be invited to a party where Björk is rotating slowly on an orb. But is it worth putting my jester hat on a shelf?
Art comedy doesn’t need to be funny to be embraced, whereas if you do something that isn’t funny in a comedy venue, no one cares about what you have to say. But I’d rather be funny than cool. I like performing in comedy spaces because people feel safe to laugh. I like performing in art spaces because they tend to be more open to ambiguity. It’s that simple. What do artists and comics have in common? Same thing as bankers and DJs: we live our lives somewhere between nature and artifice and we want to get paid.
Maybe people need to start laughing less at comedy. Simply turn on any late-night comedy program and allow yourself to become gently bludgeoned by subtle hell. I’m scared to name names because I’m a careerist, but it’s become clear that any beige sub-performer is considered a safer bet than any living woman. There will be a blind “Daily Show” correspondent before a woman will host a late-night talk show. If labeling something as “art” brings more women, queers and people of color to comedy, then maybe the mainstream will finally be forced to change. As my friend and fellow wacky art comic Casey Jane Ellison says, “We’re not playing with the form, we are the form!”