Comedy is not pretty

Went with some friends this evening to a comedy club. Before the headline performer (who was amazing) there was a procession of semi-professional comics – either young kids just getting started, or semi-professionals who were clearly never going to go anywhere.

It was most instructive to watch the really bad acts. A gifted and experienced comedian is so good at creating a flow state in the room, that you tend not to notice it being done. You’re just floating on the vibe, and it all seems seamless and (misleadingly) effortless.

But a bad comedian is a lesson in how hard it is to establish that control, to create the proper vibe in a room. When you see somebody dying up there, trying one joke after another and starting to get that look of panic in their eyes when none of it is hitting, you’re seeing a lot more than an out of control act. You’re seeing a implied contract being broken – the contract whereby the performer has told the audience, simply by virtue of being up there and picking up a microphone, “don’t worry, I’m here, I’ll take care of you”.

Interestingly, one young comedian in the lineup was either genuinely insane or else trying deliberately not to be funny. I couldn’t figure out whether I was seeing somebody who hadn’t a clue what humor is, or the next Andy Kaufman, deliberately deconstructing the process.

The audience started to get nervous when he made an unfunny joke about Obama eating fried chicken in the White House (that one was apparently directed toward the young black couple in the front row), but people really started to freak out when it appeared that he was about to tell a joke at the expense of Sarah Palin’s baby – the one with Down’s Syndrome. He veered away from that just in time, and then spent the remainder of his act publicly embarrassing and humiliating his own father, who was in the audience.

I found myself wondering whether it was all deliberate. The act seemed far to bizarre to simply be the result of incompetence. Perhaps we’re seeing the birth of a new kind of theatre of the absurd. Or as Artaud might have put it, a kind of theatre of cruelty – a deliberate attempt to force us to see the turmoil, anger and pain beneath the surface, the generally unacknowledged raw meat of alienation that goes into the sausage of comedy.

Or maybe the guy was just nuts.

6 Responses to “Comedy is not pretty”

  1. davidmaas says:

    I personally love these borderline events that keep you deliberating as to whether what you’re experiencing is intended or not. I remember endless debates with friends and students about David OReilly’s (http://www.davidoreilly.com/) earlier animations. Hard to digest, possibly horrendous but… so consistent in their delivery that I was convinced they were genius. Thank God he went on to confirm my opinion with films like “Please Say Something” – now I can gloat in my foresight. Of course, he could have just been nuts.

  2. troy says:

    Personally, I like comedy that makes the audience uncomfortable. It’s not always funny, but, definately makes you feel something.

    You mention Kaufman… Not always, but often, after he was finished toying with the audience, he’d give some relief. As in his Mighty Mouse act where he makes the audience embarrassed for him throughout the act. It’s not until he strikes his Mighty Mouse pose that the audience realizes what’s going on and laugh with a collective sigh of relief.

    It sounds as if your performer never gave an indication, leaving you wondering and uncomfortable. So, is this comedy, cluelessness, or social experimentation? Who knows… But, at least it sounds like you were entertained by the marquis act that followed.

    There does seem to be more and more comedy out there that is simply designed to make the audience uncomfortable, such as the “love it or hate it” style of Sacha Baron Cohen… I do have to admit, it made me giggle when he told the NOW woman interviewed in Borat to “calm down pussycat” or when he sang the Khazakstan National Anthem to a group of rednecks at a Rodeo. :)

  3. troy says:

    BTW, I will probably use your “the generally unacknowledged raw meat of alienation that goes into the sausage of comedy.” if I can find a place for it. It’s a gritty and grotesque description that I find very funny.

  4. admin says:

    I love David O’Reilly’s work, and I also really like him as a person. He’s definitely a trickster, but his art is always in a spirit of fun – not mean-spirited like the comedy act I was describing.

    I agree about Andy Kaufman. He wanted the audience to eventually realize what he was up to. In a sense he was engaged in teaching an entire generation about meta-comedy.

  5. davidmaas says:

    Hoopla… wasn’t presenting his work within the mean-spirit aspect, but rather as something that was on-the-fence.

  6. admin says:

    Yes, I understood that. I was just affirming it for the sake of others who might not be familiar with David O’Reilly’s work.

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