Have You Heard the One About the Art Scene Embracing Comedians?


Art and comedy have always circled around each other, intermingling. There are funny artists—Marcel Duchamp, John Baldessari, and Maurizio Cattelan—and comedians whose work feels like performance art: Charlie Chaplin, Andy Kaufman, or Zach Galifianakis. Right now, a groundswell of interest in comedy among artists and curators is bringing the two lineages closer than ever.

For Jeremy Sigler, it started a decade ago, when he began tweaking the format of his MFA classes at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Initially inspired by Dan Graham’s film Rock My Religion, he had students form bands. Then came a cabaret model (as in Dada’s Cabaret Voltaire), and eventually a final exam consisting of 15 minutes of stand-up comedy.

In 2004, artist and writer David Robbins published “Concrete Comedy: A Primer” in Artforum, an essay that looked at how a “single impulse—comedy” played out in two different contexts: art and comedy. Artists like Martin Kippenberger, Jeffrey Vallance, and Alex Bag were mentioned alongside Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Kaufman, with illusionism, sincerity, and trauma as shared tropes.

Kaufman also turned up in a show last fall at the Artist’s Institute, an exhibition space on Eldridge Street run by curator Anthony Huberman and his Hunter MFA students, in a video displayed next to a Fluxus work. And now artist Julia Dault has organized “Silent Clowns: From ‘Modern Times’ to ‘Zelig,'” a film series that explores the influence of silent movies on American film comedy, showing at the Parsons school of design, where she also teaches an interdisciplinary class in which students read texts like Henri Bergson’s “Laughter” and Freud’s “Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious.”

Meanwhile, curator Miriam Katz’s showcase of experimental comedy will run at MOMA P.S.1 on March 19. The lineup includes Jon Glaser, Dave Hill, Jenny Slate, Reggie Watts, Maeve Higgins, and Rory Scovel—performers who bend the conventions of stand-up, sketch comedy, journalism, music, and talk radio. MOMA has presented comedy before, but Katz says it’s usually “Here’s the ‘real’ art, and we’ll have comedians respond to it.” In her program, comedians are being presented as artists.

Several things paved the way for comedy’s current entry into the art world. One is that it’s performance-based, and performance has been increasingly embraced by museums. But the institutionalized nature of contemporary art itself has increased comedy’s appeal—Katz argues that while “you stand to make more money as a comedian by entering Hollywood, at the beginning, comedy is much less safe” than art. There are no MFA programs (where you can later teach), and no galleries where you can work as an art handler after graduation. Most of the comedians she knows are on unemployment.

Novelist Zadie Smith, whose brother is comedian Doc Brown (a/k/a Ben Smith), articulated the difference in terms of access. Her essay “Dead Man Laughing,” first published in The New Yorker in 2008, described becoming a comedian as “an act of instantaneous self-creation. There are no intermediaries blocking your way, no gallerists, publishers, or distributors. Social class is a non-issue.” In the comedy world, “if you are absolutely determined to stand on a stage for five minutes with a mic in your hand, someone in London will let you do it, if only once.”

Katz says New York’s comedy scene “feels a little like the ’50s in the New York art world.” She cites open mics at the PIT, the Creek and the Cave, Laugh Lounge, and shows and venues like Big Terrific, and Upright Citizens Brigade. Twitter provides a forum for constantly workshopping material.

For Sigler, the setting was still an art school, but the “premise was always to be experimental. I felt like I was reaching out to the wayward student who was about to drop out of art school, and the punk/DIY thing worked. I wasn’t thinking in terms of comedy, but developing a sense of humor—teaching them about writing, self-deprecation; how to keep track of your own humiliations and turn them into a kind of text.”

Comedy is a model for artists who feel art has become too academic or safe. “I talk about Dada a lot in my class, since much of comedy could be said to be anarchic,” Dault says. “The wry, ironic, subversive characteristics of some modes of humor can teach artists how to imbed their work with a point of view that is seemingly straightforward but actually quite complex.”

Art and comedy are places where “the crackpot can thrive,” says Sigler. Wilhelm Reich, the radical psychoanalyst, “couldn’t do it in science. He got imprisoned.” And yet Reich’s work wasn’t so different, in certain ways, from Andy Kaufman’s. “The spirit of Kaufman seems really important right now,” Sigler argues. “Maybe because he was able to do things that no one else could do or was willing to do. A lot of his gags are about a kind of displaced person that’s thought to be real. He’s a special case, even among comics.”

Despite the current blurring of art and comedy, however, there are still distinctions. “The bottom line in comedy is to get someone to laugh,” Katz says, and “because it doesn’t have to be heavy, it sort of slips in these radical ideas and you assent to them without thinking, whereas a performance artist would be more explicit.” What comedy lacks, however, is a critical infrastructure. “Laughter obliterates the actual memory of what took place, so people don’t sit down and write a response, aside from ‘Check it out, it’s so awesome!’ ” The comedians Katz knows are “hungry for critical feedback.”

And comedy, perhaps even more than art, is a death trip. Sigler and Katz both describe stage fright as a kind of mortality-mirror, and when stand-up comics do well, they “kill.” Kaufman talked about faking his own death, and Sigler believes he’s probably still alive, having the last laugh. Zadie Smith (notice her essay’s title) uses her own hapless, everyman father as an example of comedy triumphing over mortality: Her father “missed his own death” because he died in mid-sentence, “joking with his nurse.”

Dada, which was saturated with irony and humor, rose from the carnage of World War I. Our own art-comedy moment feels rooted in similarly apocalyptic soil: wars, natural disasters, and nasty elections. Four years ago, skulls were the leitmotifs in art, clustered in paintings or crusted with diamonds. Now, laughter is taking over.