A funny thing happens when you watch stand-up comics and performance artists together: The line between the two begins to vanish. That’s the set-up for this week’s “Not Funny: Stand-Up Comedy and Visual Artists” series at Anthology presented by the visual art performance biennial Performa 11. The punchline is that stand-up comedy movies, as critically ignored as any genre the movies have ever produced, might be even more artistically daring than their highbrow performance-art cousins.
Funny was not always the top priority. As evidenced by the selections featured in “Not Funny,” stand-up movies of the 1960s and ’70s were a unique outlet for personal expression; the best forum available to stand-up comedians who were too edgy for the world of stand-up comedy. Case in point: The Lenny Bruce Performance Film from 1965. In theory, what director John Magnuson shot at the Basin Street West in San Francisco was an hour of Bruce doing stand-up. In reality, Bruce delivered something closer to a long-form conceptual art piece about a zonked-out free-speech lawyer: one part legal rebuttal, one part self-reflexive critique. In lieu of telling any actual jokes, Bruce read descriptions of the jokes that got him convicted of obscenity in 1964. As Bruce wanders the stage, his mind wanders through the trial transcript; by the time he’s chaotically and haphazardly reading the part of the suit that describes his act as “chaotic and haphazard,” he has achieved new heights of meta.
Performance Film isn’t the most visually dynamic concert documentary—the entire film is a series of zooming, panning long takes from a single, fixed position—but it captures Bruce’s jittery energy at its most defiant. The audience is never seen and rarely heard, mostly because they’re not laughing. At a time when repeated arrests had made him persona non grata with nightclub owners, film not only gave Bruce the venue to answer his critics, it also gave him the freedom to do it without being funny.
Although Bruce would not live to see it, a trail had been blazed, one that would be traveled by a generation of comedians and artists who embraced Bruce’s button-pushing template and who used advances in portable film and video cameras to create their own space outside the mainstream. Men like Albert Brooks and Andy Kaufman (whose work takes over a whole night of “Not Funny” programming) transformed Bruce’s brazen disregard for the comedy component of stand-up into its own hilarious, high-concept goof. In “Audience Research,” which originally aired as a short film on Saturday Night Live, Brooks travels to the National Audience Research Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, to find out why people don’t find him funny. The obvious answer—that he insists on deconstructing himself rather than telling jokes—never dawns on his character.
If you’re a fan of Brooks and Kaufman’s deadpan, you’ll also appreciate “Piece to Camera,” a program of selected shorts from California monologists, pranksters, and exhibitionists like John Baldessari, Cynthia Maughan, and Eleanor Antin. Performa calls their work “visual art”; you might recognize it as the origins of YouTube. William Wegman has had a marvelous career as a conceptual artist, photographer, and professor. If he were 30 years younger, he’d also probably be the most popular filmmaker on Funny or Die. He starred in his own videos alongside his Weimaraner, Man Ray, delivering oddball non sequiturs or teasing his dog into adorable conditioned responses. In other words, Wegman anticipated the Internet’s two favorite things: weirdos saying weird things and animals doing dumb shit.
Richard Pryor had some jokes about his pet dogs, but he became the biggest star in 1970s stand-up because of his shockingly confessional material. In Pryor’s hands, Bruce’s defiant self-assessment became hysterically brutal self-critique. Richard Pryor: Live in Concert from 1979 sees Pryor poking fun at his own run-ins with police, the domestic abuse he suffered at the hands of his father, and even his own lovemaking skills. (“I do about three minutes of serious fucking, then I need eight hours sleep.”)
Pryor’s jokes are memorable, but it’s his performance of those jokes that’s truly remarkable. As evidenced by the slowly spreading sweat stains on the comedian’s red silk shirt, this really is Pryor live; the film is an unbroken 80-minute monologue filled with characters, voices, and full-bodied physical comedy. When a director makes a film in real time or a single take, he’s hailed as a maverick. When a single filmmaker writes and performs his own screenplay, he’s an auteur. When a modern comedian utilizes improvised dialogue in a Hollywood movie, he’s hailed as cinematic innovator. In Live in Concert, Pryor did all three simultaneously. He got credit as a stand-up, but he deserved more accolades as an artist. If only people took comedy a little more seriously.