Essays

Performance Artists Use Stand-Up Tropes, but Not For Laughs

Installation image of Smile and Camuflage by Kasia Fudakowski at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s La Jolla location, 2015. Photo by Pablo Mason.
Installation image of “Smile” and “Camuflage” by Kasia Fudakowski at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego’s La Jolla location, 2015 (photo by Pablo Mason)

LOS ANGELES — There’s nothing funny about art. Writing art criticism is a serious endeavor. But at some point, the performance of professionalism in the art world just started to feel like one big joke, and I began noticing a crossover between the art and comedy worlds. Artists, like stand-up comics, were poking fun at their audiences and the artist and the comedian were both in on the joke that is life’s absurdities. Today, more performing artists especially are employing tropes of stand-up comedy — observational humor, deadpan, surreal, improvisation, insult, dark humor, wit/word play, and the catchall ‘alt comedy’ — either playing off of these tropes or deconstructing them altogether.

Artist Kasia Fudakowski, for instance, is more interested in the philosophy of comedy than making audiences laugh out loud. In “Smile” (2011), which was recently included in the show Laugh In: Art, Comedy, Performance at the Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego, the artist deconstructs a typical stand-up comedy act, considers the affective nature of laughter and physical act of smiling, while also pseudo-mock performing her own art jokes. The performance begins with her strolling onto the stage, putting on a brick-camouflaged shirt — perhaps a reference to the brick wall backdrop of many “concrete” comedy clubs — and soon grabs the mic and starts her “set.”

What begins as a sort of nonsensical child-like fairytale evolves into an examination of various portrayals of smiles in familiar portraits, such as the Mona Lisa. In her joke telling portion of the act, Fudakowski discusses the awkwardness of the relationship between comedian and audience. “I know it can be quite an awkward situation between the joke-teller and the audience because I stand here alone with my jokes and you have to suspend your disbelief until the point comes when you hear the punchline,” she says in her documentation of the performance. “But you don’t know if you’re going to know it’s the punchline, if you’re going to get it, or even if you are going to find it funny so I am going to try to help you with that.”

As her act goes on, she ultimately asks more existential questions about the nature of comedy than providing answers or opportunities for laughter. At one point, Fudakowski tells the audience: “The point of this exhibition is to make you smile.”

Kasia Fudakowski, "Smile" (2011).  Film and documentation of performance at Chert Gallery 2011 with help from Christopher Fillipini, Tómas Lemarquis, Mathias Droste and Johannes Schroth. Used with permission from the artist.
Kasia Fudakowski, “Smile” (2011) (film and documentation of performance at Chert Gallery, with help from Christopher Fillipini, Tómas Lemarquis, Mathias Droste and Johannes Schroth, courtesy of the artist)

If Kasia invites audiences in on the joke, Casey Jane Ellison sets out to make her audience feel uncomfortable. In her comedic performances, Ellison works off of deadpan, insult, surreal, and dark humor. In her “Touching the Art” TV series on Ovation, which became an instant art world hit, she inhabits this in-between-art-and-comedy space, never completely subscribing to either in her in-your-face critique of the art world. At times, she comes at participants in accusatory ways, delivering insults and jokes in her normcore goth persona, which is at once subversive and irritating. Ellison does not hold back when it comes to her opinions about the socioeconomic, race-related, gendered, sexuality-oriented questions about “otherness” in the very white, Eurocentric, male-dominated art world — regardless of whether she’s talking to a famous gallerist, artist, curator, or audience member. She asks questions with both aplomb and humor, while also acknowledging that this is kind of just the way things are at this particular moment in time, yet with an interest in an actual paradigm shift.

Ellison, like a number of other artist/stand-up comedians, seems to prefer art or alternative comedy spaces over comedy clubs. Art crowds give her a chance like they would to a performance artist; comedy crowds are harsher, they want the joke quickly and there’s not that much room for experimentation. Indeed, Ellison is best known and followed in art circles, not comedy circles, even though her stand-up isn’t solely focused on the art world.

At a recent installation of Other Comedy, a comedy/performance show that Ellison hosts at Los Angeles’s Otherwild in Echo Park, a multi-use store/performance art space/gallery/queer emporium, she engaged with an art crowd. She took the stage and started ranting to the audience about Tinder. She proclaimed loudly that IT DOESN’T WORK, and then stood there, waiting, staring down the audience. In holding that silence, Ellison gave the audience time to engage. She was ready. No one said a word.

If this were a comedy club, she might have bombed. But at Otherwild, the queer/art audience gave her space to explore. Ellison’s experimental approach to comedy recalls Andy Kaufman’s — it’s not always going for the funny; oftentimes, it’s just a way to mess with audience expectations of the performer.

Screengrab from Ovation's "Touching the Art," hosted by Casey Jane Ellison
Ovation’s “Touching the Art,” hosted by Casey Jane Ellison (screengrab via YouTube)

While Ellison’s and Fudakowski’s performances are more catered to the art world and its audiences, performance artist/curator Molly Shea is more interested in critiquing comedic archetypes that she sees as overused, played out, and just plain not funny. Despite her ‘tude, she is actually hilarious and witty in-person, so much that people mistake her for a comedian who plays with slapstick and deadpan styles. But she isn’t a comedian, and she won’t take it as a compliment if you refer to her as one. (Full disclosure: Molly Shea and I do a sporadic, comedic podcast called BrOccult.)

“Several times co-workers, fellow artists, and people I’ve met briefly at cocktail parties have said to me ‘You’re so funny, why aren’t you a comedian?’ and it has never been something I’ve easily taken as a compliment,” Shea told Hyperallergic. “Usually my answer was ‘I’m already in a male-dominated, niche, low-income field with manic depressives; why do I need two?'”

In a recent performance at The Gibson Space in downtown Los Angeles, Shea performed a series of short stand-up sets while pretending to sleepwalk around the gallery and gag herself while performing the bits. She explored comedic tropes such as the Seinfeld ’80s observational comedy; the “edgy” female stand-up who talks about dicks and vaginas; and the angry, slapstick physical comedian who bombs and then gets pissed off. The performance came as a reaction to a terrible open mic Shea attended, where she realized that most of the participants were all “doing intonations of a successful stand-up comedian” and presenting familiar archetypes for an audience that just wanted to digest something fast and easy.

Documentation from performance of Molly Shea's "Gag Reflex" at TK. Photo by TK
Documentation of Molly Shea’s “Gag Reflex” performance at Smiley Cyrus (photo by Shelley Holcomb)

“Each set started with an intro-song corresponding to the type of comedian like ‘It’s hip to be square’ or ‘Bitch’ and I’d fluctuate between these personas by playing the Seinfeld transition music and seizing on the floor,” says Shea of her performance. “By the end of the physical comedian’s meltdown, the dream world becomes confused and the personas flip violently until my cellphone’s alarm wakes me up.” The audience reacted with both laughter and terror. Shea’s work is a commentary on stand-up through performance art, and she takes it as far as she wants to go.

Fudakowski, Ellison, and Shea all suggest that performance artist/stand-up comedians have more flexibility in their use of comedic styles than people who are just stand-up comedians or performance artists. Rather than follow prescribed modes of being “funny” or “making art,” these three performance artist/comedians are creating their own sense of comedic performance art, and being “funny” is not the goal, though it’s often times a byproduct.

Special thanks to Roni Ginach for working with me through artistic questions relating to psychoanalytic theory, performance art, and comedy.

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