If you heard peals of laughter ringing out through the quiet, reverent halls of an art museum, what would your reaction be? Would you “tut-tut” in their general direction, maybe shoot them a glare or offer them a pointed “shhh”? If so, can we be totally sure that you, and not they, are in the right?
For contemporary artists who love to insert a little bit of humor in their work, the situation above begs the question: Can art be funny?
Yes, of course — but it doesn’t have to be, whereas comedy has to be funny or else it fails. The basic structure of a joke is simple: set-up, punchline, laugh, repeat. No laughs is proof that the joke doesn’t work. But art? It can be whatever it wants to be, as long as it’s full of thoughts, emotions, humanity, concepts, etc.
Melissa Rocha is a stand-up comedian who also hosts The TV Show Show, a themed comedy variety show. (Full disclosure: Alicia Eler participated in the Seinfeld edition.) Rocha left her performance art career behind when she realized she was funny, and wanted to work on crafting jokes. We caught up by phone about her transition, and why it happened. “The part of comedy that most artists and people have a hard time with is the failure of it,” she said. “It is so brutal…the trial and error is a lot harder to get a grip on. In the art world, you can just explain it.”
Another defining difference between art and comedy is that the latter has a clear purpose: the goal is to land the joke. It’s a comforting, binary relationship: either you’re funny, or you’re not. In art, there is no clear goal — there is no end, and there may not be a beginning, either. The complete lack of rules — of form and structure — can be overwhelming. But artists, unlike comedians, also have a convenient out if their funny art isn’t really funny. When art is, it’s a bonus — but it doesn’t have to be to succeed. “It’s about safety, ” said Rocha. “It’s like, ‘I’m an artist, and if you don’t think it’s funny that’s okay because it’s art.’ But if you do stand-up, improv, and sketch comedy that is specifically, deftly 100% supposed to be funny, and if it’s not, then you have no safety.”
But is funny art actually funny? The answer, as we see it, is a rousing chorus of “it depends.” Of course, to just use the term “art” when talking about this is to be imprecise. There are many different kinds of art — painting, sculpture, performance, whatever bullshit Richard Prince is currently up to — and they each come with their strengths and limitations.
For the purposes of this essay, we are going to break these forms down into two separate categories: static and temporal. The former, like painting and sculpture, produces pieces that are fixed and immutable. The latter, like performance and video pieces, exists in multiple, successive moments in time. For the most part, temporal art can incorporate and commingle with comedy fairly well, whereas static art (again, for the most part) does not.
Now, don’t get us wrong here: an image can of course be funny. For proof, check the internet. In 2016, we used funny memes as a kind of relational currency: I will gladly be friends with you tomorrow for a crying Jordan meme today. However, static art that attempts to be funny rarely succeeds at being both funny and art at the same time. This is inherent to its nature. In order to be funny, the artwork has to both set up the joke and deliver the punchline in one go. In order to do this, the art often has to sacrifice depth.
Because here’s the thing about comedy: it relies on the subverting of expectations, which means that it cannot exist without them. Jokes need to be clear and comprehensible, but ones that are too easily understood — where the punchline can be seen coming from a mile away — are often the least funny jokes of all. These are the types of amateur jokes that you’re likely to hear during an attempt to write a funny wedding speech. But if you take any basic piece of comedy — “Why did the chicken cross the road?”, “Knock knock? Who’s there?”, “Take my wife! Please!” — you will see that it follows that structure of expectation and subversion. The more surprising the subversion, the funnier the joke.
Static art often lacks this element of surprise, because in order for its joke to be understood, it has to sacrifice most everything else. Yes, Marcel Duchamp was able to blow everyone’s mind when he took a toilet, called it a fountain, and declared it to be art — but he also had the benefit of novelty. When you’re the first person to do something, you get a lot of credit, as you should. Once we move past Duchamp to the works that he influenced, the flood of ingenuity becomes a trickle in no time. Because, while a funny piece of static art can maybe make you laugh, is it going to make you ponder it? Or feel much? Or even think about it again, once your momentary guffaw has passed? Likely, it will not. (Again, Duchamp is granted a special waiver here for innovation.) What is great about art — and is especially true about great art — is how it moves beyond the “get it/don’t get it” binary and gets at something far deeper, more complex and unsettled. Nobody stares at a Monet to “understand” the waterlilies.
An example of jokey static art is Eric Yahnker’s, who creates visual puns oftentimes in the form of title-as-punchline, or by just meme-ifying an image. In many ways, Yahnker is a political cartoonist; it’s not surprising that his training is actually in journalism, and he worked on the cartoon South Park. But with the death of the political cartoonist job and the rise of the internet, he decided to create his own small business as an artist, which ultimately gives him the freedom to do whatever he wants. Take, for example, his “American Piece,” a collection of VHS tapes lined up one by one on a shelf that all have “American” in the title. The humor is dry, almost kicking up dust. And, naturally, the name of his recent solo show in LA was Noah’s Yacht, a play on the biblical story of Noah’s Ark. Similar, humor-wise, is Cory Arcangel, whose dry wit comes across in his work “Super Mario Clouds” (2002), which is literally just the clouds of this game. It is a versatile piece, working as a tongue-in-cheek trick — haha, it’s just the clouds screengrabbed as a single image! — or the six-minute video of the clouds, decontextualized from their video game environment, existing as, well, pixelated clouds.
Temporal art forms still have an easier time escaping the basic “get it/don’t get it” binary, and more gracefully collaborate with comedic forms. Because the art unfolds through time, it can create multiple sets of expectations and multiple forms of subversion. It can be funny in one moment and then deadly serious the next. It can play with multiple ideas — or at the very least many unique shades and tones within the same thematic palate.
For instance, Jason Musson, aka Hennessy Youngman, is hilarious. His ArtThoughtz videos are basically vlogs, and work in part because they’re performed by his alter ego — not by him, the Artist. He takes on the persona of a vlogger dude who breaks down theory concepts, like post-structuralism, into something easily consumed on the internet. The mission of Musson’s Youngman character is to take art less seriously by bringing in some humor. Writes Don Elder for Hyperallergic:
Part of Musson’s success with Art Thoughtz has been the creation of an unlikely character that challenges the core of the intellectual orthodoxy of today’s art world. Hennessy Youngman introduces a comedic, urban perspective into a largely serious and boring Ivy League discourse (a slightly ironic gesture, since Musson has an MFA degree from UPenn).
Yeah, that’s real.
Andrea Fraser similarly uses comedy to a critical effect in her performance “Museum Highlights: A Gallery Talk” (1989), where she played the fictional character Jane Castleton, a docent/volunteer/artist who took people around the Philadelphia Museum of Art, commenting on toilets, the shop, the coat room, and other things that were not pieces of art, while also inserting her own social and political commentary. Using docent-speak, she blurred a fictional and “real” experience of the art museum.
A number of artists who are exploring with comedy create personas. Erin Markey’s queer, feminist comedy and live performances make us laugh hard because, as she once put it, they’re “absurdist and sometimes dark.” Some call her an actress, while others refer to her as a comedian or performance artist. Her intense cabaret–style rendition of Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” transforms a song that’s marketed as sugar-sweet pop. Between Markey’s lecherous gaze as she performs and the ways that she over-enunciates every word, audiences are left wondering how they could’ve just hummed along to this actually dark song. Is it performance art, comedy, or both?
Similarly, Dynasty Handbag, aka Jibz Cameron, plays with the absurd alter-ego, creating a buffer between real-life and fictional comedic performance. Dynasty is so over-the-top — we are fascinated like we are with a John Waters film — so we’ll go with her anywhere. Her performance work is actually funny — not just poking fun at the art world — and at times she ends up on bills and slates that include comedians. In her recent music video “Vague,” a spoof on Madonna’s “Vogue,” Dynasty dances and wanders amidst a variety of odd backdrops while also pulling off signature vogueing moves. Except for her, everything is vague — she’s not sure where she is or what’s going on, and most of what she says is almost incomprehensible. At one point, she sings about a vague situation she may have been in, where she couldn’t tell if it was a business lunch or a date. Produced by the comedy network JASH, Dynasty’s work fits into both the art and comedy worlds, creating something else entirely. Her work embraces a kind of middle space, a queering of traditional boundaries — expressing a kind of nihilism where maybe everything matters, maybe nothing matters, but either way, LOL.
This lack of an agenda — of “say a joke, get some laughs, repeat” — is crucial to Dynasty’s work coexisting as both “art” and “comedy.” It’s clearly funny, but that isn’t all it is. It’s also significant that her videos are being presented by a comedy network. And it’s not just the artists who are breaking into the comedy scene — many comedians are taking their cues from the more contemplative, multi-shaded aspects of art. Though this is not new, either. It just seems like it is, because the accessibility to artists that is afforded to us by the internet can make us feel inundated with content. Ernie Kovacs, for example, was bringing his own brand of cigar-chomping weirdness to network TV in the 1950s. Then there was, of course, the sublimely British Monty Python, and the formalist silliness of early Steve Martin. (In fact, Martin himself has admitted that parts of his standup act were specifically designed to eschew punchlines entirely.) In the ’80s and ’90s Bill Hicks tested the stand-up comedy form to see just how much deeply felt philosophizing it could include. And then of course there was Andy Kaufman, who pushed stand-up so far that many declared that he just flat-out wasn’t funny.
Comedians have been testing the limits of the form — and of their audiences — for decades. Some of the best modern examples of comedy-acting-like-art come from Cartoon Network’s late night Adult Swim block. That’s right, just in time for you to have forgotten it, we’re dragging Too Many Cooks back into your nightmares. Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job may have been the first Adult Swim show that blended comedy and art, usually using copious amounts of horror and weirdness as bonding agents, but it certainly wasn’t the last. And while Too Many Cooks was the video that really went viral, the far weirder, far scarier Unedited Footage of a Bear provides an even better example of comedy becoming art. The film begins with a simple premise: it’s a commercial for an allergy medicine with a suspiciously long list of possible side effects. It’s a joke that’s been done before, but never like this: as a horror movie portrait of a psychotic breakdown. So is Unedited Footage of A Bear comedy, art, or both? Well, the film was directed by Alan Resnick and Ben O’Brien, who both belong to the Baltimore-based art and performance Collective Wham City. Maybe the real question is, does the distinction between comedy and art even matter?
In reality, many comedians would bristle at being told that they are not artists. And maybe they should. After all, they are expressing their own thoughts and views through the creation of original work — just like other artists do. And while some comedians can be easily lumped into the category of crass, mass-market entertainers (see: Kevin James), the exact same could be said of some artists.
Ultimately, if there is one thing that artists and comedians share is their impulse to express something that is true about the world or themselves. As the old standard goes, “it’s funny because it’s true.” Replace the word funny with the word “touching” or “important” or “revelatory” and the same sentence could be applied to any great work of art.
Art can definitely be funny and still be art. More importantly, it can still be great art. The only difference is in the labelling and in the expectations that those labels can create. Label something as “art” and people might not expect to laugh, but label something as “comedy” and they will. And if producing funny art means subverting expectations, then maybe more art that makes us laugh is a good thing. After all, when was the last time you heard an artist say their goal was to give their audience exactly what they were expecting?