On comedy and agency

An excerpt from a talk presented by David Robbins at the University of Southern California 4/27/16.

Not long ago I participated in a symposium on the relationship between comedy and painting at the University of Chicago, after which a student approached expressing concern about agency, and comedy’s effectuality. His concern is valid. If you commit to comedy, how will the jester’s relation to power affect your sense of your ability to have an impact on your time? One hardly enters comedy in order to become powerful, after all. Closing out his seventeen-year gig at the helm of TV’s most watched politically-inclined comedy show, Jon Stewart of The Daily Show said he didn’t think the show had changed anything about the political landscape.

As much as “powerful comedian” may be an oxymoron, if what you’re looking to do is throw a frame around questions of agency, the individual relation to power, the ability to impact environment and control experience, then comedy is a good way — maybe even the best way — to achieve that end. Comedy always has a relation to power. Where there’s a jester, somewhere in the background you’ll find a king. The relation to power may be explicit, as in The Daily Show’s regular confrontations with leaders of various stripes. It may be heavily disguised: the kvetching of stand-up comedians is both a complaint about the lack of power and a method of claiming some; holding a microphone and amplifying your voice is a modern means of acquiring power. So the spectrum is broad.

The dynamic between jester and king has never been a simple one. The reason is that the jester is positioned in unique relation to the king’s power. By taking on his role the jester is declaring that he has no interest in occupying the throne. He will not challenge the king for the throne. The jester is alone in so declaring. Perversely, the announcement endows the jester with a version of power, in the sense that it grants him special freedom to (artfully) speak truth to power without fear of losing his head.

Dough Play installed at Le Confort-Moderne, Poitiers, France, February 2016

David Robbins’ Dough Play installed at Le Confort-Moderne, Poitiers, France, February 2016, showing fake euros displayed in an open safe, the list of crowdfunding donors, and three clocks representing the cities where the project was simultaneously mounted. Dough Play raised funds through Kickstarter for the sole purpose of buying fake money. Fake dollars were shown at Green Gallery, Milwaukee, fake yen at Misako & Rosen Gallery, Tokyo, and fake euros in Poitiers.

Once upon a time actual, physical, crown-wearing kings wielded life-impacting power over their realm. Since those days the king has become much more abstract and decentralized and nameless. Instead of a corporeal sovereign we have abstract kings. Part of the modern fool’s job becomes, in fact, identifying these abstract kings. Some known kings: mass media, capitalism, patriarchy, narcissism and other assorted isms and orthodoxies — all the dominant, pervasive stuff we, as citizen-subjects, wrestle with. New kings are always being minted. There’s no end to them. The jester will never be out of work; the comedian’s instinct is to subvert anything that he perceives to have power over him.

One of the unanticipated upsides of the modern king’s dispersion across the landscape is that the jester too becomes decentralized. An abstract king supports a multiplicity of jesters working from many locations. Back in the days of actual, sitting kings, a jester was appointed. In modern times the jester appoints himself. The jester volunteers. He puts himself forward. The act of volunteering brings with it certain rights, including, crucially, the right to choose your own materials. These materials may be, as in mainstream comedies, verbal, narrative, and illusionistic. They may be concrete. They may be anything in between, in any combination or proportion. They may be any nature the jester decides.

Jester-wise, we’re seeing a super-abundance of volunteers these days. Technology is driving a boom in mainstream comedy — verbal, narrative, and illusionistic. (Stand-up too is illusionistic, with the audience picturing the comedian’s subjects of verbal address.) You can occupy entire days of the week listening to comedy podcasts, which medium started gaining traction a mere five years ago. Never has it been easier to record, shoot, edit, and, crucially, distribute your own home-made comedy. Podcasts, YouTube, Vimeo, Netflix… — the digital revolution brings with it new platforms. The first all-comedy SVOD service Seeso will premiere 20 original comedy series this year, along with a full menu of golden comic oldies from television’s past.

The profusion of platforms requires a lot of content, but of that there’s no shortage either. In Los Angeles you can be trained in improvisation or sketch comedy at the Upright Citizens Brigade school in one of its fifteen classrooms at their academy on Sunset. Last year UCB saw 7000 enrollments and sold 400,000 tickets to its various nightly shows in the LA and New York branches. Chicago has the new Harold Ramis Film School, dedicated to teaching comedic storytelling. In every major American city there are groups of people performing sketch, others aspiring to be stand-ups, and everyone hoping to make a living from doing comedy. We are itching to make comedy, and apparently we are hungry to be entertained by it as well.

Does this explosion of mainstream comedy signify something in itself? Probably. In positive terms it means that more people are finding a way to communicate their art and getting opportunities to do so, and that’s usually to be desired. At the same time, just as it’s natural for us to wonder about the psychology of the comedian who is always “on,” a culture that turns compulsively comedic might give us pause.

That student anxious about the health of agency — what might he make of so many pursuing careers in laughgetting? Yes, population growth will mean ever greater numbers in every field but in an age of mind-bending inequity comedy has special appeal. If it’s a good time for jesters, it’s a great time for kings. The richest 1% own 50% of the world’s wealth. Just sixty-two individuals own as much as does half the world’s population. In the US, where corporations are counted as people, business lobbyists have a hand in writing laws. We didn’t need the Panama Papers to know that self-selected kings are everywhere and thriving. Calling all jesters!

As with any artform, comedy’s effect on power can only be indirect. The most that comedy can do to a problem is make us laugh at it — shrink it or change our perspective on it or help us see through it. Sometimes this will be sufficient to de-fang the problem. At any rate we don’t want to invest comedy too steeply in a “good versus evil” model, since history teaches that often the good guys will show themselves to be as compromised by vanity as the bad guys. Perhaps vanity, not power, is comedy’s real enemy. Yes: Comedy, in all its forms, is our weapon against vanity in all its forms.

The limits to comedy’s problem-solving capacities acknowledged, I think certain kinds of comedy do exercise and strengthen our sense of agency more than others.

Observe that the technology underwriting and propelling the comedy boom demands representational media — film, TV, video, audio. So much comedy is delivered digitally now, and the web requires digital product. Digital product is made with cameras and microphones, as was twentieth-century mass media comedy before it. Medium doesn’t determine message but it sure as hell configures it. Mainstream comedies are encoded with the virtues as well as the handicaps of the tools employed to produce them. The sense of comic agency these comedies convey will be similarly encoded. Today’s audience for comedy thus is irradiated with a specific depiction of agency, one delimited by representation, courtesy the camera and the microphone. The greater the number of mainstream comedies — in effect, the more constant their signal — the more the sense of agency communicated in them shapes our conception of the jester’s relation to power. It’s not an accident that at the same time we’re seeing an explosion of mainstream comedy offerings, we’ve seen a raft of comedies presenting adult males as overgrown, ineffectual children — boy-men. Adult agency gets short-circuited by the tools of representation. (There’s a long tradition of boy-men in film comedies — Jerry Lewis, Pee Wee Herman, etc. What matters today is the proportion of them relative to other kinds of comedies and other models of agency.) A comedy like Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan (2006) dropped a fictional character into real situations, and courted danger, but Borat is the rare exception. Almost every other comedy inserts fictional characters into fictional situations. They’re safe, and their safety reduces comedy to a matter of aesthetics. They forego muscle.

By their nature, actions which are organized to be recorded by a camera or microphone are charged with a different life than actions enacted for their own sake, in real space and time. This representational conundrum affects almost every kind of narrative made with camera and microphone but in comedy it matters more acutely, for the reason that the jester is a symbolic figure with unique license to throw the very exercise of power into doubt. No society can afford to squander the jester’s potential as, understandably dazzled by the shiny new possibilities of the digital revolution, we have been doing. A super-expansion of make-believe comedy, and the sense of agency it communicates, will, over time, weaken a society.

The current comedy boom (UCB, Harold Ramis School, SeeSo, all things of that ilk) is promoting and fostering a kind of comedy — I repeat: verbal, narrative, illusionistic — that is the rough equivalent of studio art. It is product made to be absorbed by an existing system. Absorption — “successful product” — is the goal as well as the point. Why does this matter? It matters because any powerful cultural system doesn’t only make things, it also influences other things not to be made. Market forces are formatting the comedic imagination of a generation. What kinds of comedy will remain unexplored or undiscovered as a consequence of the mass formatting of imaginations, we won’t know. That’s my principal concern.

Some of us have to do comedy another way. Some of us will define comedy another way. Personally I am not interested to spend my life in a powerless or infantilized condition. I want to feel like an adult, and to exercise adult agency through, yes, making comedies. For this reason, in my search for fun I have consistently preferred approaches to comedy that hold make-believe to a minimum, when it is present at all. I like it real. I like it concrete. Here it’s useful to remember that the modern jester volunteers, and that in the act of volunteering he declares independence, which independence includes the right to choose his own materials, methods, aims, and schedule. In light of this it becomes appropriate to question whether comedy made to be absorbed by an entertainment system should be regarded as taking the fullest advantage of the modern jester’s freedom. It becomes reasonable to ask whether comedy made with ease of absorption by an established, very powerful system in mind is the best way to identify abstract kings and undermine their power.

Dough Play, Poitiers, vandalized, two days after the opening.

Dough Play vandalized, two days after opening.

The two theatrical takes on life are tragedy and comedy, not tragedy and funny. It is the job of comedy to reveal or expose as theaters the theaters in which, wittingly or not, we are enmeshed. It’s comedy’s job to liberate us from those theaters, scrape off the film of shit that is the inevitable residue of participating in society, and deliver us back to the condition of animal joy — the irreducible joy of breathing in and out. That work is sometimes the same work as “being funny,” but not always. Sometimes comedy is bigger and scarier than “funny.” Funny wants to be your friend. Comedy accepts the universe’s essential indifference.

A concrete comedy — a comedy of doing rather than saying — opens up a way to make a more permanent kind of comedy. How funny, really, is a funny line the third time around? That line’s aim is to be funny, to make you laugh. But comedy constructed through gesture taps into the deeper mysteries of behavior — animal mystery. Actions done for real, for their own sake, pack more existential wallop than do representations of actions. It’s one thing to say I’m going to raise money via Kickstarter for the express purpose of buying fake money, or to portray a character who does so in a movie, but it’s quite another to actually raise money via Kickstarter crowdfunding then buy fake money with it, as I have done. You do these things because this is the mark you want to make with your life, not because you seek a development deal with Comedy Central. Concrete gestures better inscribe a comedy into the history of human actions. And a series of these comedic gestures, done for their own sake in real space and real time, can scale to a comic life, by which one may arrive at a singular beauty. I have tried to organize my actions with these goals in mind, trusting that this approach may expand our idea of comedy a little.

David Robbins is an artist and the author of Concrete Comedy: An Alternative History of Twentieth-Century Comedy (2011), among other books.


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