The unfunny joke and the unartist: the metaphysics of absence? A comedian and an artist walk into a bar…
Excerpts from Welcome to the Age of the Unfunny Joke by Lee Siegel (marked “LS”) juxtaposed with quotes from Stephen Wright (SW) and Allan Kaprow (AK).
LS: “In the unfunny joke, the comedian’s format is the Trojan horse that makes its way into your secret store of feelings as you wait genially to be entertained. The surprise is the unfunny truth that cuts through your consciousness with the force of a sword.”
SW: “…though informed by art-related skills, their work suffers from — or, should we say, enjoys — impaired visibility as art. Yet this impaired visibility may well be inversely proportional to the work’s political efficacy: since it is not partitioned off as ‘art,’ that is, as ‘just art,’ it remains free to deploy all its symbolic force in lending enhanced visibility and legibility to social processes of all kinds.”
LS: “Comedy is becoming an occasion to abandon humor for the exposure of unsoftened truth. Of course, comedians have always had license to be blunt so long as they cushioned their provocations with humor. In the case of the unfunny joke, however, the humor is absent.”
AK: “…the idea of art cannot easily be gotten rid of (even if one wisely never utter the word). But it is possible to slyly shift the whole un-artistic operation away from where the arts customarily congregate, to become, for instance, an account executive, an ecologist, a stunt rider, a politician, a beach bum. In these different capacities…[art] would operate indirectly as a stored code that, instead of programming a specific course of behavior, would facilitate an attitude of deliberate playfulness toward all professionalizing activities well beyond art. Signal scrambling, perhaps. Something like those venerable baseball aficionados in the vaudeville act that began, “Who’s on first?”
LS: “These people are professional comedians and most of their acts are spent making people laugh. But there is a schizoid dimension to comedy now. As fiction merges into autobiography, and movies based on actual events proliferate, the compulsion for comedians to smash through the artifice of comedy and tell the unadorned truth without humor is becoming stronger and stronger.”