Gemma: I’m working on a piece about labels in the performing arts and having just attended my first comedy club a few weeks ago (just turned 18), I’d really like to delve more into comedy. I couldn’t help but notice several similarities between comedy venues and theatre venues. That got me thinking. Who is to say that comedy isn’t an art? I learned in my Intro to Theatre class that all one needs for theatre is a performer and an audience. Comedy is certainly a performance and there is definitely a crucial crowd/comic relationship. I’d like to get your open-ended responses to a few questions if you don’t mind.
Naomi: Okay, Gemma, to answer your pre-question up top, that’s not really a question to me: Who is to say that comedy isn’t an art?
I think comedy is considered an art, and often thought of as the bravest thing a performer can do. Truly great comedians (Bill Cosby, Chris Rock, George Carlin, Louis CK, Wanda Sykes) bring a humanity and realness to the stage while at the same time presenting carefully crafted jokes/bits/stories*. They inhabit various characters, whether it is themselves when they were younger or a parent or a child.
*(I use these slashes because it depends on the comic—some people are more storytellers [Cosby] and some are more into taking an idea and delving deep into what makes the idea unusual/different/funny/worth discussing. Seinfeld tells jokes, has bits—a collection of jokes on a particular subject or premise).
According to Wikipedia, performance art – in all its permutations, boils down to: [A]ny situation that involves four basic elements: time, space, the performer’s body, or presence in a medium, and a relationship between performer and audience.
I think it’s particularly this last element – a relationship between performer and audience – that makes stand-up comedy a type of performance art. To quote the goddess of contemporary performance art, Marina Abramovic (as you must if you want to try to discuss the art form),
“Performance is when the performer steps into his own mental and physical construction in the public. It’s a kind of energy dialogue. They are not rehearsed or repeated but done once basically. There is a concept that is a platform for the performer to follow, but at the same time, he doesn’t know the outcome of the performance in that moment. It is very different from the theater. There is a constant dialogue between the performer and the public.”*
Although, as a comedian I have written and prepared jokes honed over months and years of being on stage, each performance is completely different. I may go into a gig prepared to do a certain kind of material but once I’m on stage I’ll get a strong sense of the audience’s energy, what they seem to be responding strongly to (through their laughter, of course), and will adjust my set accordingly. I may even start to make changes after I’ve seen the audience’s responses to other comics who have performed before me, preparing myself to do something that wasn’t planned. In that sense, each show is done once, basically. And even though I’m tweaking my material, I’m not fabricating anything – I’m going through a mental Rolodex of my experiences that could relate to them. When I get on stage, I’m “stepping into my own mental construction.”
My willingness – and, honestly, what I feel is need – to adjust my material for my audience is also emblematic of Abramovic’s idea of “a constant dialogue between the performer and the public.” There are many comedians who have made a career out of shocking and challenging their audience (Lisa Lampinelli, Dennis Miller, Bill Maher), and perhaps this approach is more obviously connected to what is most often categorized as performance art.