People often argue about whether improvisation is art or comedy. Del Close believed the former, while Bernie Sahlins argued it was a tool to develop sketch comedy.
I think it’s both. And the more I learn about comedy, the more I realise the lines between art and comedy have been blurred for some time.
“Stop thinking about art works as objects, and start thinking about them as triggers for experiences.” – Brian Eno
Cameron and I have always been drawn to art with ideas.
Whether it’s Michael Craig-Martin’s Oak Tree (a glass of water and a piece of paper that explains how the glass is, in fact, an oak tree), or Gillian Wearing’s Signs That Say What You Want Them To Say, and Not Signs That Say What Someone Else Wants You To Say, it’s amazing how many great ideas are also funny.
David Shrigley, Jason Polan, and Banksy use humour liberally in their work. And like improvisers, they often do it to make a social statement. It’s the contrast of light and dark, frivolity and foreboding that often makes art so powerful.
Other “serious” artists with a sense of humour include Damien Hirst, Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, Salvador Dali, and the venerable Gilbert & George.
And let’s not forget Andy Warhol. Anyone who films the Empire State Building with a locked-off camera for 24 hours and then shows the result in theatres is having a laugh.
When Canadian customs officers refused to let his Brillo boxes over the border because they looked like, well, Brillo boxes, and as such were subject to customs fees, Andy must’ve been pissing himself laughing back in New York.
Reporter: Does it bother you that you can’t hear what you sing during concerts?
John Lennon: No, we don’t mind. We’ve got the records at home.
The Beatles weren’t just talented musicians, they were incredibly witty. Listening to their fan club’s Christmas records, you’d swear they were a tight-knit improv team.
John appeared on Peter Cooke and Dudley Moore’s sketch comedy show Not Only, But Also. And George later teamed up with Monty Python in The Rutles: All You Need Is Cash. He also helped fund The Life of Brian.
Some musicians inject humour more directly into their work. Bands like Cake, They Might Be Giants, and Godley & Creme combine solid tunes with quirky lyrics. For a tour de force that’s part song, part sketch, check out Godley & Creme’s classic, The Party.
And while Flight of the Conchords are arguably comedians who just happen to sing and play guitar, their songs are undeniably catchy.
Who’s Afraid Of The “C” Word?
The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has long favoured drama over comedy.
It’s a safe bet that Elizabeth Taylor wouldn’t have won the Best Actress Oscar® if Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? had been billed as a black comedy instead of a drama. It’s both, in my opinion.
As Judd Apatow pointed out, “It’s been like five times in a zillion years that [a comedy] has won Best Picture.” Maybe next year we’ll finally see a category for films like The Edge Of Tomorrow. (That’s a comedy, right?)
“That’s the great thing about advertising. You could have a crawl space under your kitchen floor filled with little girls’ bones and as long as you can dream up a better Chuck Wagon commercial, you’re in.” – from Dry by Augusten Burroughs
Some of my favourite authors are laugh-out-loud funny, even when their material is dark. A few of my best-loved books include:
Magical Thinking by Augusten Burroughs (autobiographical short stories of growing up gay with a family of weirdos in middle America)
The Glass Teat by Harlan Ellison (television commentary with a side of vitriol)
Don’t Worry, He Won’t Get Far on Foot by the late, great John Callahan (harrowing but hilarious autobiography of a hardcore alcoholic who becomes a cartoonist)
My Custom Van by Michael Ian Black (which includes A Series Of Letters To A Squirrel, and What I Would Be Thinking If I Were Billy Joel Driving To A Holiday Party Where I Knew There Was Going To Be A Piano)
“Art is anything you can get away with.” – Andy Warhol
What makes any art truly great is its ability to connect with the audience.
We may not always remember things that are smart, but we remember the things that make us feel. That’s why improv will always be art to me.