Comic. Droll. Wacky, kooky, silly and slapstick. Side-splittingly hilarious. Amusingly madcap.
If you’re an artist, do you want these words applied to you?
And if they are, are you afraid they negate your sense of craft?
Let me say up front, the funny is not exactly my personal forte. It’s a genre into which I dabble, a mode that I sometimes employ. But it’s not really my mainstay, and I don’t think many would classify the majority of my work as comedic. When people see my stuff, though there are often things that make people laugh, I think they likely put it under the heading of the frowny face dramatic mask and not under the upturned smile.
In many ways, I’m pretty lucky because of that. Lucky not to have to wrestle with the label of “funny” or “humor.” It’s something of a relief to be “serious” because I don’t personally have to deal with a stereotype and unfair bias that my fellow creators who do live squarely in the humor category do.
Comedy: No one takes it seriously, am I right?
And before you go telling me it’s not true, go look at the big awards in any category of art making and then count the number of “dramatic” works compared with “comedic” ones. I don’t even need to do a survey, I know that the things that people deem worthy of accolades are the heavy stuff. I unconsciously do it myself. I think we all do. When I pitch works to presenters, I down play the comedic, and emphasize the avant-garde and heady. When I want people to think I’m smart, I don’t go for the funny. I remember in college reading biographies of Moliere – one of the greatest comedy writers ever to exist – and being struck with how much he wanted to be a tragedian. That he tried to be a “serious” actor and wanted so deeply to write “serious” plays and failed over and over. He was cursed with too great a sense of humor.
Even if we don’t think that we think that way, we can’t help but admiring someone for delving into something “hard.” We revere those that make us cry and don’t see effort in the same light when it’s directed at making us laugh. Is it something hardwired that makes people equate humor with lightness? Something unconscious that makes us assume levity equals lack of depth? Why is that? What is it about “heavy” subject matter that somehow makes things more worthy of debate or academic discussion?
I think this bias runs very deep in the structures we have created to support artists, in the non-profit world most especially. Arts are a deeply imperfect fit for this model. And while again, no one would say it, I think deep down we all think of non-profitship as “doing good” in a very particular way. It is selfless and egoless and totally “good” and “serious.” And I bet its why foundations get a little squicky about giving their very important and tax deductible money to people for “just” being funny.
Feeding hungry children in Africa. Raising awareness for disability. Offering Shakespeare’s tragedies to the Philadephia area.
They all have that humorless ring to them, don’t they? They are all good for you rather than feeling good to you. They all smack a bit of responsibility and social progress and of eating one’s vegetables. Starving babies aren’t funny and if I have to compete with them for funding I guess my artwork should be just as serious.
Artists end up in this strange contortion in which we must prove that people do come to our works (and valuing theater based solely on the number of butts in seats is a whole other problem) and that they enjoy them (whatever that means) enough to value our art in society, and yet we must also prove that our work isn’t just amusement or leisure. That we deserve support, unlike a movie that people might just go and buy because they already want to, in a way that is different that these commercial outlets.
Look, entertainment is different than artwork. They are totally different metrics. Like a Venn diagram you can have one or the other or both depending on where you’re placing yourself, and they can overlap in strange and sometimes frustrating ways. But at the core they are two different circles. And the trickiest thing about those two circles is that we only associate one of them with being commercially marketable. We only equate one of them with capitalistic success.
I think laughter is tangible a sign of entertainment. And so laughter becomes a symbol of commercial success and selling out and all the things we think that a good artist in the non-profit would should ward against. Because if something has commercial value it can’t be taken serious in the “art” world or what does the art world have left to defend itself with? I think it’s a posture that is ultimately a defensive one. And it’s why entertainment and the “Arts” remain such strange and uncomfortable bedfellows. They are not the same, but they are confusingly similar. And in an effort for artists to distinguish their art from entertainment, I think too often we run to the side of the Venn diagram in which the two circles stop overlapping.
The problem with arts under the moniker of a “social service” runs deeper than just the topic of comedy, but I think it applies most especially. If at your core you want to make artwork, however you define it, and you happen to express it through humor, you have to deal with this battle going on in the minds of those around you.
Some artists are funny. Some make us cry. Both can be beautiful or transgressive or enlightening. People talk about great works of art “elevating the human spirit.” What’s more elevating than laughter?
Here is the truth:
There are comedies that are not art, work that are uncrafted and uncomplicated, even if they entertain. There are comedies that are art, complex and intelligent and change our ability to see things in a new way.
The same is true about dramatic works, we just seem to have a bit more objectivity with them.