Monday, March 29, 2010

Nasty Comedy, Human Rights, And The Standup Character

Today a human rights tribunal is considering whether stand-up comic Guy Earle discriminated against an audience member by using slurs against her gender and orientation in his routine.

There's some consensus about the events that provoked the complaint: A Vancouver restaurant called Zesty's (where the Wet Spots have performed a few times) was hosting a stand-up night. A woman began heckling and disrupting the performance. The host of the night heckled back at her with a tirade that included the words "dyke" and "cunt". There's been a lot of hand-wringing about freedom of speech versus hate speech in this case, but the comedian insists that the context in which he used these words is the more relevant issue. Is there a context in which flinging slurs like this at people is acceptable? Perhaps. And it's worth examining, because it goes to the heart of what makes stand-up such a vital hybrid theatrical form.

When we go to see magician, we recognize that we are not watching a person with superhuman powers of teleportation, esp, levitation etc. We are watching a gifted performer and technician play the role of a person with superhuman powers. The better the illusion of magic, the better the 'magician'. Similarly, a stand-up comic on stage is not consistently, extemporaneously funny. A stand-up comic is a writer / performer playing the role of someone who is extemporaneously funny. They have written and memorized most of their material in advance. They intersperse it with occasional references to what's going on in the day's news or the immediate environment in order to create the illusion of someone cracking jokes off the top of their head. The best comedians combine great writing chops with a great performance of this illusion.

In a 'nasty' standup show, this writer / performer plays the role of a funny, mean, insulting (and often bigoted) jerk. We see such characters on TV shows and in movies without getting too worked up. Nobody reports Carroll O'Connor to a human rights tribunal because Archie Bunker says vicious things. We all understand that the TV show is a fiction. A fiction that may reflect unpleasant realities, but a fiction nonetheless. In a live 'nasty' show, the stand-up character is also a fiction. The better he (and it usually is he) is at convincing you he's a ranting asshole, the better he is at his job.

It's worth asking if a 'nasty' show is inherently dangerous or wrong. I think these shows play with dark energies and examine places in our psyches that we often want to deny. And, like BDSM, it can be exhilarating or it can be damaging, depending on how it's played. Comedy often pokes at our tender places. Sexuality, religion, race, frailty, ugliness - these are all areas that we struggle with. There are pieties. There are sacred cows. There is anger and frustration. Comedians gleefully fling this around like zoo chimps with poo. And speaking of chimps, here's another uncomfortable truth: they laugh like hell when one of their number falls over or gets hit. And so do we humans. Violence is funny. Slapstick is the universal language of comedy. Monty Python was comprised of Oxbridge grads and did clever songs about drunken philosophers, but their best gag involved hitting a guy with a big fish and knocking him off a dock into the water. Violent language, vicious tirades and nasty slurs are the verbal equivalent of slapstick. Some of us watch Tom Cruise blow things up in movies. Some of us watch the South Park kids trash talk everything in sight. And some of us go to 'nasty' shows in the clubs. We like aggression in our entertainment.

(As a sidebar, Canadian comedian Jason Rouse's genius has been to deconstruct the 'nasty' comedian persona. A typical Rouse set might begin "So I'm fist-fucking this nun..." and escalate from there into violent, obscene imagery so baroque and demented that it loses any sense of realism or context and enters the world of dadaist cartoon violence where, paradoxically, it almost has a childish innocence. Jason's smiling, friendly delivery of the material adds to this.)

When Michael "Kramer" Richards used the n-bomb against hecklers several years ago, some suggested that his real crime was using the slur while not being funny. Having heard Guy Earle on radio I suspect him of a similar offense. This sounds frivolous but it's central. A tasteless joke, like a sexual come-on, can be either sublime, ridiculous or disgusting depending on how it's delivered and how it's received. Some are born with a genius for delivery. Most of us have to learn. I give immense credit to Earle and to Zesty's for creating a space where novice performers could take risks and fuck up large doing their most dangerous material. It's the sort of place the Wet Spots came out of. But it was often a huge psychic drag to be in these rooms. There's a certain stench to a failed blue joke that doesn't accompany an unsuccessful airplane-food gag.

Part of what makes stand-up fascinating is the unique nature of the character onstage: partly scripted, partly improvised. The relationship between the character and the performer is more intimate than that of, say, Ian Mckellen playing Gandalf. Which is not to say that in standup, performer and character are identical or even close to identical. But it is the case that the performer is usually the primary writer and sole director of his or her standup character. When Zac Galafinakis acts in The Hangover, everyone realizes he's playing a fictional part. Yet there remains a powerful illusion that when he speaks from the standup stage, it is his authentic voice telling true stories.

Live standup is also a unique theatrical form in that it includes anyone who chooses to make a comment. But once you make a comment you are no longer simply an observer or customer. You are also a performer, performing within a context. In a 'nasty' show that context is - well - nasty. Whenever they deal with a heckler, the stand-up performer must go off-script and improvise banter. This is real high-wire stuff and it can be exhilarating to watch. Many comedians relish the risk. But it can easily blow up in the performer's face. So there's a deterrent: In comedy etiquette if you heckle, you give permission to be heckled back viciously. That's the rule at any comedy show. At a 'nasty' show, the stakes are even higher and the sort of language you can expect to come at you if you heckle is even fouler. It's cathartic and charged, and many audience members relish the risk. And it needs to be consensual. To use a hippy, woo-woo phrase, you need to create a well-defined container for this kind of energy.

Guy Earle says there was a sign at the door warning people about the content. There was admission charged. Did the heckler consent to being viciously insulted by entering the space and joining the performance? Did they know the conventions of this sort of show? Is it the performer's job to warn them? The promoter's? All interesting questions. But the most important one is whether we should, in a live interactive theater setting, censure a performer for the words and opinions expressed by the character they're playing.

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