The stage was set for Performa: Not Funny—a wryly programmed series, presented by Performa 11 at Anthology Film Archives, about the overlap of filmed stand-up comedy and video performance art in the politically electric late 70s—by the first two programs last week: Lenny Bruce’s not funny reading of his obscenity charges, and the greatest performance film ever made, featuring revolutionary Richard Pryor, who gently chuckles a “fuck you” out to a heckler before turning the lights on his audience, not to heckle back but to point out that Huey P. Newton is sitting among them. In all the pieces in this series, the joke is not for but both on and independent of the audience.
No one takes that further than Andy Kaufman, whose creepy-genius subversive shorts are screened tonight in a program called Comics on the Edge in the 1970s. Kaufman begins one performance act by playing “himself” (with a bizarre Canadian/British accent) who announces in a comic club that both his and the audience’s time would be better spent by reading aloud from The Great Gatsby. The resulting sound of laughter turning into low groans of discontent and then into a chorus of harmonized boos is fascinating and frightening, and worthy of a gallery installation. Kaufman is deadpan throughout this coup, even when he soothes the discontented by playing a record (of him reading The Great Gatsby). He only cracks once, in a bit from another performance, when making a joke about Will Rogers’s fatal plane crash in front of an audience at Carnegie Hall; Kaufman entertains himself by stretching subversion of audience expectations as far as it will go. He later takes the entire audience at Carnegie Hall out for milk and cookies, by twenty buses in two groups, which is funny mostly for its arithmetic.
Also in this program is Albert Brooks’ Famous School for Comedians, an elaborate answer to, “So, you think you could be a comedian, too?” Reliably bitter and smug, Brooks films this short as if it were an infomercial mocking not just the thought that anyone could do this job, but the fact that anyone would want to. Before graduating, each newly minted comedian has to pick which disease to contribute his talents towards eliminating (“there are still a few different kinds of cancer left”), just in case he makes it big, because a life devoted to making fun also needs to be devoted to “the serious side.”
Also mocking the commercial format is William Wegman’s video art, the highlight of tomorrow night’s program of “California-based” video artists, and also the biggest surprise, given Wegman’s fame for, primarily, dog calendar art. Shaggy-haired Wegman is deadpan and succinct in brilliant jokes that are deconstructions of the punchline. Each video is a punchline freed from its joke, floating free into outer-space absurdity.
Also in this program is Eleanor Antin’s brilliant and hilariously neurotic The Little Match Girl Ballet, a studio-bound video art telling of The Black Swan, made 35 years before. (Here, Antin is transformed into Elinora Antinova, or the Black Match Girl, before dancing to her death.) Just as the best bits of that Aronofsky film were the subway scenes filmed on the 1 train with a still camera, lo-fi seems a better way of telling this archetypal story of tutus and alter egos. Antin lets the unadorned myth assimilate into the audience’s imaginations; she lets the audience do the work.