Comedians Breaking Definitions

June 26, 2012
Posted by Jay Livingston

Martha Plimpton’s brief bio on Twitter:
I put dead people’s hair on my head and talk loudly in front of strangers for money.
In a previous post (here) I noted that actors and magicians share with their audience an unusual and self-contradictory definition of the situation. The performer makes every effort to convince the audience that he is something he is not – the possessor of supernatural powers, a prince of Denmark, etc.  But he must also convey the idea that he is really just an ordinary person and that he is fully aware that he is not what he is claiming to be.  As long as everyone shares this definition of the situation, the show can go on. Without that definition, acting, as Ms. Plimpton suggests, sounds absurd if not deranged.

Comedians and their audiences have a similar tacit agreement.  It’s most obvious with the old-style, joke-telling stand-up comedians.  The rabbi, the priest, and the kangaroo did not really walk into a bar.  Observational comedians blur the line slightly, calling our attention to real absurdities we might not have noticed.  Elayne Boosler asks her audience, “Ever notice that Soup for One is eight aisles away from Party Mix?”  But we know she does not really think that supermarkets are trying to segregate the shoppers – one aisle for the lonely, another for the socially successful.  And when Seinfeld asks what’s the deal with automobiles or airlines or whatever, we know that he is not really puzzled and that he understands them the same way that we do.

But some comedians break the agreement. The Times yesterday had an article about comedian Tig Notaro seeming to forget her own routine.*
Time passed slowly. Ms. Notaro spotted a familiar face in the crowd and asked for help. Her friend shouted a reminder. Ms. Notaro started the story again, froze, joked and asked for help. As this series of false starts continued, patterns emerged in expressions, gestures, cadence.
She is violating the usual definition of how comedians should perform, and the audience is puzzled.
Not all of the audience however was amused. As minutes went by, people start checking their watches and rolling their eyes. This atmosphere resembled what I imagine the first minutes of watching Andy Kaufman read the entire “Great Gatsby” onstage were like. The audience chuckled, then murmured. Was this all a stunt? And seriously, when was it going to end?
I saw Andy Kaufman a few times at The Improv long ago, and the audience reaction (or mine at least) went beyond puzzlement or boredom to places like distress or anger. 

One night, Kaufman came on stage and started to play a conga drums.  (I don’t remember if he spoke an introduction or just started playing. )   At some point, he started to sing in some indecipherable language.  The audience laughed.  But then he continued, long after the audience had stopped laughing.** 

In this, and in other routines, Kaufman would stay in character so long that the audience would not know what to make of him.  Maybe this guy is really crazy, you would think.  Maybe he doesn’t realize that the audience doesn’t think he’s funny.  Maybe he’s doing this out of some schizoid inability to sense the reactions of others, and he is attending only to his own internal imagined reality. 

The thought that you were looking not at a comedian but at a seriously troubled mind was not at all funny.  It was upsetting. 

I don’t remember how he would end this bit.  My guess is that he said his, “Tank you veddy much,” and did his stiff little bows and got off stage.  But whatever the ending was, it did little to convey the idea that he knew it was all just an act.

One night, I left the club – it must have been close to 2 a.m. – and not far from the door Kaufman and Elayne Boosler,*** who had also performed that night, were having a heated argument.  “You can’t do that,” she shouted at him. “You can’t do that to people.” 

I wish I had stayed longer to eavesdrop on the rest of the conversation.  At the same time, I felt relieved to know that Kaufman was not out of touch with reality.  His ability to have an argument about his act meant that he knew it was just an act. 
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* Notaro’s more typical version of the routine – a long (11-minute) anecdote involving Taylor Dayne – is here

** A video of a much less ambiguous version of the congas bit is here

*** Kaufman and Boosler were good friends, possibly romantically involved, though I certainly did not know that at the time.

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