February 2, 2008

What if there were no punch lines?

Yesterday I was talking to a young artist, Jason Kraus about performance that renders objects and objects the render performance. He tentatively called it post-performance, and by I think that he meant to fuse a modern and postmodern intention, a strategy I am partial to.

In language that I like to use: if the modern was to touch G-d with material means and the postmodern was to touch everyday life with conceptual means, the next step forward can't be a simplistic post-postmodernism. But it might be possible to reverse the alienating mechanism within postmodernity and look for how antithetical worldviews interlock.

I can hear Bart walk by, muttering: "NERDS!". He's right . Enough of that.

Two items come to mind. Both are probably tangential to the conversation, but I'm happy to mention them anyway. They are about performance and how the unscripted open ended kind is the ultimate prize. The video above, here's the YouTube description:

Famous TV Director James Burrows talks about Andy Kaufman and his work on "Taxi".Insightful interview with a first hand account of the legendary Tony Clifton incident.
and this great piece from the Smithsonian Magazine by Steve Martin:
In a college psychology class, I had read a treatise on comedy explaining that a laugh was formed when the storyteller created tension, then, with the punch line, released it. I didn't quite get this concept, nor do I still, but it stayed with me and eventually sparked my second wave of insights. With conventional joke telling, there's a moment when the comedian delivers the punch line, and the audience knows it's the punch line, and their response ranges from polite to uproarious. What bothered me about this formula was the nature of the laugh it inspired, a vocal acknowledgment that a joke had been told, like automatic applause at the end of a song.

A skillful comedian could coax a laugh with tiny indicators such as a vocal tic (Bob Hope's "But I wanna tell ya") or even a slight body shift. Jack E. Leonard used to punctuate jokes by slapping his stomach with his hand. One night, watching him on "The Tonight Show," I noticed that several of his punch lines had been unintelligible, and the audience had actually laughed at nothing but the cue of his hand slap.

These notions stayed with me until they formed an idea that revolutionized my comic direction: What if there were no punch lines? What if there were no indicators? What if I created tension and never released it? What if I headed for a climax, but all I delivered was an anticlimax? What would the audience do with all that tension? Theoretically, it would have to come out sometime. But if I kept denying them the formality of a punch line, the audience would eventually pick their own place to laugh, essentially out of desperation. This type of laugh seemed stronger to me, as they would be laughing at something they chose, rather than being told exactly when to laugh.
Posted by Dennis at February 2, 2008 7:08 AM

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