The Intersection of Stand-Up Comedy and the Art World

Claire Titelman performs as part of Machine Project’s pay-per-view comedy special.
Claire Titelman performs as part of Machine Project’s pay-per-view comedy special.
Courtesy of Machine Project

It was hot and stuffy, and comedian James Adomian was performing on a stage in the Highland Park art space Public Fiction, under a spotlight. Hovering behind him was an inflatable globe — or the globe could be in front of him, depending which way he turned, since audience members sat on all sides. It was helping him with his jokes. He'd just told a great one about how David Bowie's Space Oddity is evidence for why the Brits never got their space program off the ground. "He gets up there, and he's, like, 'I'm floating in the most peculiar way,'" Adomian said, relying on his British glam-rocker accent while using the globe to demonstrate how far off Bowie's narrator must have been when he noticed "Planet Earth is blue and there's nothing I can do." It was when Adomian started prodding the globe with the microphone stand, doing his version of a WWII-era British officer ("The Germans are here, and here, and here") that the globe went tumbling down into the audience.

As this happened, Lauren Mackler, who started Public Fiction four years ago, leaned over to get a glimpse of artist Amanda Ross-Ho. Was she OK? The artist, who had made the globe, was laughing. "She loved it," Mackler says.

Ross-Ho is one of six artists Mackler and her collaborator, writer Sarah Lehrer-Graiwer, asked to make an artwork to "stand up" for two weeks on the comedy stage installed at Public Fiction. They called the project "Tragedy + Time," and this night was a kind of culmination, during which comics came in and shared the space the artworks had been occupying. Endearing, self-deprecating Maria Bamford, who delivered lines about whiteness and gentrification in Highland Park, performed before Adomian. Byron Bowers and Kate Berlant came after.

Part of the goal of this project, and the simultaneous series of installations Lehrer-Graiwer and Mackler organized for the "Made in L.A." exhibition at the Hammer Museum across town, was to experiment with how artists working in different genres can fill a room.

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"The performance is so live," Mackler says of stand-up. "The jokes have been done before, but it doesn't matter." What matters is how they resonate in the space at a given moment. "Artwork is also kind of about delivery and context," she adds.

As soon as you start to probe the overlaps between the art and comedy worlds, you realize there's a lot there, and most of it pretty recent: artists crossing over from performance or video into stand-up; comics performing in art spaces that may not have embraced them, or thought to embrace them, a decade ago.

Miriam Katz, who splits her time among Echo Park, Brooklyn and Paris, organized her first comedy event at PS1, the Museum of Modern Art's Long Island satellite, in 2011. "Comedians had performed at MoMA before, but it had always been ancillary to an exhibition or other program," Katz says. During her event, performances by Jenny Slate, who just starred in the film Obvious Child, and Reggie Watts, who's disorienting on purpose, were the art.

It was a year earlier, in 2010, when Katz pitched an interview with Watts to Artforum, that she began to realize bringing comedy into the art world could be her main project. She and Watts talked process and dug into how his work had evolved. "I was doing a studio visit with an artist," she recalls. "It was basically the exact same thing."

She has since organized an all-comics panel on Andy Kaufman's legacy at MoMA; curated comedy for Silencio, the art space that David Lynch runs in Paris; and started doing stand-up herself. "I like liveness. I like that risk," she says, and wonders if the shift of her attention toward comedy might have been less complete had the rise of art fairs had not perpetuated so much safeness and professionalization. "Maybe then art would still be risky enough for me."

Echo Park–based comedian Eric Svedas, who studied art at Cal State Long Beach, at first made objects, then videos, then performed for his videos and then started just doing stand-up–like performances for art audiences. But he became frustrated by the seriousness and standardization of the art world.

"Speaking to people in an art context, you're assuming that they all went to college and read the same books you've read," he says. You can't assume such things in comedy clubs, which makes them more challenging. "There are so many variables and factors with each set that it's pretty hard to get bored," he explains. He's now doing stand-up at places such as Flappers in Burbank or Echoes Under Sunset.

"For me, it's been a process of essentialization," says Svedas, who even as a sculptor had been interested in how he could elicit certain responses from audiences, often through humor.

"I think I was fooled into thinking the art context celebrates transgression," he adds. Stand-ups actually may have the potential to be more transgressive than any performer. "It's possible to introduce really tough subject matter and have it go almost unnoticed" because audiences are already enjoying themselves.

Art audiences who don't necessarily expect to laugh can let a comic dwell on weird details and take the dwelling seriously. Casey Jane Ellison, the deadpan comic and artist who recently started hosting Ovation's web series Touching the Art, kept the animations she made as an artist separate from her stand-up until around 2012. That's the year she made the video It's So Important to Seem Wonderful, in which her avatar, who looks like her and wears her signature dark lipstick but is bald and twitchy, does parts of Ellison's stand-up routines. All the avatar's jokes feel incomplete, so you think a lot about tone and set-up while watching her.

Three weeks after comedy night at Public Fiction, the Echo Park alt-space Machine Project aired a "Pay-Per-View Comedy Special." It was a tightly edited, 12-minute version of a comedy show Machine had hosted in its secret, ornate basement theater earlier in the year. The idea was that on Sunday, Aug. 31, at 8 p.m., viewers could pay 25 cents via PayPal and then watch the special online (the server crashed at some point during the night).

The special started with clips from a performance by Cliff Hengst, an Oakland artist who had an unpleasant experience with stand-up earlier in life but agreed to try it again, because Mark Allen, Machine's director, kept asking.

Claire Titelman, an actress and stand-up who's been a regular on Chelsea Handler's show and often performs in art spaces, was on later. She was wearing a patterned romper over a bright yellow shirt, tugging up her shorts. Her opening joke, about how other comics were homosexual, was one she considered scrapping the night of the show. The comics who came before her had been gay. Could she do it right? She tried. "It's a really fast joke in stand-up rooms," she says. "But I sort of took it apart, dismembered it" for the Machine Project audience.

"Do you guys think maybe I am homosexual?" she asked in a sleepy voice. "Don't leave me ooouuut." Her "two best homosexual friends" always ask, "Claire, are you sure you're not a lesbian? Are you suuuuure?" She kept going, being uncomfortably explicit in a girlish way, and people kept laughing.

Art-world audiences, Titelman has found, will follow you farther down winding roads. It's not that one world trumps another; it's more that performing for a different one allows for different magic.

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