Over the last several years, I've been trying to gather examples of solid writing on comedy that will feel relevant to contemporary artists, especially artists who are still in school. While I wouldn't say that there's a wealth of writing on humor, it's also not exactly unexplored territory. Unfortunately, a lot of writing on humor, specifically philosophical and/or academic treatises on humor, is dangerously unfunny. We all know the adage that explaining a joke makes it unfunny.
An obvious, foundational piece of writing is Freud's 1905 three-part book Jokes and Their Relationship to the Unconscious. Should you read it if you're interested in comedy? Sure, go for it. But what I'm looking to collect is writing with a little more of a relationship to what artists are experiencing now in 2017, writing that more directly addresses the application of humor in varied forms across myriad media. Now would be an excellent time for me to make a joke about Freud's cocaine usage, but I don't really have any opinion on the matter.
Below is a preliminary list of texts--in no particular order--that I've found useful in my own research and when teaching. Where possible, I've embedded a downloadable PDF of the books or linked directly to an article. If you've got any suggestions to add, please hit me up at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'd love to expand this list and am very happy to mention who sent what along! I've searched high and low, aiming to make my own research as inclusive as possible, but this could use more writing on the experiences of--from the perspectives of--women of color, as well as queer, trans, nonbinary, and genderqueer folks. I would absolutely value any suggestions to help diversify the roster to more accurately represent lived experiences outside of my own, because comedy is for everybody.
I'll keep updating this post as I come across new stuff. Happy reading, screedlers.
This is kind of a go-to for artists. In it, Robbins outlines artists, musicians, and even fashion designers who were creating what he deems "concrete comedy." The basics of concrete comedy are that it is the comedy of doing rather than saying. Objects can be jokes, the humor doesn't lie where you think it does, and the need for an audience is interrogated. Numerous historical examples provide an interesting artists' history of comedy previously not collated. If you're looking for a simple, truncated version, I recommend beginning with "Concrete Comedy: A Primer," a piece he wrote for Artforum in 2004.
While this text isn't explicitly about comedy, and most certainly isn't about things that are funny at all, I think that it's a must-read for people who want to more thoroughly look at distinctions between subject and object, especially in the context of queer theory and feminist criticism. Surely you've noticed the increase in horror-infused comedy over the last several years, and it's interesting to think about the overlaps between finding something hysterical and experiencing manic hysteria. Kristeva outlines the various contexts of the abject, from marginalization to death to repression. For those interested in working with volatile or violent subject matter in an effort to critique it, this provides some exceptionally helpful frameworks for understanding how to talk about that kind of work.
This book is an alternative record of the history of comedy, namely, the untold story of African American comedy in the United States. Watkins traces an arc from slavery through the twentieth century, revealing a sociopolitically-engaged underground comedy tradition that broke into the mainstream with Richard Pryor in the 1970s. Watkins sings the praises of some of the unsung heroes of Black comedy, arguing a lineage without which we would never have had Chris Rock or Whoopi Goldberg.
One of the earlier articles to come up in the early '10s about comedy infiltrating art, this is a short read that gives nods to a few people who remain forces in the field. It's a really quick read that just highlights a trend, rather than a substantive survey. But I like its prescience.
This book isn't funny, but it's a handy little collection edited by Claire Bishop that looks at the increasing role of participatory art. For anybody interested in working in collective or collaborative modes, whether it's with an audience or a team of other artists, there is a lot to chew on here. It's got bits from Allan Kaprow, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, Rirkrit Tiravanija, Hal Foster, and many others. Be advised: it is regrettably kind of a bro party.
Contained in this book is a pretty comprehensive examination of standup comedy through a uniquely American lens. It explores the relationships that comedians have with their audiences, the contexts in which jokes are funny or not, and how Kristeva's writings are relevant to the art of the joke. For contemporary artists, there are some really interesting parallels between exhibiting your work and standing up on a stage trying to generate laughter. One time I emailed John Limon to invite him to be a guest in my class and he wrote me back expressing disbelief because he was under the impression that nobody had ever once read this book. LOL.
Smith offers an autobiographical perspective on comedy through its ubiquity in her home growing up--her father was obsessed with it. I particularly like her musings on the way that deciding to become a comedian is unlike any other career path. She writes, "It turns out that becoming a comedian is an act of instantaneous self-creation. There are no intermediaries blocking your way, no gallerists, publishers, or distributors. Social class is a non-issue; you do not have to pass your eleven-plus."
Besides Robbins's Concrete Comedy, this is probably the most art/comedy-specific book that I've come across. Like the Participation book edited by Claire Bishop, it's from MIT Press's Whitechapel: Documents of Contemporary Art series. Higgie's collection covers Surrealism, Dada, Pop, Readymades, and more recent work by artists like Barbara Kruger and Mike Kelley. If you're a student an an art school, they should have this in your library. If they don't, make them order it.
This is an easy afternoon read that packs a punch. Critchley's a philosopher, yet this exploration on comedy is anything but dry. Seriously; the first time that I read it on an airplane, I laughed out loud more than once. Each chapter tackles a different angle on what makes something funny, and Critchley adeptly points out the inherent xenophobia in much of what passes for jokes. He was a guest in one of my classes years ago, and we had a spirited discussion on how deeply conservative the majority of comedy actually is. In a field that is constantly described as the medium that speaks truth to power, Critchley smartly points to where comedy only serves to maintain the status quo.
This article by artist Martine Syms is a quick read from Art in America's June 2015 issue on art and comedy. I've read and reread the piece countless times and am deeply interested in her thoughtful ruminating on the artist (and the comedian) as a self-promoting product. The advent of social media and diversified platforms have created numerous opportunities for artists and comics to circumvent the traditional routes to notoriety. She discusses her own video work, plus artists Devin Kenny, Amalia Ulman, Yung Jake, and others.
From the same issue of Art in America, performance artist Aki Sasamoto recounts several times when she had epiphanies (some that are partly mortifying) about what makes something funny. It's a quick-paced, autobiographical list that describes the experience of understanding otherness through locally-shared senses of humor. Read this once a month, and start to make your own list of moments when your understanding of comedy changed because of context.
And also in that issue, ha ha, I wrote a feature on comedic strategies in art that are intentionally linked to the context of a place or platform. I was trying to build on Critchley and Robbins, and identify something that I saw increasingly in younger artists' employment of the absurd.
What is wonderful about this book, regardless of whether or not you're a Marx Brothers fan, is how detailed and exhaustive it is. The actual writing of it might very well be considered a kind of concrete comedy in and of itself, a sustained, obsessive, long-form engagement to an almost ridiculous end. Koestenbaum goes through thirteen different Marx Brothers films made between 1929 and 1950, outlining exactly what Harpo does virtually every time that he's on screen. It reveals a truly layered and complicated performer who skewered contemporary notions of gender roles. Truly, this is a fun read. It's also worth mentioning another one of Koestenbaum's books, the one-day read Humiliation, that I think anybody interested in the shame of comedy would benefit from reading.
A bit different from the other texts, this is from The Journal of Religion and Health. It focuses on "the early childhood experience of Richard Pryor and the role that the religion of humor plays in helping him cope with these experiences. Particular attention is given to his grandmother’s paradoxical role in his life and his identification of her as his spiritual mother." For those who have used humor as a coping mechanism, a religion of sorts, this is a dry but truly relevant read.
A couple of years back, Artspace put out this little primer aiming to explain the seemingly sudden boom in standup strategies in performance art, video, and even regular-ass studio practices. Author Chloe Wyma touches on a variety of artists from Jayson Musson to Dynasty Handbag to conceptual comedians like Kate Berlant. It's a nice, super current survey of lots of the people injecting LOLs into the art world.
The LA Weekly put out this piece that covers the curatorial work of Miriam Katz, crossover comedians like Reggie Watts, and traditional comics like Claire Titelman, all of whom are working to complicate the contextual distinctions between a comedy club, a museum, or a gallery. It's a good piece in relationship to Wyma's listed above, as Wagley's has much more of a west coast focus.
A fun long-read from artist Keith J Varadi's blog, Artfrum. It primarily tackles the distribution models and aesthetics employed by artists who exist extremely online, but Varadi also spends some time dissecting the explicit humor and irony present in a lot of their work. Contained therein are valuable thoughts to the majority of artists, regardless of whether you think The Jogging sucked.
From 1978-79, writer Julie Hecht was on assignment from Harper's to interview Andy Kaufman. During that time, he pulled all kinds of bizarre and outrageous pranks on her, seemingly attempting to derail her efforts. She stuck it out and eventually got an interview with the "real" Kaufman, only to have Harper's ultimately decide not to publish it. Instead, she opted to put out this book. It's an interesting read, as she seems obsessed with piercing Kaufman's veil and won't be deterred until she's done so. Another good read on Kaufman is Bob Zmuda's Andy Kaufman Revealed! If you're interested in the art world's take on Andy Kaufman, artist Jonathan Berger curated an exhibition in 2013 at Maccarone, on Creating Reality, by Andy Kaufman, and there is a little interview with Berger about it here.
Suggested by Thomas J Gamble. From the Amazon description: In this exuberantly satirical novel, the tutor Atzbacher has been summoned by his friend Reger to meet him in a Viennese museum. While Reger gazes at a Tintoretto portrait, Atzbacher—who fears Reger's plans to kill himself—gives us a portrait of the musicologist: his wisdom, his devotion to his wife, and his love-hate relationship with art. With characteristically acerbic wit, Bernhard exposes the pretensions and aspirations of humanity in a novel at once pessimistic and strangely exhilarating.