WHAT IS THE MEANING OF THE COMEDY OF THINGS?
WAITING FOR THE PUNCH LINE
Debbora Battaglia, Alberto Corsin-Jimenez, Trine Mygind Korsby, Rane Willerslev
Alberto Corsin-Jimenez tells the following joke:
I am walking down the street and I happen to cross a couple of motherfuckers – or is it Motherfuckerians? You know, how you call the inhabitants of Planet M? Anyway, I hear these Motherfuckerians say that the cosmos is overrated, that it has been joked out of proportion.
I can’t stay for the punch line, you know, it would look indiscreet. So I walk away wondering whether – if it was in fact a joke they were telling – they may possibly have missed the punch line themselves, thinking the cosmos might have laughed as an effect, i.e., out of a proportion. A proportion!! As if the comedy – the funny bit – had a beginning and an end. As if laughter was a scale of sorts.
I keep on walking, ruminating, and then I pause, and I smirk to myself: actually, that was funny: a joke that was joke on itself!
Oh well, these Motherfuckerians are actually a humorous lot, aren’t they? Aren’t they . . .”?
He is waiting for the punchline . . . that never comes.
Trine then recounts a story that was often told – to great joy and laughter – among her informants, who work as pimps in Eastern Romania. The story was favourite anecdote of Alex, who also was one of the leading characters in the story:
As so many times before, Alex and his friends were having a party at Nicu’s house. There are only men present at the party, around 25 men to be more precise, and after having consumed many litres of Romanian beer and plum-brandy, and the party having escalated into a mix of half-hearted fights, singing and shouting, they decide to call a girl for sexual entertainment for them all. They decide not to call any of their own girls, but a girl who works for another pimp, whom they all know. Everyone gets ready for this coming escalation of their party, going to the bathroom to wash and freshen up, and there is an excited atmosphere. Alex and Nicu suggest to go down and receive the girl in the street when she arrives with a taxi, but when they leave the living-room, they lock the door to the living-room where the rest of the party is, without any of the others noticing it. Alex and Nicu greet the girl when she arrives, and they take her to the basement of the house, where they both have sex with her. Sex which turns out – according to the story – to be spectacular in every way. After having finished, they pay her and send her off in a taxi again, returning to the rest of the party, unlocking the door to the living-room where the rest of the party is situated, eagerly waiting for the girl to arrive, and triumphantly Alex and Nicu reveal what just happened in the basement. The rest of the men now realise – with great embarrassment and disappointment – that they have been tricked by Alex and Nicu, and they stand there, more or less powerless, with all their excitement built up and nothing to do about it.
And why did we stay with this seeming tragedy and expect it to be comedic. Partly, it’s the expectation that this conference frames that we are telling humorous anecdotes. But the interesting thing is not when the punchline is delivered; rather, when tragedy fails to fulfill its drive to the death of comedy – comedy is all that remains to us, and it remains to us only as a relief, or a release.
Rane Willerslev tells this joke from northern Kamchatka.
In 1992, I was on an expedition in northern Kamchatka with my twin brother, Eske, and my friend and anthropologist colleague Morten Axel Pedersen. This is the area in Siberia that has the densest population of brown bears, living primarily on Pacific salmon that make their way up the rivers in enormous numbers to breed. In the evening, when we were lying in our tent, we constantly heard sounds that we thought came from bears. Usually, the source of the sounds was as harmless as a beetle crawling across the stretched-out canvas, or a fox that had strayed into camp. But we had to be on guard, because who knew what it sounded like when there was a bear walking around in a tent encampment. Well, we finally found out one night. The worst thing was that we were not even armed. At first we heard heavy steps and a hollow grunting outside the tent. After that came some seconds of silence when we lay nervously looking at each other. Then I felt the canvas being pushed in close to my head. It was the bear, sniffing the tent. Its large, wet snout ran inquisitively across the flysheet, leaving a trail of slime on the thin nylon material. The bear was so close to me that I could feel its stinking fish breath deep down in my lungs.
A cold shiver ran down my spine. I looked over at Eske and Morten, who were just as terrified as I was. Suddenly Eske whispered that he had to pee. The intense stress must have been too much for him. I saw how he was lying in the sleeping bag, squeezing his legs convulsively together to hold onto his water.
“Lie still! It’s still there,” whispered Morten.
But after a little while, Eske spoke up again: “I really have to pee.” “Then pee in your sleeping bag,” Morten hissed in annoyance.
Eske ran his eyes down over his new, specially made goose-down sleeping bag. could see that he was thinking it would be completely destroyed. Instead he stuck his hand out, pulled over a small plastic bucket, and carefully unzipped his sleeping bag. Eske’s urination could soon be heard, followed by a soft sigh of relief. But now the tent began to move. It was the bear trying to lie across the fly sheet. The plastic bucket tumbled around in the tumult, and the contents began to slosh around in the tent, reaching halfway up to the edge of the groundsheet Eske and I had brought. Luckily, it was the extra thick model. It was worse for Morten, who had chosen the thin version. His sleeping bag was soaked in pee, clumping the down together. Morten howled in disgust. In the same instant, from inside the tent we could hear the bear tumble off at high speed through the brush. Whether it was Morten’s wail that scared the bear, I do not know. But it was gone.
But how to address the question of whose body waiting for the punchline puts at stake, and what kind of body – in our examples, sexed, nonhuman, or raced? Turning to the last, Richard Pryor embodies for Debbora Battaglia the pun of “black humor” – in his case, the gallows humor of racism.
What interests her are two moments in Pryor’s Sunset Strip act when he breaks frame from opposite directions, in each case leaving the audience in doubt as to whether what he is doing is meant to be funny. Early in his act, he leaves the stage to appeal for a glass of water. Later, he hacks into the act from his offstage life by making references to setting himself on fire and running down the street of his neighborhood in flames, in a well-publicized suicide attempt. The transgression in each case sets up conditions for a release of tension by laughter, but Pryor withholds easy laughter/inspires uneasy laughter.
Her feeling is the Comedy of Things cannot not be about the “black humor” of fetishized things and sites, but asks that we take this as an occasion to throw water on our sacrificial objects of personal meaning by creating a commons that exceeds the value or meaning of any one item. It puts comedy on offer as a theme, without presuming that everyone will share in easy laughter, and mean it.
If racism can give someone a living (as a performer) it can also take it away (it can destroy them). To quote Isabelle Stengers, “we cannot not take this seriously”: when Pryor puts racism on offer as a comedic performance, the frame of the stage defines an expectation: the audience will do their part in coproducing black humor, by laughing. There is no requirement that they actually find the act funny.
And here’s the punchline. The Wikepedia definition of “black comedy” is that it is a tool for provoking discomfort. It reads as follows:
Popular themes of the genre include: murder, suicide, depression, abuse, mutilation, war, barbarism, drug abuse, terminal illness, domestic violence, sexual violence, pedophilia, insanity, nightmare, disease, racism, homophobia, sexism, disability (both physical and mental), chauvinism, corruption, and crime.
If any one of these is absent from this workshop, we’ll be outraged.