Absurdism and Authenticity at South by Southwest

A short while ago, I was fortunate to attend South by Southwest not solely as a graduate student, but also as a reporter for Laughspin, a website centering on the practice of comedy. My task was simple, albeit exhausting: report on and review as many of the festival’s comedy shows as possible.

One of the benefits of seeing so much comedy in such a short span of time – the festival invited over sixty comics to a variety of showcases and tapings throughout the week – is that you naturally come to know which styles of comedy resonate with you.

This year, South by Southwest’s comic offerings highlighted a variety of styles which were bookended with pure absurdism and unadulterated rawness. The full range of humor left audiences on their toes, but it’s the latter form that I am continually drawn to and that speaks to some broader compulsion to excavate authenticity wherever we can find it.

I think we’ve seen a rise in raw, authentic, deeply personal – and sometimes cringe-inducing – comedy in the past ten years. We’ve been blessed with shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm and Louie; comics like Marc Maron, Louis C.K., Mike Birbiglia, Doug Stanhope; movies like Borat.

These examples point to the integration of the personal in the comic narrative. Louie, for example, is funny in part because the title character is an extension of the real Louis C.K. As C.K. told Terry Gross, “The guy I am in the show is definitely me without anything I’ve learned. It’s just me making horrible mistakes that I don’t make in real life, but that are inside of me. They’re the things I would do if I didn’t think for a second.” Louie is the id to C.K.’s superego.

The raw side of South by Southwest also showcased comics who injected their performances with discussions of their actual lives. Mike Birbiglia invited us into his world both through his stand-up set and through his new film, Sleepewalk With Me, which screened at the fest and will be distributed by IFC in the near future. The film centers on a comedian named Matt Pandamiglio who struggles with committing to his girlfriend and a slowly blossoming stand-up comedy career, but the stress of those struggles leaves Pandamiglio with a problematic sleepwalking condition. The film is based upon the real life issues Birbiglia has encountered as a comedian; as a result, it is difficult to discern where the fiction of the film ends and his former reality begins.

And, of course, we were also brief visitors to Maron’s world of neurotic anxiety and vague self-loathing as he interviewed Arrested Development’s Jeffrey Tambor. Though the two bantered like comedic pros, they also discussed the historical trauma of the Holocaust (with nods to Arendt) and human spirituality.

These forms of comedy are so appealing to me (and others, perhaps) because they remove some pretense of performance and enable connections with the audience and the actual person onstage, not simply the onstage artificial persona. We can relate to such authentic comedy because it delves so deeply into the personal core of the comedian.

But these forms also carry risks. Performing onstage as a character is one thing; discussing real personal proclivities and problems in front of an audience is quite another. Critiques of the latter are not simply critiques of one’s material. And, of course, re-staging a painful moment onstage as a comedian is not necessarily pleasant: watching the emotionally and physically painful scenes in Sleepwalk With Me is undoubtedly a cringe-inducing moment for Birbiglia.

Reaching into absurdist comedy, on the other hand, might protect against personally critical evaluations by removing performance far from a comic’s immediate world. In that case, though, can we relate to the material? The comic?

Of course, these two strands of comedy are not mutually exclusive: comedians can deftly weave their personal stories with forays out of the real world, as Eugene Mirman does. And so many stories are funny simply because they render real life quandaries absurd. Nonetheless, there is a measurable difference between a comedian that spends fifteen minutes onstage enacting a performance art piece, or simply crafting a false persona (whether that falseness is made explicit or not), and a comedian whose internal conflicts are made bare in an almost uncomfortably frank way.

Our hunger for reality and authenticity may be a central force beyond the rise of the raw brand of comedy showcased at South by Southwest, but it comes alongside a thread of absurdism. Both forms, however, offered the promise of entertainment to  audiences at South by Southwest.

(C) Carrie Anderson, 2012

Carrie Andersen is a graduate student in American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Her primary research interests include the intersections between art and politics, subversive and awkward comedy, digital humanities, media studies, popular culture, and 20th century American history. She is also a contributing writer for Laughspin, a website devoted to comedy of any and all varieties.

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