Category Archives: New York

In the Archives: An Easy Chair in an Uneasy World (1920)

It may be heresy to admit on a website dedicated to American humor that I find great relief in the British variant. Since I first learned of knights who say Ni! I’ve thoroughly appreciated heady concepts wrapped in silly nonsense. I have even found principles to incorporate in my general code of conduct, for instance, in Douglas Adams’s lesser known Dirk Gently detective series, Adams introduces the concept of zen navigation.

“I rarely end up where I was intending to go, but often I end up somewhere that I needed to be.” You’d be amazed the liberty one feels at discovering the correct destination when relieved of plotting the course. Such was the case for this week’s submission to the Archives.

Quite often we hear the careless expression “In the wake of…” and understand the causality of A on the outcome of B. But the idiom in this case homophonically reminds us of our vigil in a funeral while punning on the context of current events. When the broad scope of law enforcement pulled Boston Marathon suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev out of a boat in a Watertown backyard, neither the boat, the backyard, nor the town were near water. But the wake cast by that young man in the boat capsized Boston for the better part of a week.

I was fortunate to be at a Dairy Queen with a small child twenty miles from the finish line when the bombs went off Patriots’ Day. I plan to stay near that child as close as I can when I see the pictures of children whose parents can’t hold them again. It sends the mind looking for answers. I thought I might find them in precedent.

That's me on the left...

That’s me on the left…

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“The Voyeurs” by Gabrielle Bell

A friend of mine recently moved into a new house that is about as far away from where I live as you can get and still say that it’s nearby. He lives in a new county entirely, actually, which is the county beyond the county that we in the city call “the county.” So basically kind of far away. I recently drove out there to visit and check out the new place, and I found myself suddenly aware of the sky. There seemed to be more of it. It was as though the horizon line had been lowered, somehow, and the sky was increasingly everywhere. Whereas city life tends to block it out or at least finds a way to put an ad in it, the sky in this distant suburb was unbounded and all over. And all I wanted to do was get away from it.

The Voyeurs by Gabrielle Bell (2012) graphic novel humorI’m unambiguously aware that, as a person, I am indoorsy (which, unlike “outdoorsy,” is not actually a word according to the dictionary). This might be one of the reasons that I am so drawn to the work of Gabrielle Bell, whose autobiographical comics have been widely acclaimed for over a decade. She has been praised for the simplicity of her line work, her unorthodox use of shading, her judicious attention to detail, and her capacity to transform otherwise ordinary conversations into existential treatises without actually seeming to have done so at all. Bell is also clearly aware that her life and the lives of everyone around her are in a constant state of becoming-comics; she depicts herself incessantly sketching; writes comics about the difficulty of writing comics; and spends time with people doing things that everyone knows will all end up being drawn. It’s a little like if Bertolt Brecht had been a staff writer for Friends.

Her comics are also brilliantly contained, which is why I find a certain comfort in reading them on days when the sky gets too big. I’ve written elsewhere about the tendency toward small spaces in Bell’s earlier work, and her latest collection, The Voyeurs (Uncivilized Books, $24.95), continues to explore our relation to space — both in life and in art. Although many of the episodes in the book were originally published on her website, Lucky, the pages of The Voyeurs are mostly composed with a steady layout of six of the same-sized panels per page, and Bell frames the action with an almost unwavering full shot. For someone whom the Art Editor of the New Yorker, Francoise Mouly, has called a “master of exquisite detail,” it’s amazing how infrequently anything gets singled out or prioritized by a close-up. It’s actually almost never. Rather, Bell seems to want us to see the stuff of her life as… well, as we would actually see it. Sometimes her panels are densely detailed and overfull, but only when that’s the way the world looks. And other times, there’s just not a lot of stuff to look at.

By her own admission, but also obviously enough in the comics themselves, Bell can be quiet, shy, and reserved, and she often retreats into her notebook, sketching and writing even when there’s something else going on around her. But of course, her comics reveal this retreat, and the act of creating comics is as important to her comics as the events that inspire the comics. Part of the irony of her work, then, is that the act of withdrawing into a more private world is in some ways predicated on the future publication of her work. As readers, we are invited to see her world not only as she sees it – which is to say, as it is sketched onto a page – but also to see her sketching this world. In this way, her comics are at once process and product. There’s almost a fractal sense of repetition, by which we as readers are seeing what was once the notebook’s page, which is what Bell is in the process of creating in the story itself, but because she has to draw herself drawing, we are actually seeing her see herself. It’s like the opposite of jockeying for a better view of something in a crowd; Bell’s comics are like two people constantly stepping back and sliding around to get behind each other, further and further away from the action. Continue reading →

Annie Hall on the Wall: Remaking a Classic as Contemporary Art

Fine art tends not to be funny. Of course there are many, many exceptions (basically, all of the examples that everyone immediately thought of upon reading that first sentence), but it’s no stretch to say that galleries and museums only infrequently resonate with giggles and guffaws. Or at least we become suspicious of our own aesthetic pedigree when something in a putatively fine art setting seems funny, because maybe the piece is actually supposed to be, like, serious art and the artist is making a statement about apartheid or something.

And there is nothing less enjoyable than trying to figure out whether or not you should laugh at something.

The Clifton Benevento gallery in New York is currently holding an exhibition of five artists entitled “Hello? I Forgot My Mantra,” of which the title is a reference to Jeff Goldblum’s memorably random line of dialogue in Annie Hall. The show features painting, sculpture, and an unusual post-perfomance piece that involves the having-thrown of dice. To me, though, the most interesting work in the show is Anhedonia, a work of video art by Aleksandra Domanović that isolates the entire audio track from Woody Allen’s Annie Hall  and replaces the film’s original scenes — you know, all the stuff that happens — with an elaborate montage of short clips of stock footage from the Getty Archive. As though the reverse premise of Woody Allen’s  re-dubbed What’s Up Tiger Lily?, Domanović’s piece uses all of the dialogue, diegetic sound, and music (of which there is surprisingly little, it turns out) of Annie Hall and supplants the familiar action of Alvy and Annie with generic bursts of video that are specifically cued to what is being said. For example, the phrase “how I feel…” is juxtaposed with a woman rubbing (i.e. feeling) her neck, and “…about life” becomes black-and-white video of spermatozoa wriggling toward an unfertilized egg. 

Anhedonia is therefore akin to a 90-minute motion-rebus, a kinetically hieroglyphic account of everyday existence. It’s worth recalling that Anhedonia was Woody Allen’s original working title for Annie Hall during most of its production, and Domanović adopts it in this instance to evoke not only the generic and sterile quality of the stock footage and photography  that constitutes way more of  what we see every day than we probably realize, but also the base boringness of how we tend to picture what life looks like.

With that being said, though, the piece — intended or otherwise — is really pretty hilarious. This is perhaps because what many of us have practically memorized in Annie Hall is subverted and supplanted by a Borges-level library of images that are wacky enough on their own, to say nothing of having been meticulously reconfigured to recreate Allen’s original study of the absurdity of everything that we do.

And so in Anhedonia‘s final seconds, Allen’s famous joke about “needing the eggs” is replaced with actually seeing the eggs, which — both in the end and as the end — literally depicts the original film’s conclusion about the delicate surface of the world we’ve constructed for ourselves.

The entirety of Domanović’s oddly mesmerizing piece is available for view online, and you can read more about the show itself at Contemporary Art Daily.

[Thanks to Amelia Colette Jones for the tip!]

Stand-up Sunday: Woody Allen

It so happens that I wear glasses. You know, to see better. This is much to the chagrin of my mother, who assures me that because I was not born with them, these glasses therefore obscure what she has non-ironically referred to as my “good looks.” It also so happens that I have the thick plastic frames that are currently favored among hipsters, art students, and the similarly fashion-forward. To wit, art openings in my town basically look like somebody brought a case of PBR to a Lenscrafters showroom.  If anything, though, my own choice in eyewear is decidedly fashion-backward in an obvious homage to – if not outright emulation of – one of my most enduring idols: Woody Allen. (I learned last night that a friend of mine had a similar experience with black framed glasses when, in 8th grade, he walked into an eyeglass shop with a picture of Isaac Asimov and said “I want to look like this.”)

To my students, these glasses probably just seem like a consequence or corollary of being an English professor – a standard issue accessory – but that might all change when we get back from spring break, when the first thing that we’ll watch in my Introduction to Film class is Annie Hall. 

In the film, Woody famously plays Alvy Singer, a semi-autobiographical comedian and writer who performs some of the material originally found on Woody’s album The Nightclub Years: 1964-1968, which – like so much of his work – has taught me to diffuse my own insecurities in public by making myself seem like I’m the single most important person in the world.

The Nightclub Years is something that I have come to more-or-less memorize since I first picked it up as a used double-LP in my college years, and it remains today the primary channel through which most of us know the most famous bits of Woody’s stand-up: the moose, being kidnapped, his science-fiction film about aliens and dry-cleaning, and so on. It’s quite interesting, then, to note the minute differences that emerge between this album and the other various recordings that have surfaced in the forty years since its initial release in 1972. From a more elaborate description of the “Neanderthal” who robbed him in his own apartment lobby to a significant bit of clarification about American ethnic politics for his British audience, the so-subtly altered rhythms of these clips are at once a testament to the practiced precision of Woody’s stand-up and a welcome riff on jokes that have seemed to have the same timing for the last four decades.

More after the break!

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Louis C.K.: Live (Or Not)

As a graduate student, I’ve found that free time can be scarce. It can be difficult to justify the toll (both on your wallet and on your schedule) of a night seeing live comedy. But when you study stand-up comedy, you’ve got a built in excuse you make the time in the name of research. And if you’re doing your graduate work in New York, as I am, you have your pick of a number of scenes, venues, price ranges and styles of comedy from which to choose. With this in mind, I have decided to put together something of a living map of New York comedy. My plan is to make my way through the five boroughs to visit as many venues as possible, and to consider the relationship between New York and the ever-changing comic space.

On November 11th, I saw Louis C.K. live in concert at the St. George Theatre in Staten Island.

C.K. is on a short list of comics I feel I need to see live. Seinfeld: check. Gervais: check. Chappelle: check. Rock: check. (Well, I saw him in this, so we were in the same room. That has to count for something, right?)* The point is, I’ve got a list, and I was happy to finally get tickets to one of his shows. (The last time I tried to buy tickets to see C.K., the venue’s site opened, crashed and sold out within minutes) The concert, the penultimate stop on C.K.’s tour, was part of the New York Comedy Festival and it furnished the material for his latest special, Louis C.K.: Live at the Beacon Theater. (Outtakes 1 and 2)

Going to see a very famous comic is a weird thing. Even when you don’t already know the material being performed (C.K. scraps his material and starts fresh with each new tour), there is a distinct familiarity that’s part of the atmosphere of the room. Everyone in the room had certain expectations of this performance. I assume we all expected C.K. to come out in blue jeans and a black t-shirt (he did). I bet we all expected a certain rhythm, a particular style that is unique to C.K. If you listen/watch long enough, you can identify any comic’s timing, cadence, tone and mannerisms. The thing is, I’m not sure this is a good thing.

This happens with all comics who reach a particular level of celebrity, and particularly with comics who perform material already broadcast across various media. Patton Oswalt talked about the phenomenon of the transcendent comedian in a conversation with Bill Simmons on The B.S. Report that aired in 2009. Comics are transformed into jukeboxes, and audiences want to hear the hits. I believe this to be true, and while C.K. didn’t recycle jokes the audience was primed and ready to laugh.

Well, everyone but me, it seemed. I realized something about my experience of live stand-up during this show. I like a small venue. I’m used to the intimacy of, say, The Comedy Cellar, where even the farthest seat from the stage is not that far. Small venues—it seems to me—can makes things a bit easier on a performer, allowing the bodies in the room to really fill the space. Taking in a show at the Cellar, you’re likely to see a handful of comics with a few different kinds of sets. Some will kill, others will not. Laughter feels complicated in a small room. If a joke bombs, the silence of a packed room seems crushing—particularly when you’re close enough to the performer to see them register the crowd’s reaction. It’s at once an intimate and high stakes situation. You don’t get this kind of experience in a large room, particularly in a headlining feature with such a seasoned and well-known performer.

The St. George, a gorgeous 2,800 seat vaudeville theatre in the North Shore community, opened its doors in 1929. Solomon Brill’s vision for the theatre was to bring top shelf vaudeville to the borough that would withstand the shadow cast by grand cinema spaces in Manhattan. Notable for its unobstructed views, a gilded, cantilevered balcony (one of the largest ever built, it seems) and grand staircases, the St. George gives the distinct impression of a luxurious and storied performance hall. And this is exactly what made it hard for me to enjoy the performance.

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. . . ’tis the season to be jolly . . .

A journalist once asked actress Sophia Loren to explain the secret to her long, happy marriage. She reflected for a moment. “I have no explanation,” she finally said. “If you want to dissect something, you have to kill it first.” In that same spirit, I bring you this “only in America” holiday video with no analysis. (Thanks to my surname, I can post it without blinking.) Of course, if you have any pointed insights you wish to share, your comments are welcome.

Joy to the world. God Bless us everyone.  . . . fa-la-la-la-la, let’s lighten up . . .

. . . For better or worse, songs are poems.

Dominick the Donkey” was written by Richard Allen, Sam Saltzberg and Lou Monte, an Italian-American singer best know for novelty records. It charted at number 14 in the Billboard Hot 100 in December of 1960. The story has no specific connection to folklore, though the donkey is a well known symbol of Christmas in Italy.

Stand-up at the Knitting Factory (Brooklyn, NY)

The Knitting Factory

361 Metropolitan Avenue, Brooklyn

Sundays at 9pm

As a graduate student, I’ve found that free time can be scarce. It can be difficult to justify the toll (both on your wallet and on your schedule) of a night seeing live comedy. But when you study stand-up comedy, you’ve got a built in excuse you make the time in the name of research. And if you’re doing your graduate work in New York, as I am, you have your pick of a number of scenes, venues, price ranges and styles of comedy from which to choose. With this in mind, I have decided to put together something of a living map of New York comedy. My plan is to make my way through the five boroughs to visit as many venues as possible, and to consider the relationship between New York and the ever-changing comic space.

I’m not starting with a landmark venue—or rather, a landmark venue for stand-up. I’ll certainly get around to profiling some (all?) of the great spots to see comedy around New York, but I decided to start with a local Brooklyn show, and I’ll tell you why: Hannibal Buress and, to be perfectly honest, the anticipation of a great surprise guest. Hannibal is a Chicago native who has made a name for himself as a stand-up and a writer (SNL from 2009-2010, 30 Rock beginning the following season). Fans will notice his jokes making their way into 30 Rock scenes with some regularity, as well as his recurring stint as a homeless man on the show. He never mentions his writing credits by name during his stand-up sets, but it’s safe to assume the growing audience (the Sunday shows are now frequently standing room only) is familiar with his work. In fact, the crowd is comprised of a significant number of repeat customers.

If I wanted an all-star lineup, I could go to a traditional venue to increase my odds of catching some great comedy (or, failing that, some big names), but there’s a charm to the smaller venues, and the anticipation of a lineup change. And while this can happen at any comic venue, large or small, I can rest assured that a precedent already exists.

These Sunday night shows have a unique neighborhood-comedy-show feel, mixing the hipster Williamsburg set with local and (inter)nationally touring comics. The Knitting Factory’s Brooklyn space has the bare design and pseudo-industrial feel common to some Williamsburg/Bushwick performance spaces. Immediately past the door is the bar and seating area—sparsely decorated without the kitschy wall hangings or adornments of a themed bar—and a small stage stashed to the side. (I took this picture just before a recent show) Between the stage and the bar is a swinging door, which leads to the bathrooms and the concert venue. As a result of this design, comics performing during the Sunday night show are forced to confront a flowing stream of customers making their way from the concert venue to the bar (and back) with the feigned spontaneity of a comic doing the same crowd work in one set after another.

While this design may be distracting, The Knitting Factory was founded as a multi-purpose performance venue. Michael Dorf opened the first Knitting Factory in 1987 as an art gallery and performance space meant to join together different performance media. The initial space in Manhattan programmed various styles of performance on different nights—poetry and spoken word on Wednesdays, jazz on Thursdays, etc. [This kind of audience fragmentation is fairly common in comedy clubs, too—e.g feature nights dedicated to different races and ethnicities] As a result, you get a fairly mixed crowd of local patrons watching whichever Sunday night game is on the two televisions (which are turned off as soon as the show begins), anyone sitting at the bar, those wandering concert-goers, and those actually there to see Hannibal and his guests.

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