I have a friend who takes Saint Patrick’s Day very seriously. His extended family gathers on the weekend nearest March 17 to trade sarcasms and drink alcohol. They boil meat on the Massachusetts shoreline, and balance small talk with cruel reminders of past grievances until whiskey favors one end of the scales. Still, the older members of the clan can cover up scandal, debating sports while training the next generation in table games using root beer instead of the hopped variety for everyone under age. But what is under age? It’s up to them. Pretty standard for Jews.
Not really. They’re Irish. Of course they’re Irish. I’m Irish too, but not that Irish. None of us are Jewish, but the contradiction in ethnic stereotypes makes it funny, and necessary to present my title here instead of above: The Jewish Comic and the Irish Muse. Anything sooner would’ve altered the chemistry of the anecdote, and like a good bartender, a storyteller must know the order of ingredients to deliver their greatest effect, and repeat when necessary. Make it a double.
The most famous edition of the satirical newspaper The Onion has to be its 9/11 edition. That issue was also the first that they published after relocating from Madison, Wisconsin, to New York City. The headlines were shocking to a nation that had not yet returned to its usual fare of late night shtick or our then-new love of “reality” television. (Survivor premiered the year before and American Idol began the year after.)
The Onion writers, however, did not leap into addressing the attack with abandon. According to Onion John Krewson, the humorists were stymied until one of them suggested the headline “America Turns into a Bad Jerry Bruckheimer Film,” after which the dam burst and they felt capable of turning a comic eye on a national tragedy.
Knowing this, should we be surprised that The Onion has already covered the horror of the Newtown, Connecticut, massacre? Here is a snippet from an article they published on Friday, the very day of the shootings.
As with 9/11, The Onion attempts to signal their understanding of the seriousness of the situation by employing epithets. Still, there are multiple ways in which The Onion’s response to Newtown differs from their earlier response to 9/11. For one, the fact that the Newtown victims were predominantly children makes for a greater risk of looking like one is taking a light-hearted perspective on the heavy-hearted matter. In addition, The Onion’s response to 9/11 came from New York City itself. And finally, there is the fact of timing. Remember, The Onion actually cancelled the print edition originally scheduled for 9/11, and they issued the above headlines in late September. In today’s online news world, The Onion could respond within hours.
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.
[Thanks to Amelia Colette Jones for the tip!]
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!