Art & Humour
Reeves & Mortimer’s ‘Masterchef’ sketch
André Breton introduced the term ‘Black Humour’ in 1940 and, ever since, the artist’s joke has been partly mired in the realm of the unfunny – the conventional view would be that art is more concerned with semiotics, semantics, small shifts in perception or just plain weird effect than big-belly laughs. Art historian John C. Welchman has drawn on a 1960 interview with Marcel Duchamp to elaborate on Breton’s concept. According to Duchamp, ‘There’s a humour that is black which doesn’t aspire to laughter and doesn’t please at all. It is a thing in itself, a new feeling so to speak, which follows from all sorts of things that we can’t analyze with words.’
Which sounds great and articulates one of the finest characteristics of art: it can be anything – it has this potential for new forms, ‘new feelings’. As an artist working with humour, and as a fan of both art and comedy, I’ve noticed that some of my favourite comedic artists’ work has plotted a darkening trajectory as it has evolved into something more ‘artful’ (the third series of The League of Gentleman; Reeves & Mortimer’s Bang Bang It’s… and Catterick; Lenny Bruce’s whole career) – less funny, less popular but richer and stronger in other ways, the work takes on a more autonomous form.
So at what point does comedy become art and what happens when art takes on comedy? Is laughter necessarily lost along the way? Is humour really something ‘beyond language’, as Duchamp suggests? Is there an intersection of function for these divergent forms and, if so, then how serious is it? And if Breton can coin ‘Black Humour’ then can I suggest some other colours? This week, as part of the Hayward Gallery’s ‘Wide Open School Programme’ I’m giving a talk titled Art & Humour – What Could Be & What Is in which I plan to elaborate on a particularly brown chromatic. By way of introduction, here are some sketches (funny) linked to popular tropes of contemporary art (not funny):
1. Semiotics: Jimmy James
This routine is a series of linguistic projections and inferences from a blank ‘MacGuffin’ – what could be inside the box? Anything could – and what we get is a joyful reticulation of surrealism and association, semantics and pragmatics. In contrast with a lot of contemporary comedy (and art), which can be quite reductive, there’s no underestimation of the audience’s intelligence here. There’s also no obvious social target – unless you consider idiocy to be a social group, rather than a general human characteristic. This routine demonstrates the enormous range of three people in a chance encounter, and in doing so emphasizes our basic interdependency – it feels generous, celebratory and necessary.
2. Mediation: The Kids in the Hall
My sister, Holly, got really hooked on The Kids in The Hall, a Canadian comedy group, and was busy programming the video recorder when it was shown on late night UK TV in the early 1990s. Now, thinking back, it seems VERY clear to me that this Is it my cabbage head? sketch is about the difficulty of gender relations in a world beset by political correctness and that these pretend-French fur-trappers are rowing their way through a skit addressing the confluence of post-imperialism and capitalism… While this routine is evidently about language as a subjectively constructed, mediating technology. Marshall McLuhan had that theory all stitched up, but still got subpoenaed for his crimes by a comic.
3.a. Performance Art & Horror: Reeves & Mortimer’s ‘Masterchef’ v.1
When I first saw this sketch it slightly frightened me at the same time as making me laugh. It’s great that in comedy we can accept combinations of clashing forms and ideas that might otherwise be dismissed as pretentious. Contemporary art is popularly perceived as quite humourless and it’s interesting in that respect that so many British musicians and comics went through the art-college experience: Richard Hamilton taught Bryan Ferry, Vic Reeves studied painting, Adam Ant’s fashion and graphic design skills found their apotheosis in his holistic inception(s) of the Antz, and John Lennon talked about how – rather than simply being a musician – the art-school education helped the Beatles conceive of the band as a broader tool.
Maybe this touches on something which is peculiar to Britain as much as the history of the art college. At their best, these environments have enabled a kind of transferable cultural nous in a class-crossing setting which can be explosively productive.
3.b. Cultural Cannibalism: Reeves & Mortimer’s ‘Masterchef’ v.2
More recently, Reeves and Mortimer have returned to their Masterchef-parody format and used it to harpoon a mutant Peter Kaye (played by Vic Reeves).
I feel bad for Peter Kaye here because we have been in the grip of an economy of nostalgia for some time, and in that respect he seems like such a nominal target. There are swathes of other artists, musicians, novelists and comics doing what Kaye is nailed for – turning the familiar into an emotive quick-fix; pointing out already interesting things. This de-historicizing economy is amplified through the web and digital communications media. It’s as if we are flirting with a permanent cultural present, an amnesiac reality which we are all perpetuating – this blog-with-YouTube format is perfectly attuned to it. Familiarity can be patronising, reassuring to the intellect, inherently conservative and excellently profitable – we always ‘get it’. In Bob Mortimer’s words, Kaye is serving up ‘things people had previously known but had forgotten they were aware of’. In ‘Masterchef’, Vic and Bob have picked the perfect show to address this cannibal condition because it goes to the heart of consumerism. What do we want to eat?