Funny haha

What is the difference between “just a funny guy under a spotlight”, and a comedian?

Lawrence Mooney

Previously unrecognised as a journal of semiotics, The Adelaide Advertiser sparked a minor Twitter brouhaha (haha?) this week when it posed this interesting question in a brief, uncomplimentary and otherwise poorly written review of Melbourne “funnyman” Lawrence Mooney’s one-man show at the Adelaide Fringe Festival. The piece, penned by hitherto anonymous hack Isabella Fowler, whose previous beat had been News Corp’s real estate section, would undoubtedly have sunk without trace into the seventh circle of search engine obscurity, had it not been for Mooney’s ill-advised reaction on social media.

As more than one amateur media theorist noted on Twitter in real-time, Mooney’s apoplectic, emotionally incontinent response was a case study in how to self-harm in the digital space, and draw attention to a shit review that nobody would otherwise have read. But in one sense, it’s easy to see why Mooney reacted in such a seemingly disproportionate way. Because to be adjudged unfunny, or not in command of the craft of being funny, represents an existential threat to a comedian in the same way that verifiable innumeracy does to an accountant, or impotence to a porn star.

But in addition, as Helen Razer has observed in typically mordant fashion, the exchange illustrates the devaluation of criticism in today’s cultural landscape, with junior, multi-tasking hacks like Fowler being asked to pass judgment on subjects they have little knowledge of or interest in, for the benefit of a dwindling pool of readers who actually look to critics to help them shape their opinions and choices. But I would argue there is an added dimension to Fowler’s question, in that the dichotomy it presents speaks to the demystification and devaluation of craft – particularly in comedy but also in other areas of the arts – that has been wrought by open access to the means of cultural production, online.

For millenials, the concept of a “professional comedian” must be starting to seem rather quaint, given that everybody is now engaged full-time in trying to be funny for an online audience, every day, for free. Whether it’s wittily captioning a bad coffee on Instagram, crafting Wildean epigrams on Twitter or liking shopworn memes on Facebook, we are all constantly trying to be “just a funny guy under a spotlight”: someone who is inherently, effortlessly funny, but who doesn’t feel the need to turn pro. In this world, someone plying their trade as a “comedian” runs the risk of looking like they’re trying too hard. And in a field already recognised as amongst the most difficult in the performing arts – stand-up comedy – this added anxiety must only add to a performer’s insecurities, and is something I’d argue is a discernable undercurrent within the text of Mooney’s meltdown.

Are you deaf or an idiot? You did hear people laughing hard for an hour didn’t you @BellaFowler93 Mooney railed at one point, as he continued to throw post after post on his own PR pyre. But in doing so, he was sidestepping Fowler’s central provocation, perhaps because it was too confronting or difficult to deal with. Because the question of what, in an epistemological sense, separates a comedian from “a funny guy under a spotlight” is one that can’t be answered in an open forum by a practitioner like Mooney, because to do so would be to undermine one of the main tenets of his craft in the post-Lenny Bruce era: its claim to naturalism. And ironically, it’s this sense of naturalism that social media has helped to erode.

lenny bruce mugshot

As the American comic Rob Delaney (a man who readily admits he owes his career entirely to Twitter) noted at a recent event in Melbourne, the transformative power of the microphone – which is of course integral to Fowler’s notion of “the spotlight” – is crucial to the construct of stand-up. Like a magician disgracing his guild by revealing the tricks of the brotherhood, Delaney made the point that a microphone allows anyone who speaks low and slow into it to suddenly seem funny, or at least funnier than they did without it. And with that realisation, objective “funniness” becomes a whole lot harder to gauge than just through an audience laugh-o-meter.

But what is the existential threat to a media demagogue, particularly one with a megaphone and a loyal audience? The answer seems increasingly difficult to define, partly due to these figures’ mercurial place in the table of media elements. What is the talkback radio shock jock, or tabloid culture warrior’s Cartesian fault line, in the absence of diminished ratings? Should we just accept that they and their audience are completely invulnerable to critique, unlike in the inherently delicate space of stand-up where silent protest is enough to completely derail a performance, and stop liking and sharing outraged “reviews” amongst ourselves? Does the fact that we are all constantly broadcasting our own views about and to the world, whether directly or via the semiotics of sharing and liking, in any way diminish these “performers” in the same way it would a comedian? And in the current environment, are there that many differences between comedians and commentators anyway?

Hadley knife

When accused of frothing bias or a lack of sober objectivity, people like Alan Jones will invariably counter that such journalistic niceties don’t apply to them, as they themselves are simply “commentators”, “opinion generators” or even “entertainers”, despite the fact their programs are wholly concerned with news and current events. Political comedians like Jon Stewart and Bill Maher regularly play the “I’m just an entertainer!” card when accused of activist bias. This is true yet disingenuous, given their obvious level of influence in a political paradigm defined almost entirely by notions of spectacle and theatre. Maher regularly makes the acute observation that there are very few prominent right-wing political comedians, as the material they have to work with is so much poorer than that available to those on the left. (In Australia, Ray Hadley continues to valiantly fashion a protectorate for right-wing comedy out of intellectual kitchen twine and bin-liner, via his stream of dazzlingly execrable satirical songs.)

And when accused of xenophobic rabble-rousing, fascist incitement or merely shocking insensitivity, these same figures will produce the sycophantic testimonies of their thought-programmed listeners/readers as evidence that they are merely reflecting the public mood. Alan Jones’ monotonously outrageous statements, for instance, including that Australia “needs more stolen generations”, that Julia Gillard’s father “died of shame”, that Muslims should be attacked in the street, and even the revelation that he accepted money from sponsors to perform corporate payola, have in no way diminished his political capital. In the case of his comments about Gillard’s father, Jones’ position looked momentarily precarious after the withdrawal of some prominent advertisers, but after this brief moment of turbulence he was able to comfortably resume his place in the peanut pulpit, confident that much like the major Wall Street banks, he was considered too big to fail by his corporate owners, who had far too much at stake in him financially.

Zappa politics

In the US, Donald Trump has adopted the habitus of Alan Jones and used it to fashion a terrifyingly successful political insurgency. But in an instructive moment, Trump limned the hazardous third rail of contemporary Republican politics during a recent primary debate, when he was booed for foolishly stating a fact. And not just any fact, but one whose enunciation constitutes the ultimate act of heresy in today’s GOP thought-prison: the fact that George W Bush was President when 9/11 occurred, and that he ignored numerous intelligence warnings about Osama Bin Laden being “determined to attack” on home soil. Prior to this, Trump had made statements which in a normal political climate would’ve instantly terminated his campaign: that Mexicans are criminals and rapists; that a persistent female interviewer must’ve been suffering from PMS; and that former presidential candidate John McCain’s status as a Vietnam POW hero was inherently unimpressive because, as Trump baldly stated, he “prefers guys who didn’t get captured”. And yet it wasn’t until he stated a verifiable, indisputable fact that he found himself on dangerous ground with the faithful.

And here, perhaps, lies a possible answer to what might eventually kill off the dinosaurs that bestride our domestic media landscape, like colossi of cloaca. Anger is an energy, as noted emotional physicist John Lydon was moved to title his latest memoir, but the polarity of that anger’s flow can always be reversed back up the line – back to its point of generation – through a careless, recklessly overconfident adoption of a position that at first might seem a natural sequitur, or an accurate sniffing of the mob’s wind, but whose lethality momentarily eludes even the most cunning of reactionary tub thumpers. It will be a position or pronouncement that has little connection to common sense or decency, but will instead be one that in some way gainsays the monolithic edifice of intellectual guano that they themselves have helped to create. But until then, it looks like they’ll be here all week. Try the veal.

Trump

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Devolution

“All I can tell you is that it completely and utterly changed my life. I was a white hippie boy and then I saw exit wounds from M1 rifles out of the backs of two people I knew. Two of the four people who were killed, Jeffrey Miller and Allison Krause, were my friends. We were all running our asses off from these motherfuckers. It was total, utter bullshit. Live ammunition and gasmasks – none of us knew, none of us could have imagined… They shot into a crowd that was running away from them! I stopped being a hippie and I started to develop the idea of devolution. I got real, real pissed off.”

Gerald “Jerry” Casale, founding member of Devo, interviewed in 2005 about his memories of the Kent State University shootings of 1970, and how those events led directly to the formation of the band.

04 May 1970, Kent, Ohio, USA --- Clasping her head in anguish, coed reacts with horror upon seeing body of student who was shot and killed by National Guardsmen during war protest rally at Kent State University here May 4th.  The slain girl is one of two girls and boys killed by the National Guard during the disorders. --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

“The end of history will be a very sad time. The struggle for recognition, the willingness to risk one’s life for a purely abstract goal, the worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands… In the post-historical period, there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history. I can feel in myself, and see in others around me, a powerful nostalgia for the time when history existed.”

Francis Fukuyama, from ‘The End of History?’ (1989)

devo exhibit

My partner and I have a long-standing disagreement about the lack of rebellion and danger in modern music. In response to my regular harangues that these qualities are now almost entirely absent from the work of kids with guitars and laptops, for a variety of unoriginal reasons relating to the workings of the internet, the machinations of global capital and the post-ideological consensus manufactured by neoliberal hegemony, she argues that I’m actually just too old and uncool to know which abandoned warehouse the avant-garde plays at these days. Or which SoundCloud page it uploads to. Or which blogs are keeping tabs on it. And graciously, I’m prepared to concede she could be right. Or rather, I’d be happy to be proved wrong, and not feel compelled to extrapolate Steve Kilbey’s withering assessment of the recent Triple J Hottest 100 into a grand unified theory of musical shitness.

But in the avalanche of mediated grief and necrophilia that crashed down on all of us following David Bowie’s death, I came across something that only reinforced my feelings about the depressingly safe and neutered state of music today. In a 1999 Newsnight interview with a hilariously smug and complacent Jeremy Paxman (a clip that popped up numerous times in my feed during the week Facebook became “Bowiebook”), Bowie, the great pop seer, had some startlingly prescient stuff to say about the coming impact of the internet on both music and cultural production in general, to the point where you could argue he was personally envisioning social media. But more pointedly, he told Paxman at one point that if he was 19 again today (i.e. in 1999), he wouldn’t have become a musician, as he felt music was no longer the vehicle for disruption and unique social communication that it once was:

“I wanted to be a musician because it seemed rebellious, it seemed subversive. It felt like one could effect change to a form. It was very hard to hear music when I was younger… there was no MTV and wall-to-wall, blanket music, so therefore it had a kind of call to arms feeling to it. [It felt like] this is the thing that will change things, this is still a dead dodgy occupation to have… Now it’s a career opportunity.”

beyonce-pepsi2

Bowie is far from the first 1960s-germinated muso to voice this kind of disillusionment. And his point about music’s numbing ubiquity, and how its subversive currency has been devalued due to the fact it now saturates everything in our lives from male skincare ads and home renovation show soundtracks to shopping centres, buses and bars, has long since become axiomatic. But the spontaneous tidal wave of digital grief that followed Bowie’s death, driven largely by people under 40, whose experience of his career proper would’ve been decades removed from contemporaneity with it, speaks to Fukuyama’s notion of our collective “nostalgia for a time when history existed”: a time when art forms like music seemed vitally important, and weren’t just corporate window dressing but a reflection of, and a response to the vivid clash of ideas and competing utopic visions still playing out in the public sphere.

Despite the post-9/11 tumult, which in many ways has only served to bolster neoliberalism’s intellectual self-belief, we now live with the depressing sense that we are indeed, in Fukuyama’s words, merely “caretakers of the museum of human history”. And it’s this subliminal, depressing understanding which has turned many of us into amateur cultural historians, and has driven a ceaseless mining of the postwar period for ever-more-obscure connections to this vital period of “history” (e.g. documentaries about clubs, recording studios, music managers and backing bands).

The experience of Devo strikes me as instructive here. Jerry Casale and Mark Mothersbaugh, the twin creative dynamos of that remarkable band, have spoken at length about how their artistic consciousness was indelibly shaped by the horror of what happened at Kent State University in May 1970, when National Guard troops shot and killed four student protestors at a campus demonstration against Nixon’s decision to extend the Vietnam War into Cambodia. As laid out in the recent PBS documentary “The Day the ‘60s Died”, this incident can be seen as marking the beginning of the political world order we live with today, as Nixon exploited anxieties about supposed radical influences on college campuses to peel away traditional blue-collar voters from the Democratic centre-left.

kent state troopers

As Casale says in the trailer to an as-yet-unreleased documentary on the band:

“Propganda about progress and man moving upward and outward, and life getting better, we saw no evidence of that; we didn’t think it was true. Empirically, it seemed like people were getting dumber and uglier … We were doing something aggressive to keep ourselves sane. The more the idiots who were our peers didn’t like what we were doing, the more we felt like we were doing something right.”

“We thought that the things we’d seen would’ve justified a whole new generation of Bob Dylans and Woodie Guthries, and it wasn’t happening,” remarks Mothersbaugh in the same compilation. “Instead we were getting disco and concert rock – Foreigner and Stixx – and nobody was really talking about the issues in the arts. We thought it was time for us to say something, and that’s how [Devo] began.”

Devo keytars

Any of this sound familiar or resonant? Trying to choose an equally asinine substitute for “disco” or “Journey” today seems both overwhelming and self-defeating, due to the sheer tonnage of aural yoghurt in the world. And despite the manifest examples of “devolution” all around us, from the GFC and bank bailouts to the treatment of refugees, the sclerosis and dysfunction of liberal democratic systems everywhere, and the twin horrors of terrorism and its manipulation for political ends, it’s hard to imagine any act in the Hottest 100 – or any young band anywhere, frankly – making statements, or music, like Casale and Mothersbaugh. Or indeed, even thinking that music would be an appropriate vehicle for disruptive expression. As the broader discourse has become neutered and reduced to series of ‘natural’, unchallenged axioms – Fukuyama’s “end of history” – so, it seems, has post-jazz popular music.

But there will always be those who hold out hope of renewal. As The Church’s Steve Kilbey wrote on his Facebook page in response to being slammed as an irrelevance for criticising the Hottest 100’s beige-ness:

“Its not because i am old that i don’t like [The Rubens et al], its because i came to review rocknroll and i found limp bland pop … People have been making this bland tripe ever since i can remember. yes the fifties and the sixties and the seventies were full of it. it will always exist and there will always be people like me railing against it. Because rocknroll is capable of making statements that no other artform can make … its sexiness. its rage. its revolution. its anger. its otherworldiness. its dissociation. its preposterousness. its glory. its tragedy. etc etc etc. I find none of these qualities in the people in the top ten … I find many of the artists in the top ten indistinguishable from what are generally known as “boy bands”. In that they sing dopey little songs in their “little boy” voices to some little girl who (shame upon shame) broke their little heart. good for them.”

johnWayne_DEVO