Postmodern Comedy

Tony CliftonPeople often ask me what postmodernism is, give that I refer to it a lot. This is an uncomfortable question because I use the term because I think it is largely meaningless, except as it is that thing that came after modernism. In general, I think those in the field mean to imply a lack of any absolute truth. Postmodernists would say that all the facts of the universe are just culturally agreed upon beliefs: the heliocentric model of the solar system is as much a construct as Jesus dying for our sins. I don’t accept this view of the universe.

It seems to me that facts can be judged based upon their utility. With all due respect to that great religion, Christianity is useless. It doesn’t predict anything. It is not internally consistent. And it is used by its practitioners to justify anything and everything. It could be replaced with the Cult of Aqua Buddha, and nothing would change. There would still be those who think homosexuality is a moral outrage and those who think it is part of the wonderful diversity of the universe.

On the other hand, the heliocentric model of the solar system is useful. It works better than the earth-center model (as long as we assume elliptical planetary orbits). I still can’t get over the fact that fundamentalist Christians don’t except Natural Selection but they do accept electricity. It is part of the same paradigm and one is no more proven than the other.

I’m more interested in postmodern art. To me, this is much more clear and interesting. It is illustrative to compare Waiting for Godot and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Godot is a serious play about the search for meaning and our blindness to the prosaic (but profound) meaning that surrounds us. RGAD is a facetious play about the arbitrary meaning of life: you can construct your own meaning but don’t fool yourself that it’s real. Postmodern art does not have a single perspective.

This is most often manifested in meta content: self-conscious awareness that the work of art is a work of art. For example, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead gets lost in its references to itself. The first time I was aware of this approach to art was watching Albert Brooks with his ventriloquist act. It is not funny if you don’t know ventriloquist acts. Brooks makes this point as more postmodern comedy in the movie Looking for Comedy in the Muslim World where he does the routine for a group without this context. Here is the original routine from The Flip Wilson Show:

No effort is made to maintain the illusion that is so important to any ventriloquist act. The poster of this video even described it in postmodern terms, “Albert Brooks deconstructing a dummy.”

I just discovered an even more postmodern ventriloquist act by Kristen Schaal and Kurt Braunohler. Here the audience is expecting comedy that never really comes. There are some actual jokes, like Braunohler being the college ventriloquist of the year for 15 straight years. But even this seems to fly over the audience. The main gag is that Schaal is even more awkward than an actual ventriloquist dummy. But the presentation is really two comedians playing the part of two comedians.

There is a clear trend going from Brooks through Andy Kaufman to Schaal and Braunohler, and probably many other young comedians. It is all incredibly self-serving, of course. The performances seem designed more to amuse the performers than the audience. If you get it, it’s hysterical. If you don’t, you probably want your money back. Regardless, it is what it is. And as such, it is perfectly that.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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