by Carl Wilson
It was about 1:45 in the morning and I was trying to control my breathing so that I didn’t spew beer all over the person in front of me like an incontinent whale. The reason: A man on stage was reading a slip of paper that said, “Man, last night we got so drunk, we can’t find our friend the yak skeleton. I’m sure he’s okay.”
Explaining why that was so funny is pretty near impossible. Even more than usual for jokes. You didn’t just have to be there. You had to have been watching for hours at the Comedy Bar in Toronto, where from dusk Monday to dusk Tuesday, one performer – with a dozen or so off-stage writers, a few dozen audience members and a couple of hundred other people online – had been creating a new genre of comedy, almost involuntarily.
It was a lateral, discontinuous, stream-of-collective-consciousness narrative with dozens of ongoing characters, as much wordplay as Tristram Shandy and an enormous amount of plagiarism and appropriation, digital interactivity and audience participation.
This invention’s progenitor was definitely necessity – and charity. Just the way that your cousin or your co-worker will bug you to pledge a certain amount for every mile they walk for cancer or for the moustache they’re growing this month, comedian Pat Thornton was for the second year doing a 24-hour stand-up comedy marathon for the Stephen Lewis Foundation, which fights AIDS in Africa.
Other comedians have done sets this long or longer in recent years in order to set Guinness records, probably drawing on every line they’ve ever written and whatever else they can generate on the spot. For that purpose, doing it the way Thornton does — by getting friends and viewers to write him jokes and even in dry spots turning to printed joke books (or the joke books written by nine-year-olds that his teacher friend had created for the occasion) – would probably be considered cheating. But for Thornton it’s just getting through the 24 hours that matters. And so the stage filled up with piles of slips of paper that the writers and those transcribing from the Internet were constantly putting on his chair to pick up and read.
As the hours went on the jokes became much more self-referential. Somehow, early on in the event, there were some references to Kevin Sorbo, the actor who starred in the 1990s Hercules TV show, imagining him now out of work and desperate for a role (begging to host Sunday Night Live at the Comedy Bar, for example). By 19 hours later, the fantasy had been spun out to the point where Kevin Sorbo was well known to eat garbage and hair, when he could get them (a snake, which came from the pages of one of the kids’ joke books, was his much-more-successful rival for garbagey snacks), he had bees living all over his body, and he would do literally anything, physically possible or not, for money. He would hang around, a bit troublingly, with a blind kid, trying to trick him to get money and food. He had some competition in all this from the also-broke Wesley Snipes. There were hundreds if not thousands of jokes told on this basis.
In a kind of intramural meta-charity motif, there was a long series of jokes based on Toronto’s new mayor Rob Ford confusing “Movember” with things that rhyme with it (“Rob Ford is giving men blowjobs for Homo-vember”), punctuated by Thornton shouting in an exasperated voice, “Rawwwb! You grow a moo-STACH!” America had a nine-year-old president (“Nine-year-old president doesn’t care about black licorice”) with a douchebaggy Dude Vice-President (“I’m throwing all the states out of the union except Hawaii”), and another kid named Tristan became famous for breaking crayons.
All kinds of people and things were “in the woods” (meaning targeted for jokes), from George Lucas to marmalade. Rap Grimace was a big purple monster fond of distorting Jay-Z lyrics. There was a series of character based on condiments, chief among them the beloved Mustard Andrew, and an ineffectual supervillain called Shitty the Riddler (“I’ll give you one guess … and then I’ll just tell you”) who spawned a “shitty” meme for bad versions of other people and things (“I’m just looking for a place to park around here” – Shitty Joni Mitchell).
For the sake of people newly joining the audience or web stream, every hour or two Thornton would attempt to provide a recap. (When I first arrived I had to look up Kevin Sorbo on my iPhone, because I’d never heard of him.)
It all worked as a kind of elaborate mechanism to produce, among a random collection of viewer-participants, the kinds of inside jokes that you have in early adolescence with your friends – the made-up words and oblique references that you use at that age to begin to draw some kind of map of the world from your own perspective, and in some ways to create an illusion of control and/or superiority over the overwhelming mass of people and things you’re becoming aware of. And of course to form intimate bonds with the other people who are in on your special sets of slang and mockery. There’s no humour like it, nothing so able to make you gasp for breath and spit beverages all over the sidewalk.
That effect feels almost impossible to recreate in adult friendships, most of the time. But not so! It turns out all you need is 24 sleepless hours of forced perpetual joke production.
I like good standup, on the rare occasions I find it, but more than almost any other art form, it often lacks any conceptual layer. Thornton’s annual event (if that’s what it’s going to be) is a pleasure in part because it adds a What – the challenge of the 24-hour structure – when comedy is usually nothing but How (how are you going to make me laugh now? and now? and now?).
Artists are always dreaming of making up a new form purely via their own genius, but forms are more reliably created by conditions – by new technologies and new social arrangements, so that the printing press gives you the pamphlet or the Depression/Prohibition creates noir film and fiction. In that case perhaps the trick for an ambitious artist is to impose conditions upon yourself that force you to generate fresh solutions. In this age of stunt charity, maybe we needn’t be so suspicious of stunt art.