Tag Archives: the origins of art in obsessive-compulsive disorder

Pat Thornton’s 24-Hour Standup, Comedy Bar, Toronto, Nov. 15-16, 2010

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.

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“I Need a Dollar” by Aloe Blacc (2010) and “Busking” by Aloe Blacc (2006)

by Carl Wilson

Los Angeles rappa-ternt-sanga Aloe Blacc has been garnering millions of plaudits and YouTube hits (if perhaps not dollars) since spring for his verymuchremixed recession lament, “I Need a Dollar.”

The song got its boost on the shoulders of an HBO series called How to Make It in America that, like a few other of the channel’s other recent recession-conscious productions, seems to stumble over the gap between the subject and the channel’s, shall we say, coastal-elite sensibilities (“from the producers of Entourage,” ’nuff said). The best recession-informed work of art on TV I know is Breaking Bad, from comparative upstart AMC.

You could make parallel criticisms of Aloe Blacc’s take on neo-soul: He’s the well-educated offspring of Panamanian immigrants and the layoff that inspired his popular mini-beggar’s-opera was from a job as a consultant with Ernst & Young. Which is definitely part of the financial downturn’s story, but not quite the blue-collar, Bobby Womack tale that his song calls to mind. More important (because using biographical details to call a song phony is always a sucker’s move) is that musically, as many have noted, the track gets walloped by the comparisons it’s just strong enough to bring up, whether that’s Womack, Curtis Mayfield, Bill Withers or Marvin Gaye’s What’s Goin’ On.

Nevertheless, social-realist songs about money are still scarce enough in the Richie Rich fantascape of contemporary hip-hop and R&B that I’ll take its anthem-of-2010 status gladly.

In a couple of interviews Blacc talks about the stylistic genesis of “Need a Dollar” in listening to field recordings of chain-gang music. That’s what inspired the “woah-oh” bits of the arrangement, the call-and-response. To NPR he also added: “The song, to me, feels like kind of a community song, something that you would sing with a group of friends. And each verse would be sung by a different person about their particular issue or problem or reason why they need a dollar, you know?”

So the tune comes by its ultra-remixability organically, and versions that add rapping (a form that has passing verses around in its DNA) feel more satisfying than the original, enough so that it’s funny he didn’t think to do it in the first place – since Blacc’s also been an MC since his start in 1990s rap duo Emanon.

But that field-recording impulse is more simply and delightfully realized in an oddball track from Blacc’s previous album, Shine Through.

I’ve been thinking lately about whether and how the current vogue for mixing fiction and documentary expresses itself in music, and “Busking” goes pretty far in the direction of audio vérité. Enough so that I can’t quite tell if this video is actually the record of the song’s creation and don’t even want the illusion shattered. (I know he’s said that he used to walk around at the time with a recorder to capture song ideas on the fly.) In lieu of a bass line you’ve got the hum of traffic and pressure hoses, and instead of a snare break you’ve got a bus-stop sneeze.

But more than those elements, I love its seemingly almost-involuntary, OCD weave of internal monologue and melody, which feels like pulling open the lid on the deepest wellspring of song. I don’t know about you, but occasionally, when I’m feeling lonely, fretful, a little desperate, I’ve comforted myself by taking whatever set of thoughts is looping unstoppably through my brain and singing them to myself: “Gotta make that phone call, don’t wanna make that phone call, it’s a terrible phone call…” or even just, “I’m freaking freaking out today, can’t make that freaking out go ‘way.”

Blacc here applies that formula to what is no doubt the very frustrating situation of dependency on Los Angeles public transit – a recessionary audio-film without all the hoopla of beats and horns and all the more effective in suggesting scarcity.

Of course, low production values in music are just as often the domain of the privileged (who unintentionally make a show of that privilege exactly by discarding its trappings and going “lo-fi”), while polish testifies to the aspiration to accrue more privilege (which isn’t an ignoble goal at all). The standard object of a field recording, after all, is someone or something of exotic or anthropological interest. Still, the gutsy sonic imagination of “Busking” (with the pun in the title that both recalls and makes fun of hip-hop bragging – hey hey, he’s the Bus King) presents alternatives to the old escapism-versus-protest-song duality when it comes to portraying hard times in music just by lending a little extra meaning to the phrase “economy of means.”

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Filed under carl wilson, music, TV/video