Concrete Comedy

Review by Cameron Crone

Was 1976 the year Comedy and Art met?  And not just flirted across the room, but fully  mingled, with one another?  In September of this year, Chris Burden’s “Self Promo” commercial aired during Saturday Night Live.  On the same network, on the same program, Andy Kaufmann would make occasional appearances (he was not yet booted off the show by an audience call in vote.)  Kaufmann considered himself a performance artist, yet was thrust into the role of comedian, with his activities being read mainly as relaxing or frivolous entertainment. Framed explicitly as art, Burden’s actions accrued cultural and intellectual gravitas amongst artists, curators, and critics.  Kaufmann had been ordained an entertainer because he was invited on television. Saturday Night Live, to its credit, has given space to visual artists such as William Wegman in 1987, though Chris Burden had to buy his way onto television to hijack the airwaves. In one hour of programming the audience experiences the highs of Art and the lows of entertainment, yet were none the wiser.

So was this the year, and even month, that Art and Comedy finally became entwined?  David Robbins would answer no.
In his book Concrete Comedy: An Alternative History to Comedy in the 20th Century Robbins makes the case that Burden and Kaufmann are not working in different realms, but are both practicing in the same medium.  His term for this medium is Concrete Comedy.  It is a comedy that makes use of reality, instead of illusionism or storytelling (think Jackass for reality and sitcoms as for illusionism/storytelling), as a material to be manipulated. Concrete Comedy likes to confuse signs, play around with context, reveal how to succeed at being a failure, make theater out of our everyday experiences, and generally screw around with our quotidian, human expectations.
Robbins proposes that Concrete Comedy’s roots are in the ready-mades of Marcel Duchamp and the installations of the Weimar-era comedian Karl Valentin.  From there he starts to make deft, brilliant, and confusing leaps and bounds between artists, filmmakers, musicians, fashion designers, architects, television hosts, and comedians (not of the stand-up variety, however).  Each chapter is sprawling, taking on one facet of Concrete Comedy and contains multiple examples from different mediums (except for Georg Harold who gets his own chapter;  Robbins makes a case for a form of concrete comedy abstraction through him.)  Robbins has a more-is-more approach to this history, which does make the book a bit of a mess. But, it isn’t a mess in the traditional sense (“I’ll never be able to make anything out of this, it is a complete disaster!”), but in a way it is like a composting pile would this be better as a blender?  Something not related with debris? Throw Warhol, P.T. Barnum, the Frogs, Alex Bag, Ernie Kovacs, Coco Chanel, and Marcel Broodthaers into one bin, let them soak into each other.  What are you going to get?  I don’t know, but something really interesting is bound to come out of it.
Thrown into this mix are Robbins’ own artworks. By doing this, the book begins to feel more like a manifesto or a protracted artist statement. So often are we confronted with his work that the book reads as a history in support of the work of Robbins. The titular “history” feels a stitch misleading, even as he does point out in the preface it is An Alternative History, not The History, and that his aim is to only open up a conversation. Then again, what do we expect from a person that presented celebrity style headshots of artists (see his piece Talent, 1986) in an art gallery, Metro Pictures. Taking that into consideration, maybe writing a history book is just an extension of Robbins’ practice (“Well, I did photo, sculpture, installation, painting, I guess the only thing left to do is write a book.”)
However it would be too cynical to read the book only as a manifesto.  Take out Robbins’s work and you are left with a very thorough (more women, please! Or someone make an addendum!) history of a materialist approach to comedy.  It is clearly written by someone over enthused by the material, and like any good historian Robbins shifts conversations around the overly familiar to make it exciting and new.  Point in case: I don’t think I’ll ever look at a Chanel “Little Black Dress” the same after reading this book.
So back to that interesting thing growing out of that compost.  The thing that Chris Burden, Andy Kaufmann, the guys of Jackass, Chanel, PT Barnum, and so on are all dealing with.  What is that thing?  Well it is Concrete Comedy, and Concrete Comedy deals with reality, but what is reality?  Reality, not in the stoned philosophical way, but reality in that which questions what is our exterior world made of.
For Kaufmann and Burden (in the above example) television was a part of reality, for The Replacements success as a pop band was reality, for Guilaume Bijl the exhibition space was reality, for Bruce Nauman the psychology of the studio was reality. These reality’s take place in a Material Culture that is constantly shifting and out of the control of many people.  For Robbins, these artists/Concrete Comedians work with, against, and through what is out of their control to affirm their humanness.
This history really didn’t contain many examples of female practitioners.  There are more than the usual history book and Robbins points out the flaws in his (those few included are Coco Chanel, Elsa Schiparelli, Viviene Westwood, Rei Kawakubo, Kristen Stoltmann, Yoko Ono, Eleanor Antin, and Alex Bag).
Comedian as truth speaker, comedy as democratic form (how to include these?)
So what is this interesting thing?  That is the hardest part of comedy and humor (and might be why this review has taken so long); the more it is defined, the more amorphous it becomes and the harder it becomes to pin down. Try explaining a joke, it usually dies.
The book serves as a good history, but one that is more in tune with Robbins tastes, but isn’t that what history is, though? One, or a group, of people deciding what is important?

David Robbins, Concrete Comedy: An Alternative History to Comedy in the 20th Century, (Pork Salad Press, 2011)


Images: Cover and interior of Concrete Comedy: An Alternative History to Comedy in the 20th Century