Wednesday, 19 March 2014

Funnymen: My Reconciliation with Comedy

I've been listening to a lot of podcasts in the studio lately. Headphones in, I am insulated from the distractions of the outside word, focused on the details of my work, in the proverbial zone. Inkstuds is my go-to show, a brilliant series of interviews with cartoonists by the cheerfully sardonic Robin McConnell out of Vancouver, BC. I started going through the Inkstuds archives starting from the first episode in November 2005, and over the last couple weeks I've learned a metric crap-ton of stuff about comics from Robin and his guests. I also backed his recent Kickstarter campaign, a roadtrip that I am sure will yield a wealth of knowledge and inappropriate humour. There's still a week left. Get on it.

More recently, though, I've been listening to Marc Maron's comedy podcast WTF, which I stumbled across on YouTube entirely by accident while feeding my Dylan Moran addiction. I love his humour, and have for years. I had recently watched the incredibly dry and darkly funny A Film With Me In It, which I was delighted to discover because I was getting a little tired of watching Black Books on repeat. I found this interview with Moran and started listening to it, realizing more and more just how quintessentially little I really knew about this man's life. That realization led me on a brief search for more interviews with the man, culminating quickly in my discovery of WTF. 

I was hooked immediately. It was the comics that did it. I clicked play on this interview with my favourite comedian, and the first thing mentioned was comic books. It turns out Maron is a fairly avid comics reader, asking Dylan Moran what, if any, experiences he had had with comics as a child growing up in Ireland, and it segued perfectly into a discussion of Irish life, isolation, and Catholic religion and their influences on Moran's comedic career. And I realized, this man has had a hell of a life. He's been through a sort of emotional genocide, in a country that existed under oppressive theocracy in all but name, and he's managed to come out the other side with enough will and humour left in his command to say something about it. I began to see some common ground. Not with me, understand. I have lived an exceedingly safe and sheltered life without alcoholism, divorce, abuse, or religious oppression. I'm incredibly grateful for this, but at times I can't help but feel a little...boring. I'm talking about the comic greats. On a whim two days ago, I started reading this book, Comix: The Underground Revolution by Dez Skinn. I didn't know much before this week about the first comix artists, or even how to properly define "comix". I had no idea of the messy, hallucinogenic, violent, sexual, socially prophetic stew these books were birthed from.
Dez Skinn's cover
Reading cartoonist R. Crumb's self-appraisal gave me pause: "[I was] a painfully shy out-of-it nerd...a lonely maladjusted weirdo with heavy Catholic guilt.". I thought, Damn, but that's a lot of weight for a guy to carry. No wonder these guys  turned their baggage into humourous catharsis. I've read many interviews with Spiegelman. I know how much he loathes the survivor's guilt he inherited from his parents, the leftover weight from a human extermination experiment that occurred outside of his lifetime, yet influences every moment of it. He hates it so very, very much, and it drives a significant part of his work. I listened to Louis C.K. talk about the depression and shame that he builds on in his self-deprecating routines. Stewart Lee mentions the questions he has to ask himself about where to apply critical pressure as someone sitting in a privileged position at essentially the center of society. the motivations are varied, often tragic, and wholly fascinating to me. It's a world I simply didn't give enough credit.
Spiegelman, the Holocaust inheritance
I've had...issues with stand-up comedy the past couple years. I think it had something to do with not being able to stand being around the people I knew who were doing it. I just didn't like them, at all. I have a better idea of why that was now. I have no idea if they were good comics. I've been to live stand-up a handful of times, usually standing in the back drinking and chatting with someone else who happened to be as disinterested as I. Dylan Moran was the only stand-up comic I had any interest in watching. I never paid attention to the craft of it. Listening to these podcasts by Maron and McConnell, I think I get it at least a little. I hear them talk about things like comedic timing, in both a visual and a performative sense, and realize that these two traditions are more closely related than I ever gave them credit for. The people who are great comics and cartoonists are craftsmen of this thing called "humour" that maybe I've never really understood, and avoided in my writing because it weirded me out a bit. I don't want to generalize. I'm not prepared to say that you can only be properly funny as a career if you're a legitimately fucked up human being, but I see common ground in the guilt, shame, and loathing of great comic figures, and I have to wonder if I could ever pull that attitude off in my work. I don't think I want to, because I don't want to fake it. I'm not a Comix artist, and can't be, because I'm not experimenting with drugs and my sexuality in the late '60s. I'm in the wrong context.
My own recent work, doodling in the pub
So, this becomes a question for me to wrestle with in my own work: do I want to pursue humour in my comics, and if so, where is it going to come from? I've never even felt the White guilt that weighs down some of my friends. I've got no Russian Mennonite shame fuelling my art. It has to come from somewhere else. Maybe the solution is whimsy, or nostalgia. Maybe it's academia, a world in which I find myself more and more immersed. Maybe it's the world of comic fandom itself, self-referential mockery, but that feels a little overdone. Geek culture has already been making fun of itself for years (Penny Arcade, anybody?). I dunno. It's a fun question to have on my plate.

I drew the page posted above after a frustrated night in the studio were I threw down my pen and went to the pub. I ended up sitting at the bar, doodling about some guy struggling in a vaccuum with his tenuous, dysfunctionally intimate relationsip with the voice inside his head. It isn't self-referential, in case you were worried. But, maybe it is. Maybe it was me fretting about my block, that evening's lack of inspiration. The "voice" in my head had deserted me and I was feeling a little lost. And it sucked. I rather like this little comic, and while it's not funny, per-se, it's something. It's a hint of that place where good art has its roots, quite simply...self. I'm going to look at it as a starting point to answering my question about humour. When I'm studying in England next year I'm going to track down some comedy clubs and give stand-up a second chance. And for now, I'm going to keep listening to and learning from Marc Maron and his guests, because I like laughing in the studio, even if it makes it really bloody hard to draw a straight line.

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