Question: “How do you make a tissue dance?”
Answer: “Give it a little boogie!”
Just one of the jokes, giggles, guffaws and ha-ha’s to be found at the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art’s latest exhibition: “Laugh-In: Art, Comedy and Performance,” running through April 19 at 700 Prospect St. in La Jolla. It’s a zany look at contemporary performance art that has been influenced by standup comedy. The curators attempt to point out a blurring of genres between live comedy and performance art by presenting a survey of work from some of the currently important protagonists. UCSD visual arts professor Amy Alexander, on hand for the show, described it as having “a lot of variety ... a good range of work.”
The exhibition is pleasantly and spaciously presented and offers plenty of opportunities to sit down in a comfortable chair or on a stool and watch a comedy video, which is the show’s high suit.
But I found most of the show to be silly and absurd, and a bit stupid, just like most contemporary performance art and standup comedy. For example, there is a video of comedian Tammy Rae Carland playing out her routine with a towel (sometimes a mop head) covering her face, and another of Stanya Kahn walking around a Los Angeles suburb in a giant penis outfit telling dumb jokes to kids.
You can count on being offended a little by obscenities, dirty jokes and drawings of sexual orgasm, but don’t count on being taken to a very deep level of truly funny social commentary, as you might be in viewing an old George Carlin routine about the foibles of American society on YouTube.
The curators produced a colorful brochure to accompany the show, which contains a high-minded theoretical overview that is a challenge to get through. The brochure features a colorful cover of one of Sara Greenberger Rafferty’s appropriated photographs of a comedian she artifys with running colors. It makes the person in the photo look like they have an extra bad case of runny nose. The brochure depicts the show as a rigorous attempt to define a new development in the arts, but the subject matter they so adroitly wrestle remains insipid.
It makes you wonder if the days of the great comedians are in the past ... the days of people like Carlin, Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, Don Rickles, Rich Little and television shows like “Laugh-In,” “The Smothers Brothers,” and “Saturday Night Live.” Comparing the new performance-style comedians, which the curators classify as signifying a new “renaissance,” to the old funny men is like comparing the old “Saturday Night Live,” when it featured John Belushi, Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Steve Martin, The Cone Heads, Two Wild ‘n’ Crazy Guys, and Father Guido Sarducci, with the current SNL. There is no comparison. The old show was great, the new one is one big disappointment and makes you think that maybe nothing is funny anymore ... or maybe it’s just that people will laugh at anything these days.
For example, take MCASD’s new “renaissance” piece that consists of a couple of white aluminum floor sculptures made of super-sized wadded up crumpled sheets of paper by Scott Reeder, which the curators call “wry symbols” of artistic frustration. So dumb!
Or the large photograph of Asian-American comedian Tim Lee in a Steve Martin look-alike pose strumming a banjo with an arrow through his head. That’s supposed to be a punch in the neck that Asians are absent in certain places of popular media. Wow! That was powerful! Help me up off the floor!
There are some neat things in the show; one is a mockup of a judge’s bench that is a reference to Lenny Bruce’s obscenity trials. Another is the eye-catching feminist video by Chan & Mann that features a simplistic painting of two topless women at a table with cutout heads, enabling their real faces to pop through and talk.
The exhibit would have been better if it actually presented video clips of Bruce, Carlin, and Pryor, and the early days of TV comedy, instead of just the nod given these greats by new performance people.
If you go: ‘Laugh-in: Art, Comedy, Performance’ is open 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, through April 19. Closed Wednesdays at Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego, 700 Prospect St., La Jolla. Admission: $5-$10. Free 5-7 p.m. third Thursdays. (858) 454-3541. mcasd.org