Miriam Katz on crying with Aziz Ansari, her new podcast and the role of comedy in the art world.
Over the last few years, Miriam Katz tracked through basement bars and comedy clubs, galleries and museums, trying to split the difference between the high and low of the comedy world. Her recently inaugurated monthly podcast, Breakdown, focuses on a wide range of funny people, from comedians to artists to those in between. In this conversation, we tried to locate Katz’ position in the comedy world. While tracing her engagement through laughter, stand-up, and a lot of feelings, we found our way into some of the darker depths of the comic, but wove our way back, redeemed.
Sam Korman It’s nice timing that we’re conducting this interview during Obama’s oath of office. It is such an important moment, today is his big inauguration speech and we decided that we’re going to sit down on our computers and talk over Skype about comedy. . .
Miriam Katz I don’t know if I’m proud of that. . .
SK I don’t know either. So, you've worked in the art world for many years and have recently done a number of projects related to the work of comedians, all of which leads me to ask, why is comedy so important?
MK Partly it feels important because it gives people relief. Also, it allows very difficult truths to come forward. I love the gamut that it encompasses: very serious things and the most playful, childlike things come together. It’s critical and also really fun. That’s one reason I think the art world ought to look at it. The art world is interested in criticality, but often in a very serious way. There’s something about being critical in a joyous way that’s especially powerful.
SK How would you describe the comedy world in which you situate yourself?
MK I connect to comedy in comparison to the art world. I really like that comedy and comedians are comfortable talking about emotion. It’s not considered as icky as it is in the art world to talk about feelings. It’s totally important and really exciting when someone can do that well.
SK That reminds me of the Tig Notaro piece, Live, where she talks about a terrible string of life shattering events, including her very recent cancer diagnosis. It’s unbelievable.
MK It was interesting to see her in the midst of processing everything that was happening to her, but my favorite part was at the end of her set, when she started to do the bee on the highway joke. She did the joke with such disdain even though four weeks earlier she could’ve done that joke normally. It’s a joke that she wrote, a joke that she toiled over, and she’s making fun of it. At some point, not even jokes are a sacred thing to comics. You can make fun of jokes, you can make fun of other comedians. There’s no holding tight to a thing you once believed in deeply, even a month earlier. And she only told a tiny bit of the joke. She said “I was in traffic,” and then let out a huge sigh. I was sure that she was going to say that she couldn’t do the joke because she was too upset, but then she sighed again and said, “and the traffic was so horrible.” She used the fact that you think that she’s devastated about her cancer in the service of the joke. It’s so smart.
SK Notaro does not get up and do her shtick and as a result, opens up very directly with the audience. But comedy seems, by varying degrees, to occupy this other, emotive position. There’s an appeal on a very individual level between the comedian and the audience member. It feels like I am sharing in someone’s feelings, if not my own. How might that be used elsewhere?
MK Part of my hope is that some of these things can influence the art world in a positive way. Not so that artists will start to make comedy, but so that their work can start to possess some of the spark of the comedy work that we’re talking about, so it has that personal, sharp power. I think it’s possible. Nothing has to be the way that it is. That’s the number one thing that I’ve learned from comedy.
SK Let’s try again to locate you in the comedy world. Do you see yourself as a fan?
MK At the event I put on at MoMA PS1, Chelsea Peretti got up and talked about how she’s on stage, she’s well-lit, she’s standing up, she’s spouting her opinions, and we’re there, gnarled in the dark, sitting back and in our own heads. We have no voice and no power. She was making a joke but in a way she also wasn’t. If there are two hundred people in the audience, any given audience member is only one two hundredths of what the comedian needs. Structurally, we’re arbitrary. The comic just wants the sounds coming out of our bodies. I’m interested in having some kind of a role that allows a bit more agency or influence, and maybe also giving the audience more of a voice as well.
SK Do you see yourself more as a performer? You’re performing as a stand-up historian. This is perhaps more in reference to the Peretti joke: do you then want to have a voice?
MK It’s funny, I am thinking about where I was literally standing during the PS1 show. At the event we had chairs set to the side where the comedians sat so that they could have easy access to the stage, and there was central seating for the audience. I was standing between those two spots. There’s the metaphor: I want to stand up, but not necessarily on stage.
SK How do you see art and comedy mirroring one another? I was thinking a lot about it this morning: I wonder what I actually think the two things have most in common? The one similarity I could settle on, was, for example, when I was in New York this past spring, I went to a lot of stand-up performances and I didn’t really understand how it worked in smaller comedy clubs. Because I was going a couple nights a week to different places, I was watching the same comedians from the previous nights work out new material, telling the same jokes two nights in a row, tailoring the jokes, or just playing them off a different audience. It becomes a living draft. I see that as very similar to a lot of art practice.
MK This reminds me of my conversation with comedian Jordan Morris for the seventh episode of my podcast. He told me that he only owns funny art and I asked him if he wants everything to be funny. He said yes, and that he used to be a little embarrassed about it. He eventually realized that he didn’t want everything to fart, but rather that if someone says something funny it means they’re paying attention. It drives him crazy when people are out of touch or not paying attention. That could be a way to connect both the art and comedy worlds. Both visual artists and comedians should be in touch with this moment, paying attention and then flipping around their observations so an audience can connect with them.
SK There’s something really important about it being an exchange, of having to appeal to another person. It makes me think that even to make yourself laugh has some of the same disconnection of appealing to a lens of self.
It might be the same sense of appealing to another person. When you make yourself laugh or have a sense of humor about yourself, it is a similar way of understanding that you are a listener, too.
MK As in, you’re a little bit outside of yourself? Like it’s a birds-eye-view. That’s so weird and cool: making yourself laugh. It forces you to ask, who’s that?
In terms of the exchange, I really love crowd work. When the crowd is asked to speak and the comedian responds right in that moment. In general, it’s great when you can tell that the comedian is responding to the nuances of the audience’s reactions.
SK There’s no other way to do it. You can perform for your friends, sure, but you need an audience of strangers, which is the most terrifying thing about it: having to appeal to anybody. In the comedy issue of Vanity Fair, Judd Apatow asked, “Do you think that any comedians today can hold a torch to older comedians from the past?” And Chris Rock said, “Fuck no.” Richard Pryor had to be able to play the Apollo and play some club in Connecticut the next day and kill it at both places. He had to get any room in a riot.
MK It’s hard for me to believe that there aren’t any comedians that are still able to do that. Rock’s point might be that comedians don’t have to have such broad appeal today. But there are comedians that can and do function in a lot of different kinds of rooms, and that still have an incredible amount of skill.
I saw Aziz Ansari at Whiplash at Upright Citizens Brigade last fall. He dropped in at one in the morning on a Monday night and was doing a bunch of crowd work. He was asking people about relationships and meeting people online, and starting talking to this guy who said that he had met a girl on Twitter. Ansari kept asking questions and the guy finally said that they needed to move on, that he was done answering the questions. Ansari kept pushing, saying, “No, no, no, let’s talk about this.” And the guy said, “If we keep talking about it, it’s not going to be funny.” Of course Ansari took that as a cue to keep pressing the guy, and eventually the guy explained that he had fallen in love with this woman who had a terminal illness and had only six months to a year to live. She didn’t want to date him because she knew she was going to die soon.
I had no idea how Ansari would handle the situation, and he did something I’ve never seen a comedian do. He stopped his set entirely and said, “You guys, everyone in this room, we all have our own stuff going on, and this is happening to this guy. He’s sitting in the front row and you’ve all been watching him. We’re all here, we all have our lives and our stories. We all think that everyone has their shit together and we’re the only one that’s a mess. And this is going on with this guy.” A few people started crying. Ansari really allowed us to experience what was happening in that moment. Then he made a little half-joke about how this was crazier than any episode of Lost. And then he made a joke that was maybe twenty-five percent funnier than that. He eventually blended his way back into his set.
There was something about being at a comedy show that allowed us greater access to the depths of the situation. Ansari is a very a controlled performer and we trusted that he was going to take us out of the darkness. The comedic context allowed us to really get emotional and experience that guy’s pain.
SK That is so intense. It also pulls us back to the initial question for the interview. To readdress it: Comedy seems like an involuntary release of tension, psychological, physical, or otherwise. Throughout our conversation I’ve been struggling with this idea of comedy’s sensuousness, but it answers that question, of how it can happen. This is how ideas and politics and culture can be felt and affected. So, why is comedy important?
MK Comedy is really powerful because while there is an element of relief, there’s also no escape. It forces you to admit things about your limitations and about what you really want. As with Ansari, you have to reckon with that super painful stuff that you sometimes tuck away. It brings that stuff out in public in a way that is personal. Like you said, you have the feeling that the comedian is speaking to you. Peretti pointed out that the audience members are passive, but were also called to action. After a set, you may not remember a single one of the jokes, but they’ve entered into you. After watching a lot of comedy, you start to feel like you can’t lie to yourself anymore.
Miriam Katz is a writer and curator based in New York. She has organized exhibitions and performances for The Kitchen and MoMA PS 1. Katz is the creator of the monthly comedy podcast, Breakdown. On February 17, she will participate in a panel on the work of comedian Andy Kaufman.
Sam Korman is the assistant director of White Flag Projects. In 2009, he founded Car Hole Gallery, the complete catalogs of which can be found in the collection Notes From a Young Curator, published by Publication Studio.