Dummy Text

This was written for the Russian-American artist Sanya Kantarovsky’s book No Joke, predominantly a collection of his paintings plus some other texts, which I co-edited as well as designed. As far as I recall, the piece is based on an actual email I wrote to accompany some actual draft designs for the book that actually used the Stewart Lee excerpts as mentioned; but for sure it was heavily reworked and fleshed out once we decided to include the “letter” as a pseudo-preface to the book as a whole.

Lead image: From Scott McCloud’s seminal Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (Northampton, MA: Tundra, 1993), which also appears in No Joke.


August 21, 2015

I’m sending along a couple of spreads from our book-in-progress to show you how I’m conceiving its basic template. The text area is the same shape as the overall book, only shrunk, and so follows the logic of your cover with its similarly scaled-down window onto the interior. It seems to me that the same motif—a flat Russian Doll, if you like—is at least intimated if not always apparent in a lot of your work. Speaking of which, did I ever show you my favorite New Yorker cartoon, where an expectant Russian Doll lies prostrate in a hospital bed having an ultrasound scan? (Picture it(it(it(it))))
You’ll also notice that I’m thinking of setting the titles of the paintings at the tops of the right-hand pages in order that they double as ”running heads.” My sense is that the gaps between these non-sequiturs could then function something like that pregnant gutter space between the panels in comic strips and so foster some of that cartoon “closure” you’re so fond of.
The placeholder text I’ve used to demonstrate the typesetting is a collage of excerpts from the British comedian Stewart Lee’s autobiography How I Escaped My Certain Fate: The Life and Deaths of a Stand-Up Comedian (2011), which includes transcriptions of his feature-length live shows that have self-reflexive titles like Stand-Up Comedian, ’90s Comedian, and 41st Best Stand-Up Ever.
In his book these set pieces are copiously footnoted with explanations of obscure references, descriptions of what’s happening physically on stage and in the audience, and endless anecdotes about fellow comedians past and present. Here Lee is merely duplicating the form of his live act, which likewise involves him relentlessly annotating a series of long-form narrative gags.
Until recently I’d always disliked stand-up. I never found it funny. In a vague but stubborn way I thought it was too premeditated. In a minute something was going to happen that was supposed to be funny, and then again, and then again—and it was precisely this expectation of upcoming hilarity that killed it for me. In my humorless way, I thought that live humor ought to have an element of genuine surprise, of being made up as it went along. The vast majority of stand-up appeared to me to be the opposite: tediously over-rehearsed. 
Then I was invited to give a talk at a small symposium on the limits of self-reflexivity in art. My aim was to draw a crude distinction between a bad strain of self-reflexivity, which I thought of as a tired, fashionable and essentially cynical trope, and a good version, which I thought of as a critical, personal, and essentially affirmative temperament. My prime supporting case for the temperamental side of things was the late, great writer David Foster Wallace. Most of the talk involved my reading bits and pieces of his prose that I thought embodied what I was driving at. Then afterwards a friend came up and implored me for the umpteenth time that year to see something by Stewart Lee, who, he assured me, “does for comedy what Foster Wallace did for literature.” So I finally relented and watched one of his live shows online.
At the end of one sketch, very loosely based on a true story involving an obnoxious British tabloid columnist called Richard Littlejohn, Lee imagines Littlejohn sneaking into a graveyard at night to carve some words onto the headstone of a recently murdered prostitute in a rage against “political correctness gone mad.” At this point in the story Lee starts to tap the mic stand with his microphone, mimicking the chisel chipping away at the stone, and continues doing so for some minutes—modulating the sound, speeding up and slowing down, intermittently scraping and pausing, then back to the tapping again. After a while he stops to identify the letter he’s just cut: P. More tapping, more minutes pass, then eventually: R ... and so on to eventually spell out ”PROSTITUTE.” And then he carries on tapping out more letters and words.
A few minutes of nothing but tapping is a long time live on stage, and in the meantime the audience passes through uneasy waves of laughter and silence. The words being mime-carved finally amount to a preposterously drawn-out punchline, delivered more or less in the abstract. But the audience has likely already guessed the outcome by the time he’s tapped out the first or second letter—in which case what’s really funny here is all in the time it takes to tap. The humor is displaced in the act, so you end up laughing at the mechanism at least as much as the narrative.
Lee writes that he’d always fantasized about the possibility of tuning an audience into a series of simple sounds made somehow amusing; and that being in the middle of banging the mic stand for minutes on end amid the ebb and flow of hilarity and boredom was one of his happiest moments on stage, the tapping-chiselling “a perfect alignment of form and content”—the furthest he’s managed to get from stand-up “while still recognizably a stand-up.” He also notes that this gag more or less defies being recounted in writing , and that by definition good stand-up ought to resist transcription in the same way poetry resists translation. Indeed, while critics often consider stand-up in terms of “the material” regardless of the context, it doesn’t take much thought to realize that the essence of stand-up lies precisely in its live delivery, i.e. while standing up, which is very different to writing funny for the prostrate page. 
In his book Lee also recalls watching The Aristocrats (2005), a documentary about a notorious joke of the same name beloved among American comedians but rarely told in public. While the beginning and end of this ultimate shaggy dog story are always the same, the middle is infinitely elastic and so able to be populated by as much abject filth as each new teller sees fit. Despite the profanity—and in a curious way because of it—Lee concludes that the film manages to end up a curiously moving treatise on the nature of human laughter. The Aristocrats idea of infinite variations on the same theme has clearly had a profound effect on Lee’s own work. He even writes a couple of enthusiastic articles about the film, including an interview with co-director Paul Provenza, who says:
Boom! And then you can concentrate on the absurdity of the thing, the structure of the gag, and the different layers of offence. It’s about the singer not the song. Repeating the same joke actually allows us to get over the issue of content and concentrate instead on the thorny issue of aesthetics.
This last line was an epiphany for Lee—a “cartoon lightbulb” that illuminated what he’d been trying to do all along without ever having quite realized or heard it expressed so straightforwardly. Following this lead, these days he deliberately overextends things for circumspect laughs, pushing an audience through the acceptable duration of some comedic convention or other, then carrying on until the length itself turns first audacious, then absurd and, with any luck, finally funny. It’s generally understood that Lee doesn’t really “do jokes” per se; or, if he does, immediately points out that what he just did isn’t the sort of thing he usually does.
Ok, this is an admittedly circuitous way of explaining why I’ve chosen certain bits of text to demonstrate our book’s template instead of good old Lorem Ipsum, but I’m assuming you see the connections with your painting in all this. To wit: it doesn’t sound great on paper, but Lee does “meta-comedy”—comedy about comedy—concerned with its conventions and workings, about its history and his peers. He explains the mechanisms of the jokes he tells (“Irony there. One of the many comic tools we’ll be using tonight …”) and the explanation is the joke—or at least the funny part. He complains and theorizes about why certain sections of the audience are laughing and others aren’t, then urges the quieter ones to try harder. He sets up what he nicely calls “a domino effect of callbacks,” whereby a chain of references to earlier aspects of the show’s narrative accumulates to inane effect. And so on.
Many people are naturally allergic to this kind of thing, especially in Britain, where there’s always been a fierce resistance to anything that comes across as clever-clever. “Smug” and “elitist” are the usual projectiles launched at Lee’s kind of work. But this barely makes sense if you spend more than two minutes with it. He’s the first to introduce himself, only half-jokingly, as an Apologist For The Liberal Left Intelligensia, and the sarcasm with which he plays an exaggeratedly adroit, emotional, and exasperated version of himself is so blindingly obvious that to disregard him on this basis is only to show that for some reason or other you’re refusing to acknowledge an irony that’s impossible to miss. More than anything else, he comes across as caring desperately about the work of laughter itself. 
In any case, all this meta-comedy isn’t the only thing Lee does, it’s just the bedrock of his act, the primer. More importantly, he performs an astute form of social and political satire rooted in disgust with modern stupidity in all forms, which often involves attacking the contemporary media’s lowest common denominators—TV personalities, celebrities, columnists, politicians, and pundits—by pushing opinions, actions, or hubris to slapstick extremes.
To give you one more but quite different example, in 2005 Lee and a couple of collaborators received some 65,000 complaints and were sued for blasphemy by the religious group Christian Voice. The target of their charge was the TV debut of the musical satire Jerry Springer—The Opera, a critical hit that Lee co-wrote and -directed for London’s National Theatre, and which later had a run in the West End. 
Given this circumstance, Lee figures he has nothing to lose and so, with a considerable nod to The Aristocrats, sets out to assemble the most blasphemous routine imaginable. The eventual sketch climaxes with Lee stumbling across an apparition of Jesus on a drunken walk home from an isolated country pub back to his mum’s house. Jesus offers to help; he seems to know all about the comic’s litigation scandal and sympathizes as “another man who was persecuted for his beliefs.” At which point Lee stops the story and addresses the audience directly:
Now can I just make clear at this point, right, I am not saying that I’m Jesus, OK? I’m not saying that I am Jesus. That’s for you to think about at the … I’m not saying I’m Jesus, right, I’m not. But if I was Him—I’m not—but if I was Him, this—not—but if I was Him—I’m not—but if I was Him—I’m not Him, I’m not Him, right, I know you think I am but I’m not. You’re going, “Yeah, but if you were, you would say you weren’t, wouldn’t you? To trick us.” I’m not. I’m not Him, right? I’m not Jesus, I’m not Him, come on. That would be ridiculous. That’s the … I’m the last person that He would come as. It definitely wouldn’t be me. Oh maybe He would … I’m not, right. I’m not Jesus, right. But if I was Him, this is the kind of place I would come and speak, isn’t it?
From there the routine indeed descends into … pretty much the most blasphemous routine about Christianity imaginable. 
So there you go: that’s the genealogy of the dummy text I used in the draft layout. It was, of course, also just an excuse to share these fragments with you, because there’s something else going on in Lee’s comedy that I can’t quite grasp and which feels just out of reach in the paintings, too. It has to do with how, against the odds, he manages to make a case for the ongoing use of self-reflexive devices that you would think really ought to be impotent in this day and age.
In that “trope versus temperament” talk I mentioned above, I meant to probe a strongly held—but, the more I thought about it, less than watertight—conviction that there’s something inherently righteous about self-reflexivity in art, something morally virtuous in its claim to transparency. I was finding it increasingly difficult to gloss over the precise nature of this supposed virtue, or at least to explain in what sense it was, say, honest or authentic rather than, say, conceited or trite. Simply put, the righteousness was starting to smell a lot more like self-righteousness.
The sorts of questions gnawing at me were: Why assume self-reflexivity is somehow morally superior when it frequently involves some form of implied trickery, sarcasm, or cynicism? Why consider it a viable device nowadays, perhaps half a century since it’s had any real power to surprise, upset, loosen, dismantle, and shift attitudes; since it had the critical collateral to force an active rather than a passive reading; not to mention the considerable distance of an ancestry as familiar as, say, Don Quixote and Tristram Shandy? Why now, still, when such meta-manoeuvres permeate the mass media, most apparent in the hypertrophy of reality TV, where the so-called reality under observation is patently not so real at all and whatever-the-premise (airport, hotel, kitchen, jungle) comes bracketed by at least one pair of implicit “scare” quotes; where all the usual knowing tropes—the structure laid bare, the suspension of the suspension of disbelief—have been assimilated, domesticated, and, to all intents and purposes, rendered two or three times passé …?
I said I’d always hated stand-up because of the deadening knowledge that people were trying to get laughs according to formula. In Lee’s case, though, I think meta-tools are just the most expedient means of getting himself beyond the prevailing clichés of his job, putting himself in a position precarious and volatile enough to generate the sort of tension he’s after—even if someone else might consider it entirely clichéd. There’s the rub: Lee’s strain of self-reflexivity convinces because it seems personal, hard-won, ingrained. That’s the difference that makes the difference.
Just because self-reflexivity has a history doesn’t mean it has an expiry date. You might say the same about the pursuit of flatness in painting; or making allegorical use of the edge of the picture frame; or indeed the entire crazy game of painting itself. “Contemporary” is too often taken as a lazy synonym for “new,” but by definition, everything that exists in the present is contemporary—regardless of how long it’s been around. Whatever works. 
Finally, for all the stick Stewart Lee gets for being pretentious, he always seems far less uptight than those doing the complaining:
Critics often talk about me “deconstructing” comedy. I don’t think it’s as complicated as that. I just think it’s funny to take a joke and show the working out in the margins. If you remove the surprise of the punchline by telegraphing it, deliberately, then instead of waiting to laugh at the pay-off the punters have to enjoy the texture of the extended set-up.
Here Lee brings what has the flavour or reputation of being difficult and high-minded back down to earth, and it’s a relief to hear it said that comedy about comedy is sometimes simply funny too.


Sanya Kantarovsky, Untitled, 2010, ink, oil, watercolour on linen, 29 × 22 in.