Friday, July 29, 2011

Making a Good Expression

A very alert reader e-mailed me this, asking "Why are impressions funny? Don't they show us things we already know?" And I was all like "Are you e-mailin' me? Are you e-mailin' me? 'Cause I don't see nobody else in your 'sent to' line" and then I was all like [in gravelly voice:] "Ith a wery intuhwesthing quethun. [stroke chin with back of forefingers] Makel, what do you think? Thud we ask Fweddoh?" and then I left work, wondering what is so funny about impressions, and was almost hit by a car in the street, and I was all like "I'm walkin' here, I'm walkin' here", and then I took the train home and it was running late but I did eventually get home.

[That last bit should be read as though it was being said by George from Gilbert and George.]

In response to the alert reader, I would like to address the questions in a public forum. I've got a few ideas about why impressions are funny, which are of no particular interest to me, but you will be blown away, thinking: "that SW, man, what're they gonna say when this blog is gone? Are they gonna say SW was a kind man, are they gonna say he was a wise man? when this blog is gone, man, they gonna say he had plans, he had wisdom? BULLSHIT, man, am I gonna be the one who understands comedy? Look at me! WRONG! It was SW, man. It was SW."

So, why are impressions funny? And don't they just show us things we already know? You should probably make sure you've watched the link above before reading on?

Let's start with an explanation that is probably one of the less familiar why-is-something-funny theory-of-comedy arguments, but one of the most important, especially when it comes to impersonations:

1) Appreciation of comic art:
A good impersonation is akin to a beautiful portrait; it is an elaborate, technically-brilliant reproduction, subject to our enjoyment and appreciation. Elaine Scarry makes the point that the beautiful is that which we want to reproduce; a comic act of impersonation is both a reproduction of something exquisite and precious (the essence of a famous person, a drop of eau de celebrite) and, at the same time, a performance that is itself, if not quite beautiful, magnetically attractive, absorbing. Put another way: it's a pleasure to watch.

We love to attend to art, to linger with it, to stare at it and wrap our senses around it, to immerse ourselves in it a work that is both artificial and, because it is man-made, natural; this is one of the joys of comic art as well. I believe Bergson makes the point that art gives us a way to engage with something with an intensity we could not sustain otherwise. Comedy is a form of art where our appreciation is off-kiltered from the purities and sublimations of beauty to the rarefied, zorro-blades of wit that slash through the thick, drab curtain of reality and leave us with a sharp, identifiable, backlit Z. Impersonation is a vivid, startling imitation of the real, holding a mirror that is not merely "warped" but is in fact carefully warped; as such, comedy is the shimmering alter-ego to "realism" (which is a warped mirror where we are unable to see the warping). The mimetic qualities of impersonation belong to art, but whereas art is typically bound to an obligation to reality's relationship to beauty, comic art is bound to a different value, the obligation to be funny, which is in relationship to both reality and beauty. In plainer English, I'm arguing that funniness is the value of comic art; asking why we find impressionists funny is like asking why we find impressionists beautiful.

The alert reader who raised this question found an act that illustrates a view of impersonation as a relation to art and performance in so far as the impression is, of course, a series of brilliantly-rendered portraits painted against the canvas of high art itself. It's Shakespeare, FFS. Clarence, of all people! Who isn't delighted that, after all these long centuries, somebody has finally found a way to make Clarence interesting!

And should you have any interest in another example of an impersonation rendered against a work of art, I would recommend this piece, an impersonation of a performance artist against another artist's song. In this performance, the very same act becomes a generous and lovely dialogue between the Comic and the Beautiful (if only the directors of the show had any idea how to film it, fucking morons).

2) Incongruity: A much less elaborate answer can be found in two very familiar theories of comedy. The first is, of course, incongruity. Where there is comedy, there is incongruity. (Please note, for the record, I'm not presenting the many arguments against any of these theories; I'm just proposing possible answers, or facets of answers, to the alert reader's questions). In this case, the unexpected appearance of someone's voice, mannerisms, and person in another person (the impressionist) is incongruous and funny; of course, incongruity theorists should be forced, preferably at gunpoint, to acknowledge that the key is not "incongruity" but a relationship established between congruity and incongruity, as we see in impressionism where there is a delicious balance of incongruity (difference) and congruity (similarity), which is put to dramatic work - here most obviously in a) having mostly non-Shakespearean stars perform the role of Clarence and b) using multiple different voices for a single monologue.

3) Domination and Superiority. Another major theory of comedy comes at the intersection of the Hobbesian Superiority Theory and the Freudian Hostility Theory. The basic premise of both is that comedy involves a socially-acceptable expression of superiority, dominance,hostility. Those of you with even a scrap of intellectual integrity (about 12% of my readership) should be aware that the words in this very brief synopsis are vastly complicated: To say that Freud's argument can be distilled into "comedy lets us say rude things we couldn't otherwise say" is pretty much the same as saying that a plastic bottle of spring water is pretty much the same as a bottle of absinthe. They have much in common, but. . . In any case, impressionism is nicely attuned to these arguments about comedy.

Consider, in the alert reader's example, how most of the impressions are of people who arereciting but probably not understanding Shakespeare. Part of the comedy comes in the unlikelihood of these goons playing Clarence.

On a slightly suppler note, one might point out that impressions are a form of performance where the actor does not perform a role, but performs a person: somebody else is captured in the caricature, immediately belittled, for if every person's every moment could barely be contained in a ten-volume novel written by somebody with the observational skills and kinetic literary genius of Proust, Joyce, and Hollinghurst combined, so complex and rich and impossibleis the human, what does it mean that in two squinting, drawling seconds you've represented George W. Bush?

4) The machine-like. This is a favourite rationale for laughter from Bergson, who spotted how much laughter we derive from unadaptive, inflexible characteristics, when, as he put it, the mechanical is encrusted on the living.

An impression strips something mechanical, rigid and persistent from a person and reproduces it as a sort of mask over the impressionist. We find it amusing that, in an impression, we have identified something that endures and persists in a celebrity and which is reproducible: their identity is not something that is adaptive and flexible, but is something rote, machine-like. Despite playing the role of poor Clarence in Richard III, each person portrayed by the impressionist is identifiable not just from his voice but from his pauses and mannerisms; the voice, the pauses and the mannerisms are not there because they are shadings of the character of Clarence but because they endure despite playing Clarence - whether it is Allen's fluster or Schwarzenegger's accent or Clooney's pauses. The celebrities are, in a way, machine-like, their "personalities" are rigid and inflexible; their personae are not personal relationships to the world but psychic marionettes, which can be made to dance any time, any where.

5) Quotation. All of the above arguments are pretty good ones, but there are two more points to be made right now.

The first is that the impersonation, often through mechanisms described above, is an insistence on the ambiguity of identity. Had the alert reader not written the questions to me in an e-mail, had the reader spoken it, it would have probably come out like this:

You know, like, whaddabout, um, why are impressions funny, bing-bing, oh yearh? And aren't they familiar - hey is that a dildo in that shop window? – um, yearh, cause an impression is something we've already seen - oh no, it’s not a dildo, it’s a mannikin’s arm, I thought it was a dildo – so could you tell me why impressions are funny? Do you think I could design and sell a dildo shaped like a mannikin’s arm?
In this we have the power of voice, the signature appended to everything we say, the unique soundprint in the whorls of intonation and the curls of accentuation; the impression is an act of exquisite forgery, taking the uniqueness of identity as the substrate for its mockery and its reproduction.

The ambiguity is, if you will, an extreme or radical one. After all, the person is at once recognisable as present and as absent, an existential dualism in the performance that we can relish: that is Schwarzenegger where there is no Schwarzenegger. (This ambiguity plays out in all the different rationales above; for example: the performance is a performance that can be appreciated as a performance or as a parody of a performance; there are incongruities, but also congruities; there is hostility, but also affection, there is the possibility of triumph as well as degradation; the very presumed inflexibility and endurance of the characteristic may be a form of adaptation and survival itself, proving that instead of being machine-like, it is immensely mobile and responsive - even as it is not . . .)

And, derived from this, we can re-think the alert reader's question: "Don't they show us things we already know?" When somebody, I forget who, says there's no such thing as a new joke, he's making a much smarter point than the one he thinks he's making: comedy is a play on recognition, therefore always showing us things we already know, even as there is a twist, an ambiguity that leads us to believe we don't already know it. An impersonation invites us to recognise someone else in the person of another; it's a phenomenal trick, quoting a persona, citing a character, while playing in the carefully-crafted space between recognition and the dissonances of ambiguity. Kurt Vonnegut says that the great thing about a joke is not that jokes make us think but that when the punchline comes we are relieved of the burden of thinking. We struggle, in a joke, to think, to understand, to recognise, and then suddenly we're given the punchline, we get it, and we recognise it, and there's no more work to be had. I happen to think that Vonnegut's comment about jokes relieving us from thinking is a joke in itself, but it's useful here. And I would add one small caveat: there are moments in that performance where Clarence comes alive in an interesting way, where the characterisation of the impersonation and Clarence just clicks. Surely, then, almost against our wills, we've seen and learned something new?

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