If you haven’t seen Veep on HBO yet, please make sure to do it while you’re home for the holidays. Seinfeld’s Julia Louis-Dreyfus won an Emmy earlier this year for playing Selena Meyer, the Vice President of the United States. For me, the show acts as a master class in comedy, sharing various techniques for humor, both scripted and improvised. While critically analyzing the series during the ninth and tenth times I watched it on repeat, I tried to notice how materials were injected into the humor.
As artists, we make objects. We make things. We think of things that don’t exist and then we turn those ideas into stuff. Maybe we appropriate pre-existing things and turn them into new things. In studios or in exhibition spaces, I’m so happy when I get to be present with artists and their complete objects. But in my experience with these artists, it’s more common for this moment to be serious than hilarious: artists are exhausted, ideas have been toiled over for months and years, and everything is severely precious. It’s the seriousness of this tone that gets me laughing every time.
Take, for example, the following clip from Veep – an exchange between the VP’s lip-reading photographer and the White House’s liaison to the VP:
If you’re a serious photographer, you must have had this type of exchange before, or at least wanted to engage in it. I’ve taken many a self-portrait using digital photography and I’ll be the first to confess that I know nothing about cameras. I just set the timer and shoot – no knowledge of aperture, or speed, or exposure, or flash, or whatever. Art is so wonderful; I can call myself a Conceptual photographer and sleep well at night.
The next clip shows Selena reprimanding her staff:
Notice how she whacked the coffee across the room? Hilarious! Do you know how many grad school classmates I had who worked with coffee as a material in their art? And I can assure you that they do not find their work funny or disposable in the slightest. Maybe I’m just a cockeyed comedian, but things should always be looked at in a funny light, at least for a few minutes.
Another example from Veep is Selena being completely bummed out and angry about her newest assignment from the President – dealing with obesity in America:
Here, the materials are corndogs and cupcakes. These two objects complete the humor by pinpointing the absurdity of thinking that these things are the direct cause of a fatal physical condition. Speaking of food, I’m reminded of Art21 Blog’s very own Gastro-Vision, by the fabulous Nicole Caruth. Her column explores the relationship between food and art in a variety of ways that often include splashes of playful humor.
Finally, this last clip shows Selena fixating on her various nicknames, which her staff searches for in the blogosphere to keep track of the gossip that surrounds her:
I don’t know why that clip makes me laugh so hard! All she is doing is simply reiterating the definition of Viagra, and it’s hilarious! If Damien Hirst simply reiterated the effects of every pill in his 2000 sculpture The Void, would that be funny? Does any artist restating the definition of paint or wood or clay or any other material sound funny to you? The first time I watched Martha Rosler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen during my undergrad years, I remember all of us students giggling. Over time, I appreciated and understood the high-level concepts within the work and view it with a serious art face, but I still find her reiteration of kitchen tools to be a fantastic comedic moment in art history.
One reason I’m an artist is because I love stuff. One could call it a fetish – the desire to give a remarkable amount of attention to an object. I love so many different kinds of materials that I could never commit to just one. Because of the fact that I spread my own skills so thin, you could say I compensate for my lack of expertise with humor. I think a major reason why Selena Meyer is so funny is because she is constantly thinking, “if I were President.” My interest in humor in materials might stem from a similar way of thinking: “if this photograph was a sculpture…” or “if this sculpture was a performance….” Comedy can be found everywhere, even in the materials we artists hold very near and dear to us.