Tragicomedy, a Toolkit
by Parker Kay
“It’s like a twist of the arm,” says Toronto-based artist Kathleen Taylor as she describes her performance She-Orc (2019),1 in which she played the titular role, a riff on the Lord of the Rings character that she describes as being “raised in suburban Ontario by humans.”2 Taylor appears to the crowd in green face makeup with prosthetic ears and teeth, carrying a hamper full of laundry. Backed by the orc theme music from The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), she dumps her laundry on the wet grass and begins to violently cover it with soil. It is at this point that the arm begins to twist. As Taylor starts to scream in a deep, anguished voice and writhe on top of the soiled clothing, members of the off-camera audience begin to laugh, except for a baby who begins to cry. During our conversation, Taylor mentions that she received feedback that, in this moment, some people felt scared to laugh and others felt offended that people were laughing—a tension that highlights the difficulty of processing the ambiguous territory between the performed and the personal, and points out the fallacy of distance between pleasure and pain, desire and repulsion and, ultimately, comedy and tragedy.
Under late capitalism, where essentially every part of daily life has been commodified, the individual has come to be quantified as a set of discrete emotional compartments, capturable in the data we wilfully generate, which is in turn leveraged back to us as consumers. As evinced by Taylor’s She-Orc, tragicomedy, though perhaps appearing like a two-headed monster, fights for a spectrum of emotional states in protest against binaristic or otherwise siloed emotional conditions. Social theorist Lauren Berlant uses the idea of tragicomedy, too, but to articulate a paradox of modern existence dating back to the mid-20th century, with the emergence of neoliberalism—the very origin of today’s economic, cultural and emotional structures. Within her concept of “cruel optimism,” which refers to the consequences of “the pursuit of upward mobility, job security, political and social equality, and durable intimacy”3 under capitalism, she notes that while such pursuits may appear on the surface as a situation comedy (i.e., sitcom) recalling the genre’s tropes of a good-hearted story where conflict is never dire and instead functions as fodder for the amusement of both character and audience—it will in fact reveal itself to be a “situation tragedy,”4 because of the systemic inequality inherent to the existing economic structures. In other words, cruel optimism is “when something you desire is actually an obstacle to your flourishing.”5
Roaming across the emotional spectrum is familiar to several performers (comedians, performance artists, actors, etc.) who embody cruel optimism by simultaneously pursuing some version of the good life while also offering insight into the systemic barriers of such pursuits. Artists like Taylor, along with Cotey Pope, Maria Bamford and Brody Stevens, make visible the larger societal hurdles that face all of us within Berlant’s framework by distorting the boundary between the personal and the performed, allowing the performer to at once perform and, at the same time, expose the manifold conditions in which the performance is situated. The result for an audience, beyond entertainment, is a tragicomic tool kit, to help process the obscured and overt layers of harm embedded in day-to-day life, by accessing a more complex, interlinked range of subjective states.
Pope, a Toronto-based artist and performer, often assumes the multiplicitous character of the clown to dance the line between irony and sincerity. The ethos of the clown—the base figure at the core of many performers—is that there is a series of masks that the performer can access at any time, which may empower a side of themselves they might not normally feel comfortable showing, or give permission to do things they wouldn’t normally do. The mask becomes a permeable threshold that gives the performer the ability to be seen on their own terms or feel liberated in remaining hidden. Notions of identity surrounding the role of the performer are a frequent subject in Pope’s work, often tackling pop-culture stereotypes and over-the-top clichés—such as the sitcom, the tortured artist and the out-of-work actor. In Deborah (2016), Pope takes the stage in the titular role to tell of a tragic love story with a person who was only sexually attracted to her when she was dressed as a literal clown. Deborah describes that this act almost drove her to a mental breakdown: “I was performing clown every fucking day for you,”6 she exasperatedly shouted over the phone. Here, “performing clown” could be a stand-in for a long list of less outlandish relationship compromises; the confessional mode (whether actual or performed) masked as melodrama allows Pope to express frustration with love, intimacy and relationships. Deborah explains that “although this is all funny … I am pretty heartbroken,”7 and then goes on to break the fourth wall by questioning if her suffering is integral to the creation of the performance. She ends her story with a head-banging karaoke rendition of Alanis Morissette’s You Oughta Know with such self abandon, catharsis and sincerity that it appears as if the audience is witness to pure autobiography, a speculation that is never confirmed nor denied.
In moments when the clown’s mask and the unadorned face of the performer are indistinguishable, the audience begins to break through spectatorship and glimpse the meta-narrative between character and the artist’s “real” life. Like many artists, Pope uses social media as an extension of her practice, frequently posting videos chronicling her experience as a working actor, which show her talking directly to the camera in the style of a reality TV confessional. Similarly, The Cotey Show (2018) “details the based on-true-events travails and frequent absurdities experienced by an emerging artist”8 in which she “investigates the act of performing the self”9 through sitcom-style vignettes. If The Cotey Show is Pope’s way of using comedic cliché, narrative tropes and slapstick to comment on her experiences as an artist, her online persona offers a sort of funhouse mirror image whereby “real” life events are steeped in performance of varying potencies. In other words, Pope leverages the audience’s assumptions about different media as a way to augment the affect of a given performance, which, when experienced alongside more typical stage and screen works, creates a greater emotional gestalt. Her assertion that “the performance artist is not an actor, but can be if they so choose”10 illustrates this multiplicity succinctly.
This boundary-blurring, identity-driven, absurdist and sometimes surrealist approach has resonances with “alternative comedy,” which was brought into the mainstream media in the early 2000s, in response to the mostly male-dominated, often misogynous, observation- based comedy that was popular in the ’80s and ’90s. NYC-based comedians and performance artists pioneering the genre shared stage time at non-traditional venues, resulting in intense cross-pollination which would go on to shape both disciplines, a similar cross-pollination to Toronto’s Doored performance art show (2012 to 2017),11 and LA’s Aesthetical Relations — “an itinerant and irregular live talk show experience, bringing together comedians, artists … and other multimedia delights … [where] the fourth wall is broken, reassembled, and mixed into a smoothie.”12
In 2006, Bamford, who was one of the early practitioners, suffered a nervous breakdown after being heckled onstage and disappeared for three months before surfacing in Detroit, where a fan saw her selling clock radios on the street. Shortly thereafter, Bamford moved back home with her parents in Duluth, MN, to recover. To the shock of her management, in late 2006, Bamford sent the footage of her “TV show” to Turner Broadcast System; the result was The Maria Bamford Show (2007) in which “a depressed comedian named Maria Bamford—played by Bamford—has a nervous breakdown and moves home to Duluth, tended to by her parents (also played by Bamford).”13 Following Marxist economic theorist David Harvey’s observation that “sickness … gets defined within the circulation process as an inability to go to work,”14 suggesting that health and well-being is ultimately less important than market productivity, Berlant refers to this facet of cruel optimism as a “slow death.”15 The Maria Bamford Show allowed Bamford to openly acknowledge her bipolar diagnosis and show that being “sick” is not intrinsically at odds with creating meaningful work. Like Pope, and Taylor, the emotional resonance of Bamford’s work is heightened by the voyeuristic tension between the personal and the performed, which challenges the audience to constantly assess their own reading of and relationship to the material.
Bamford is not the only comic in the alternative scene to leverage the tension between her personal life and performances to embody notions of cruel optimism. The late Brody Stevens often played the part of the hopeful capitalist consumer in his jokes, despite the fact that (or perhaps because) his mental health was often at odds with his real, aggressive pursuit of “success” and his failed desires to own property, achieve fame and regulate his emotions.16 The audience laughs hardest at the moments in between jokes where he questions their reactions to his vulnerability, which forces them to reflect on the context of that laugh. For example, during a performance at LA’s The Comedy Store, Stevens asks the audience to watch and see how flexible he is. Wearing loose-fitting athletic clothes, he bends over at his waist with a confident posture and begins to punch the ground at his feet with braggadocious male energy before declaring, “I cried on Magnolia [Street].” Overtop of the audience’s laughter, Stevens goes on to say, suddenly quite solemnly, “I had a breakdown and I couldn’t let my mother on to it.”17 The heaviness of this confessional statement in contrast to the stereotypically male energy that preceded it provokes laughter from an audience that isn’t sure what to believe or how to feel. Stevens’s development of the uncomfortable in-between spaces forces the audience to constantly assess if he has dismantled the facade of a performative breakdown to reveal an actual one.
In a New Yorker article, Hua Hsu connects notions of narrativity to cruel optimism in the age of anxiety: “We like to imagine that our life follows some kind of trajectory, like the plot of a novel, and that by recognizing its arc we might, in turn, become its author.”18 If we are the authors of our own lives, then when we reach our final acts, everything will be okay: this is the fallacy of the neoliberal “good life.” Stevens, Bamford and Pope subvert the idea that they are blindly participating in such a pursuit by constantly calling the form of comedy itself into question, often breaking the fourth wall as a way of challenging society’s invisible structures. The tragicomic turn in performance art defies the emotional regulation that is a feature of modern western society, demonstrating how embracing a less categorical, more pluralistic subjectivity might mitigate the slow death caused by neoliberal capitalism. Whether or not this critique is conscious or unconscious almost hardly matters. In an artist statement, Pope cites Freud’s idea that “freedom produces jokes and jokes produce freedom,”19 a succinct proclamation that illustrates the power of comedy’s capacity to resist oppressive forces by laughing in the face of them.