Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious


at the Neo-Futurarium, through December 9

By Jack Helbig

The Neo-Futurists have a knack for finding the funny in even the most serious issue. That’s one reason their late-night hit Too Much Light Makes the Baby Go Blind has been running continuously for almost 12 years.

Early on, Greg Allen and his merry band were frustrated that so many critics and audience members compared their show to Second City shows. The parallels are there. Second City deals in short scenes, many of them character driven, and sharp little satires on current events; the Neo-Futurists deal in short “plays,” many of them character driven or at least persona driven, and clever little satirical pieces about the world around them. But as Allen pointed out again and again, there are major differences. The Second City performers almost always go for the joke–their shows, as Bernie Sahlins himself pointed out, were never that satirical. More important, by its 12th anniversary, in 1971, Second City was becoming enmeshed in America’s mainstream entertainment machine.

The Neo-Futurists have kept their aesthetic purity and scrupulously maintained their on-the-fringe stance. None of them has gone on to star in a sitcom or appear in a movie with Adam Sandler–or even, I suspect, dreams of it. And their material remains sharply political in a progressive, Green sort of way–exactly the kind of comedy that doesn’t interest the entertainment industry, which prefers apathetic, self-absorbed centrist comics who never tire of joking that the political system isn’t worth participating in or gleeful right-wingers such as National Review columnist and Comedy Central game-show host Ben Stein, who encourages his conservative cohorts to participate in politics.

One of the ways the Neo-Futurists have kept their purity is by keeping their comedy at a distance. They use it, but they refuse to become dependent on it. And what better way to express an underlying ambivalence, even hostility toward comedy than to analyze it to death? That’s what Allen does in his latest prime-time performance piece, Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious. Subtitled “a comedy to end all comedy,” this hour-long piece is at once an eccentric, sometimes shockingly serious comedy revue and a very funny lecture on comedy in the spirit of University of Chicago philosopher and joke maven Ted Cohen (though Cohen’s thoughtful and hilarious book Jokes: Philosophical Thoughts on Joking Matters is never referenced in the show).

The show begins with Heather Riordan gently mocking the conventions of academic lectures as she plays with various ways of delivering the line “Hello, my name is Heather Riordan,” each time earning a bigger laugh. This is immediately followed by a long sequence in which a very pompous Allen states very clearly the questions he will be exploring, which he writes on a board: “What makes something funny? When does something stop being funny? What makes something stop being funny? Can that something ever be funny again?”

In explaining how he’ll approach answering these questions, Allen makes no bones about the fact that he’s studying the “nature and method of comedy” and that by the end he’ll make a previously funny joke “an excruciating experience.” In a moment of Beckettian wit, he quips that he’ll “put the final nail in the coffin of comedy forever.”

He is of course kidding, because even the most serious, overanalytical sections of the play are quite funny. Even Beckett, a writer Allen admires and has spoofed in the past, found a place for comedy, albeit of a very pessimistic kind. Allen is most interested in seeing if he can take a joke through the full cycle–demystify it, take it apart, reveal its inner workings, and then see if he can put it back together and make it run again. This process will be familiar to anyone who knows Allen’s work. His great brainchild, Too Much Light, has a similar structure: Audience members enter the theater, are made hyperaware of being audience members, have the theatergoing experience demystified, and yet are as utterly seduced as any satisfied Goodman subscriber.

At the start, Allen pretends this show will get progressively duller and more serious, but that promise, like the promise implied by the show’s title–that this will be an adaptation of Freud’s eponymous tome on comedy–is empty. The show is no more an adaptation of Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious than Allen’s audience-participation piece Crime and Punishment was a stage version of Dostoyevsky’s novel. Rather, Allen uses Freud’s theories to inform much of the playful comedy, just as he explored the ideas Dostoyevsky raised, though not his plot.

Allen’s initial questions could pass for simplified versions of the questions Freud asks in his book, though the intent is different. Allen wants to remain focused on the jokes, while Freud wants to show how jokes, like dreams and slips of the tongue, are a road into the unconscious. As in a lecture, these initial questions provide the structure for the rest of the show. However, in answering these questions, Allen, Riordan, and Andy Bayiates perform more in the spirit of the Dick Van Dyke Show episode in which Rob Petrie, delivering a lecture on how we’ve all outgrown slapstick, proceeds to win big laughs with the silliest, most painful physical shtick (poking himself with a pencil, running afoul of a stapler, etc).

Which is to say that Allen et al use many tried-and-true comedy tricks to explicate comedy. For one thing, they create a strict hierarchy, with the stern, authoritarian Allen at the top, the likable, childish Bayiates at the bottom, and the part martinet, part disciple Riordan in the middle. If this were a clown show Allen would be the white-faced clown and Bayiates the red-nosed clown; Riordan would waver between the two–white-faced with Bayiates, red-nosed with Allen. Once you’ve established such a hierarchy, all kinds of comic possibilities appear. Allen, as the show’s bully, will first win laughs pushing around Riordan and Bayiates, then later of course be humiliated. A silly audience-participation sequence will end up embarrassing him by hinting that what he secretly desires is to put his penis in the hands of a random audience member. Bayiates, as the sweeter, slower clown, will have his moment of triumph when he delivers a long lecture reminiscent of the speech Lucky (another beleaguered red-nosed clown) delivers in Waiting for Godot, on what Allen calls “the cult of the dumb guy” in comedy.

Every time these three attempt to approach one of Allen’s questions seriously, the discussion degenerates into comic chaos. In a long section making fun of scientific experiments Riordan and Bayiates test the hypothesis that laughter results whenever anyone onstage states, “Take off your shirt!” Pushing their method to the most absurd limit, the two end up turning on the audience, barking at individuals, “Take off your shirt!” and noting dutifully on a clipboard that they get laughter whether or not the person takes his or her shirt off.

This isn’t to say that the show is just a nonstop laughfest. Along the way Allen, in true Neo-Futurist style, manages to pack in some pretty heavy ideas about comedy. Impressive names are dropped, including Henri Bergson and Herbert Spencer. In the end even Freud gets his due, as Allen provides a quickie summary of some of Freud’s theories of jokes, noting that they’re a “release of psychic energy,” an outlet for repressed feelings and impulses (which is why sex and fart jokes are so popular).

The funny thing is that Allen and company are most hilarious at this most serious end to their show. Even as they reveal comedy’s sick, neurotic undergirding–Freud was quite clear that he thought the most successful comics, like the most successful writers and artists, were deeply troubled and divided souls–they earn big laughs. True, they never quite succeed at Allen’s goal of taking a funny joke, draining the humor out of it, and then making it funny again. But who cares? Anyone who can intelligently discuss comedy and still make me laugh has my respect.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Mr. Hooch.