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    Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious

    Overanalyze this

    "Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious," a zany lecture/performance by Chicago's Neo-Futurists about what makes comedy funny, is crowd-pleasing but surprisingly stupid.


    Greg Allen introduces his show by claiming that he and his cohort will attempt to explicate the exact nature of comedy through the medium of a theatrical performance.

    Company: Neo-Futurists.
    Written and directed by: Greg Allen.
    Cast: Greg Allen, Andy Bayiates, Heather Riordan.

    Related links: Official site
    Bank Street Theater
    155 Bank Street
    Aug. 8-24, 2003

    "I know what you're saying: 'You can't explain comedy onstage or it will die a horrible and excruciating death,' " he says. "And that's what we're trying to do."

    The conceit of "Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious" is that these performers from the well-known Neo-Futurists company will provide a scientific delineation of what makes things funny, and the whole show — despite its seeming academic detachment, or maybe in mockery of academic detachment — will be jam-packed with funny stuff.

    It's a great premise, and unfortunately, it doesn't work. Amid all the mumbo-jumbo about the relative status of the audience and the performer and the Freudian implications of laughing as a release from repressed conflicts, what this trio really proves about comedy is something totally different.

    The Bank Street Theater, where the show had its New York premiere before a capacity house, happens to have three banks of seats — center, left and right. The people in the center were shrieking with laughter much of the time; those on the right had a moderately good time too; but those of us on the left were almost dead silent. How did this happen?

    Well, as long as we're theorizing, I have a theory of my own.

    Proposition 1: Most of the material in the show was actually stupid. I counted about five really smart jokes. (Example: During the "Cult of the Dumb Guy section" of the show, in which the cast explains why we like to laugh at characters who are dumber than us, one performer devolves — unfunnily — into utter imbecility, and another announces that "we have now moved into the Flowers for Algernon section." Nice save.) Otherwise, the dialogue is a dippy collection of bargain-basement humor — bald jokes, fart jokes, people pulling their pants down, and cast member Andy Bayiates wearing a succession of wacky getups. (Example: A Viking helmet with wool gloves over the horns, a woman's housedress, and a featherduster. If any other comedian came out in this garb, you'd consider him way too desperate for a laugh.) If the performers aren't working really hard to sell this schtick to you, as they weren't to us, then you're not going to laugh at it any more than you'll laugh at your third-grade son talking about boogers.

    Proposition 2: The people in the middle were laughing at something other than the jokes. Maybe it was some combination of the delivery, the advance expectation that the material would be funny, whether it was or not, and the tendency of groups to laugh together. As the show developed, the audience response actually seemed to condition the actors — they played to the center, where the laughter was coming from, increasingly ignoring the buzzkills in the wings. Even the lighting reinforced the connection between the stage and the middle seats. There was undeniable electricity between the performers and the middle-seaters, while others sat nearly abandoned in a dark corner.

    Conclusion: We did learn something about comedy from this experience, but it's not what the Neo-Futurists were trying to teach us. (Which was what, exactly?) Comedy is a state of mind. Comedy is a performer giving some of his energy to a crowd and the crowd constantly saying, yes, we're with you. What does a standup comedian say, after all? "Hey, it's great to be here! Just got in from Miami! Anybody here from Miami? That's great! Listen, you've been a terrific audience!" What is that? Comedy? No, it isn't. It's rapport. And rapport is what makes an audience say: We are ready! Give us an excuse to laugh and we will!

    If you saw this particular show from the center seats, you were ready, you were in the zone, you were going along on the Neo-Futurists' ride. You believed. If you were out in the left-wing boondocks, on the other hand, you were checking your watch.

    Still, does this mean you shouldn't go see "Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious"? Why yes, that's exactly what it means! Of course, talk to one of those people who split their sides laughing and you'll get a whole different opinion. But it says something that this material was rarely strong enough to amuse those of us who only observed it perpendicularly — it says that this was dumb humor in smart humor's clothing. It's the same reason that "Everybody Loves Raymond" needs a laugh track to be perceived as funny and "The Simpsons" doesn't — because one is bland and the other is smart. "Jokes" is not a terrible piece of work, but there are intelligent, much more original comedies in the Fringe Festival too (and here are three of them: 1, 2, 3). Go analyze those.

    AUGUST 18, 2003

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