Sunday, December 09, 2007

Transgressive Language

This is a new one. I got paid last night to not perform. Instead, I was part of a panel discussion on transgressive language at Standford. I was on stage with a professor, a artist in residence, a spoken word artist and the man who created the sound track for the interpretive dance.
Thats right, I said interpretive dance.
When the Booker called me about this gig I said yes right away. All you have to do, he explained, is sit on this panel and talk about transgressive language.
Sounds like easy money.
When I find the theater on the sprawling Standford campus, the performance has already begun.
Along with other late arrivals, I stand in the lobby watching the performance on one of the two giant flat screen TV's they have set up. All I know is that I am going to be the comic in this discussion group. When I get handed a program and see a group of people on stage dancing to music I cannot define, I started wonder what I had agreed too.
The last piece of the evening is titled, Jokes like that can get you killed.
It's a modern dance piece that explores sensitive subject matter from the perspective of an individual speaking a rarely spoken consensus. Thats what it says in the program anyway. What I saw and heard was this.
The lights came up on the stage and the first thing you heard was a girl moaning off the sound track of any porn. Projected behind the dancers was a giant set of legs that "walked" their way like scissors might walk from one side of the stage to the other. All the while, a group of dancers gyrated and moved in complex rhythms to the music. In other words, I didn't have a clue what was going on or how this explored transgressive language. That word kept coming up but truly I don't know how a dance, no matter how well executed, deals with that subject. Thats where the Audio & Visuals came in I suppose. The moaning porn girl began to be replaced with clips of comics telling profanity laced jokes and recent celebrities that were in the news for saying the N-word or using other such language. You know, Don Imus and his Nappy headed hoe's comment. Things like that.
Visually, it was kinda cool. The scissor legs were replaced with a montage of religious symbols and political figures. Their heads appeared on paper cut out bodies 30 feet above the dancers. All these images would float across the giant back drop of the stage as more and more people came out from the wings and danced. Over the soundtrack were audio clips of various comics doing bits. Bits, I might add that were now being used out of context to demonstrate how vulgar our culture had become.
Out of context, Dave Chappelles bit about fucking a monkey sounds dirty. Well, to be honest even in context it sounds dirty. But presented like this, in a theater with people who undoubtedly think of themselves as patrons of the finer arts, it was used as shock value.
There were clips of Bill Maher, Wanda Sykes and other famous comics. Just quick snippets of jokes set against the back drop of larger than life images, new age music and well toned dancers.
At this point, I found myself watching the performance and wondering what the hell I was doing there. I was fighting my urge to mock it. Thats not easy! But I couldn't help but think how much money and effort went into something that I bet no one really understood.
After the show, about 70 or so people gathered in a smaller theater. On stage, there were 5 chairs. The musician who did the soundtrack sat on one side of me and Robert, the guy who created the event, sat on the other side of me. I apologize for not remembering any other names, but we were also joined by a spoken word artist and a professor. Easily, I was the least educated person sitting on that stage. But as I listened to everyone speak about the context of meaning and how the n-word had been belched in our culture and that a voice is more important than what you are really saying, I wanted to role my eyes. At one point, the spoken word artist said he had more leeway from an audience to be didactic.
It was a dissection of the artistic piece we had all just watched and it was a discussion on what is and what is not socially acceptable speech. The thing is, and if anyone who was there reads this I apologize, it was all bullshit.
The issues of race and what can and what should not be said in public is a complex enough issue to deal with without adding another incomprehensible layer of "art" to it. Modern dance might not be the best venue to take on this subject matter. Thats just my thought. What do I know. I only use transgressive language every day in my art.
I nodded my head a lot and tried to look interested. A lot of the time, I really just felt like everyone was using large vocabulary words to out do the last person. A sort of intellectual version of yo mama jokes.
I don't know that I am qualified to speak on the issues of racism and the black community, but there I was on stage with a professor who wrote a book and a guy being paid by a world renowned college to dream up dances about relevant issues in our culture.
The more he explained the piece to the audience, the less I thought I understood it. When the professor spoke about the white washing of the word nigger in everyday language, I was totally lost. Eventually, Robert turned to me and simply said, As a comic, whats your perspective?
I said I didn't get it but some of the dancers were hot.
That got a laugh.
I think it got a laugh because most of the people didn't get it either. But it was fun. I mostly spoke about language being an imprecise tool. How crowds have a hard time telling the difference between a comic using a word for shock value and a comic using a shocking word to make fun of the ignorance behind such words.
To me, thats the giant blind spot with liberals that prevents them from truly understanding some things. Sometimes you have to use the hurtful words in order to make fun of them. But the second they hear such words, they shut down. They don't listen to the word in the context it is being used in, they only register the bad word being spoken.
Irony, sarcasm and satire are just not comedic tools a lot of crowds understand anymore.
It also struck me as yet one more reason why liberals cant get anything done. All this discussion about a dance that was meant to shed light on something that even it's creator was having a difficult time explaining all seemed silly to me. In the desire to be polite with everyone, the conversation first gets unnaturally warped by side stepping anything that might offend anyone. Then, it gets pushed further from what the real topic is by the sound of intellectuals enjoying their voices.
I don't mean to sound harsh and yes, I do have some class issues around anyone creating socially minded art in a college for money. If the point is to start a discussion on language and it's effects on society, then I guess mission accomplished. But if 5 guys had not sat down with each other and talked about transgressive language in art and culture, I never would of watched that dance and thought thats what it was about. I don't know. People dancing while a girl moans off a porn soundtrack seems shocking for shocking sake. Not to shed light on anything. Using clips of comics doing bits seems unfair to me too. Unfair because I doubt the clips were paid for and unfair because after all the discussion about putting things in their own context, these clips were clearly not in their proper context.
I would not stand up during a modern dance performance and presume they would be receptive to my comedy.
Agenda driven art drives me crazy. It's never that good. The art, becomes second to the meaning. But when Robert spoke about the piece, he said he didn't like being preached to from the stage. Maybe so, but your original intention has been so buried under so much other meaning that whatever it is you wanted this to be about requires an hour long discussion with the audience after the performance. I think that means it fails on the meaning part. Artistically, I am not in a position to judge the dancing. It looked great! Visually the whole thing was cool, but it was less about the dancing I think and more about being a really cool multi media presentation. I don't know. I know that I sometimes take my comedy way to serious for my own good too. Thats what I think happened here. Nothing bad or wrong, just seems that people with a grant from a college who take everything way too seriously used the artistic skills they had to comment on an art they know nothing of. I think thats what bothered me about the whole thing. When ever they talked about the "piece" they would say how difficult it was to hear some of the shocking words and material.
On the drive home I thought of at least a hundred other things I wish I said. I wish I had brought up Lenny Bruce, the great great grandfather of modern stand-up comedy as we know it. He died a martyr for wanting to talk about the real issues of the day in the way real people talked. Real people swear. Real people use shit & fuck as adjectives. Real people flocked to his shows when the establishment rightful saw him as a challenge to all that 1950's conformity he showed us was hypocrisy.
I thought Mark Twain. When his books, Huckleberry fin and Tom Sawyer came out, they were greeted with critical disdain. He broke an unspoken rule by writing dialogue as people actually spoke it back then. Writing anything required that the author use that overly flowery and dramatic style of the day. He broke with convention and as a result his books became hugely popular.
Lenny Bruce and mark Twain didn't call attention to themselves by saying, hey look what I am doing! I am using transgressive language to show how it erodes society and the meaning behind everything we say. No. They just told what they heard in a matter of fact way. And people got it.
I am going to write Standford and ask if they have ever had a stand-up comic as an artist in residence. What the hell. if a comedy club will pay me to tell jokes why wont a college pay me to explain them? Apparently thats what we need these days, explanations.


zen fan stan said...

Long time fan, first time comment-er. You're lagging on the blogs, dude, I look to Zen for entertaining anecdotes and social commentaries daily. Hold up your end.

Joe said...

You can't rush genius though!
Sometimes it just flows and other times I get a long blog written and when I look at it again, I hit delete.
I have a story about a holiday party I did at a funeral home on the way.
Water boarding is on my mind. Sounds like a sport.
And of course other strange and curious things that seem to be drawn to me.

zen fan stan said...

Post, Man. Post!

Dean said...

Tangentially related... promise...

Jerry Seinfeld was asked how he could set a show in New York and rarely have any black people, even as background actors. He said, "Our only responsibility is to be funny." Transgressive language can be funny in context and serve its purpose... to make beer come out of people's noses.

j said...

Jay Z had a response to the n* word rebellion and Imus and hoes that made sense to me. How can hip-hop or specifically rap be to blame for it's influence in language? M. Richards and Imus aren't listening to rap. They might be able to list 3 different rappers, but they couldn't name 3 songs. Rap didn't influence them or make them think the words were "ok" They said what they said because they knew it wasn't okay.

Joe said...

Agreed. However attempting to translate that into socially questioning art is a bit tricky.
My mom once said to me, "I hear black people call each other that word all the time. If they can use it whats the big deal if I use it?"
You have to ask yourself, what use would you ever need that word for? if you cannot answer that question without intending harm to people, then you already have your answer.