Comedy

Kristen Schaal is still a horse

One of my teachers in graduate school used to say the difference in repetition and reiteration is that repetition diminishes meaning while reiteration increases meaning.

The repetition in musical Minimalism (think Reich's Come Out or Glass's Einstein on the Beach) is my go-to example for evaluating meaning, or the change in meaning, in repetition. In my own experience, my perception changes gradually over time even when listening to this kind of music. First, I sense the repetition on a local level ("Oh, this isn't going to change, huh?"). Second, I become annoyed and impatient (this happens less now than it used to). Third, I give in and slip into a different mode of perception (some people think of this as a trance; it comes with practice)--a mode that allows me to connects dots that are farther apart, so to speak. The big picture comes into focus and time becomes less important--like I'm looking at a picture, with the freedom to direct my intentionality around a space rather than being locked in the moment, as in traditional goal-oriented music.

I heard a Radiolab episode recently called Loops that dealt with a couple of things that reminded me of musical Minimalism and raised a couple questions about the meaning of repetition. One of the vignettes deals with the composer William Basinski's Disintegration Loops, a series of recordings of old, decayed analog tape loops repeating until they literally disintegrate. This certainly follows one common model of Minimalism: A gradually transforms into B. In addition to the listener's perception changing over time, the music changes literally, though almost imperceptibly.

Kristen Schaal Is a Horse, which is dealt with the episode's first vignetter, on the other hand doesn't change. It is literally AAAAAA.... It's a comedy (or anti-comedy) bit she does with Kurt Braunohler (there's a video below, check it out). But unlike the musical Minimalists, Schaal and Braunohler don't change gradually (except as a result of the physical demands of the performance--hoarse voice (no pun), for example). They seem to undermine even the assumption that something must change, progress, evolve, etc. In the world of comedy this is an extreme version of jokes that run absurdly long on purpose (the giant chicken on Family Guy, for example). My perception of these too-long jokes is analogous to my perception of musical Minimalism (i.e. become aware of the repetition, become frustrated that it's going on too long, then give in), except in this case giving in means to laugh. The transparent, literal repetition in the Schaal/Braunohler gives us a good way to control for the change in perception that occurs (if any). My perception does change; in fact it does all the work. At the end* Kristin Schaal may still be a horse, but the viewer has just experienced a surprisingly rich perceptual journey precisely because nothing happened.

*I understand they have done this bit for up to 10 minutes or more in some performances (or maybe it just felt that way to some people--I haven't seen a longer video).


Everything and Nothing

Jerry Seinfeld did an AMA on Reddit awhile back. Eventually someone asked him about the "show about nothing."

How did Seinfeld come to be? What obstacles did you face when pitching your idea of a show about "nothing"? Who supported you and who didn't?

The pitch for the show, the real pitch, when Larry and I went to NBC in 1988, was we want to show how a comedian gets his material. The show about nothing was just a joke in an episode many years later, and Larry and I to this day are surprised that it caught on as a way that people describe the show, because to us it's the opposite of that.

The opposite of that? So it's a show about something? Everything? Anything? Being? Of course it is. It's a show about the minutiae of daily life--those tiny things that we are so familiar with that we presume we don't need to talk about them. But Seinfeld did talk about those things: the close talker, man hands, the insecurities and neuroses that we all struggle with (double dipping, etc.). Seinfeld was a show about being.

Anyway it got me thinking about the void and nothingness, and I couldn't help remembering the "silent piece" that John Cage wrote, 4'33". Cage uses silence to point our intentionality toward the mundane sounds that surround us all the time. This is like the Sufi idea that the void points us to God. By not saying his name, or painting his picture, we are more aware of his presence. That's a powerful idea. The absence of something forces us to take notice of that thing. A shadow is the absence of light, for example, and a shadow is an immediate sign pointing to the thing that casts the shadow. When Beethoven delays the recapitulation of a symphony movement, the immediate result is the listener thinking about the recapitulation. Nothing always signals something.

©2017 Joshua Harris