What exactly do we mean when we say “anti-comedy”? The official definition is something that involves the performer delivering material that is intentionally not funny, or “lacking in intrinsic meaning”.
The practice relies on the expectation of the audience that something humorous is about to happen. When it doesn’t happen, it’s “the irony itself” that is of comedic value. Ok, I know that’s sounds like a lot of old intellectual claptrap, but anti-comedy cannot be ignored in the context of the industry as a whole.
First of all, let’s rule out all those comedians who just use the term “anti-comedy” as a quick get-out if they tell a joke and it doesn’t get a laugh. There’s a lot more to it than that.
The name we usually hear associated with anti-comedy is actor Andy Kaufman. He found fame as a character called Latka Gravas in the US sitcom Taxi, but long before he got that role he was a highly original and edgy comedy performer on the US circuit.
In Milos Foreman’s 1999 film Man on the Moon, Kaufman was portrayed by another comedian, Jim Carrey – a fact that Andy himself would no doubt have found delightfully ironic.
Kaufman supposedly once read the novel The Great Gatsby from cover to cover during one of his comedy gigs. The audience, initially amused by this idea, left the theatre enraged when they realised that this really was the only thing he was going to do during the show. A few stayed until the early hours of the morning to hear the end of the book.
At least, this is how the event is portrayed in the Jim Carrey movie. Others say that Kaufman actually only read a few lines from the book, and the rest is a kind of word-of-mouth meme, that has been passed down through the years.
Whichever version you believe, I’m sure Kaufman would have been delighted with the wildly differing accounts of this stunt that have passed into comedy history. That’s exactly what he was about. For him, surprising, infuriating or boring the audience was far more important than getting a laugh.
This said, anti-comedy is an extremely risky practice and an acquired taste. Many of the genre’s greatest fans are themselves comedians who love the way it pulls the rug from under the audience’s feet. It is essentially comedy eating itself.
I was once lucky enough to spend some time with one of the UK’s greatest ever comedy writers, the late, great Barry Cryer. Barry wrote material for almost every comedy show you can think of – notably The Kenny Everett Show and The Morecambe & Wise Show.
After we’d both had a couple of pints, I asked Barry what his favourite joke was. He told me this. A man walks into a bar. His head is half an orange. The barman says, “Excuse me, I hope you don’t mind me asking you, but why is your head half an orange?” The man says, “Well, I was clearing out the attic and I stumbled upon a dusty old lamp. While I was cleaning the lamp, a genie suddenly popped out of it, and said that he would grant me three wishes.
“For my first wish, I asked for a beautiful wife and a loving family. For my second wish, I asked for a lovely big house with a swimming pool. And for my third wish, I wished that my head was half an orange.”
This is a comedy writer’s joke. Its classic rule of three set up promises a funny punchline at the end. But the funny never comes and the joke fails to deliver, fizzing out in a puff of disappointment. It’s a joke that lets you down entirely, and that’s the irony. That’s anti-comedy.
Read more about Anti-Comedy in Writing, Performing & Selling Comedy by Brian Luff