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There’s Nothing Funny About Turning Women Into a Punchline

Earlier this month, yet another story surfaced of a famous man abusing his power. In the Hollywood Reporter, actress Kathryn Rossetter described serial sexual harassment behind the scenes of a 1983 Broadway revival of Death of a Salesman, at the hands of her co-star, Dustin Hoffman. At parties after the performances, she writes, when posing for pictures with Rossetter, Hoffman would grab her breast just before the picture was taken and drop it right away, so the image wouldn’t show up on film: “Everyone around always laughed when he did this.”

At one point during the play, Rossetter had to stand backstage and laugh on cue into a microphone. Her costume was a slip with a garter belt and no bra, and she writes that, for six to eight performances a week, Hoffman would sit behind her and slip a hand under her skirt, groping the inside of her thigh. One night, she noticed there were more crew members backstage than usual. Hoffman reached for her leg, again, and Rossetter began her ritual of batting him away while looking out for her cue. “Suddenly he grabs the bottom of my slip and pulls it up over my head, exposing my breasts and body to the crew and covering my face,” she writes. “I missed one of my laugh cues. Dustin had spread the word to the crew to come backstage at that time for a surprise. What a jokester. Mr. Fun. It was sickening.”

Sickening, and revealing. This year, as men and women have confronted long-suppressed evidence of sexual abuse so pervasive it’s simply the air we breathe, we’ve also begun to reckon with a kind of toxic humor that so often excuses such behavior — the ways in which humor is used as both sword and shield, and women as cannon fodder. As Rebecca Traister recently wrote in New York magazine, this moment is not just about sex, but about work. In the context of the comedy industry, it’s about how women have been and continue to be shut out of professional opportunities and the chance to shape cultural narratives because of the adolescent prurience of the men who run the show.

Women in comedy have long reckoned with an industry that by and large considers them props first, performers second, and writers a distant third — passive recipients of humor, rather than active creators of it. Ten years ago, Christopher Hitchens wrote an infamous Vanity Fair article titled “Why Women Aren’t Funny” that conflates humor with sexual appeal. His underlying assumption — that men are funnier than women — is offered as an empirical claim, from which it follows that men have developed this superior sense of humor in order to appeal to women. “The chief task in life that a man has to perform is that of impressing the opposite sex,” Hitchens writes. “If you can stimulate her to laughter…well, then, you have at least caused her to loosen up and to change her expression.”

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The argument is absurd for reasons beyond the gross generalization of half of our species (those who aren’t interested in women, apparently, have no need to be funny; we all know how stodgy and humorless the gays are). Tying the impetus to be funny to the impetus to get laid isn’t just a lazy generalization; it also pushes women out of a market they helped create in the first place, and implies female spectators of comedy are participating not in culture but in a mating ritual in which they may or may not want any part.

Reading Hitchens’s piece is particularly infuriating, and instructive, at a moment when one of our most celebrated comic minds, Louis C.K., has been exposed as a sexual harasser, and when the entertainment world is beginning to reckon with its pervasive sexism. As Yael Kohen documents in her 2012 oral history, We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy, women have not just performed alongside men for decades, but have been instrumental in shaping the comedy industry as we know it. As performers, writers, and bookers, women played key roles in the stand-up boom of the 1950s and ’60s, which was largely concentrated in New York City but also owed a debt to Chicago’s improvisational theater scene; Amy Sherman-Palladino’s new Amazon series, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, is a fictionalized account of this time, centering on a housewife-turned-aspiring-stand-up who works out her confessional material in Greenwich Village clubs.

As the #MeToo movement has shown, 42 years after feminist scholar Lin Farley coined the term sexual harassment, women still struggle, constantly, to earn professional respect in a society that sees us primarily as a collection of body parts. It strikes me as especially difficult for the comedy industry to reckon with its gendered power dynamics because this is a business that attracts the kinds of men (and women) who never considered themselves as particularly powerful to begin with. Like the Silicon Valley billionaire who looks in the mirror and sees a pimply-faced underdog nerd, even the most successful comedian may not think of himself as a titan of industry — especially if, like C.K., he’s built his career around a comic persona that squeezes laughs out of his self-perceived weaknesses, like his shameful eating habits. But, like those tech industry overlords, when these guys “make it” in comedy, they only become a new iteration of the oppressive jocks they grew up resenting.

From Woody Allen’s Alvy Singer to Judd Apatow’s early-Aughts man-boys, the pathetic, put-upon dude is a stock character of modern comedy. The funniest, and weirdest, iteration of this type in recent years is Nathan Fielder, who plays a version of himself on the Comedy Central reality-parody show Nathan for You. The show premiered in 2013 as a business-makeover spoof in which Fielder, who really does have a business degree, proposes wildly idiosyncratic improvement ideas to the owners of independent shops. As the series went on, however, it became less about the business owners and more about Nathan himself, or at least the persona presented on the show — a friendless loner so socially inept he makes Napoleon Dynamite look smooth.

Critics and fans fawned over Nathan for You’s season four finale, a two-hour special called “Finding Frances” that aired in November and that centers on Fielder helping a weird old man named Bill track down a former girlfriend that he wishes he’d married. But, as a I wrote back then, the episode left me feeling queasy, and called to mind other moments throughout the show’s four-year run that wring laughs out of the spectacle of a woman in an uncomfortable, even potentially dangerous, situation.

My reaction to the episode wasn’t the first time this year I’ve found myself the lonely skeptic in a crowd of chortling men; in March, I sat in a small theater with a room of men watching a press screening of Dave Chappelle’s first new stand-up specials, for Netflix, in over a decade. I was the only one who didn’t laugh through Chappelle’s bit comparing Bill Cosby to a hypothetical superhero who “rapes, but he saves,” a routine that requires the viewer to weigh Cosby’s accomplishments and advocacy for the African American community against the nearly sixty women who’ve accused him of drugging and raping them. I suspect it’s a calculation that’s a lot easier for a man to compute, even in the context of a joke.

I’m also continuously struck by how much easier it seems to be for men to dismiss claims of impropriety or discomfort when defending jokes that come at the expense of a woman’s dignity. On the New Yorker’s website, filmmaker Errol Morris wrote a fawning appraisal of “Finding Frances,” which he calls “my new favorite love story.” True to form, Morris’s piece is mostly a series of apparently unanswerable questions, a celebration of the unknowable: “Can one fall in love with nothing? With the desire to be in love?”; “Who am I really? To what extent are we all play-acting through our lives?” The very real women at the center of the episode — Frances and Maci, an escort Fielder hires and “falls in love with,” although, as ever, it’s unclear where the real Fielder begins and his character ends — are barely considered.

Morris’s effusive abstraction reminded me of the Netflix documentary Jim & Andy: The Great Beyond, released in the fall. The doc features archival footage from the set of the 1999 Andy Kaufman biopic Man on the Moon, for which star Jim Carrey immersed himself so fully in the role of the cult comic he was apparently forever changed. Carrey, in the present day, reflects on Kaufman’s old routine of wrestling women, and publicly taunting and disparaging them, at the height of the women’s movement in the late 1970s — all part of an act that was intentionally difficult to separate from the “real” Andy Kaufman. “It was like when Jesus said, ‘Eat my body and drink my blood,’” Carrey remarks. “It’s a way to weed out the crowd. Those people who don’t see anything past the literal — they don’t bother to look for the absurd truth behind it — he’s not interested in them.”

Carrey assumes that those who look for the “absurd truth” behind a man who gets onstage and claims that women are only slightly above dogs in the hierarchy of living things are allies — art freaks and comedy nerds who are undoubtedly progressive in their politics and surely don’t really believe that women are inferior to men. But in the past year, we’ve seen a presidential candidate wage a successful campaign in part by casting his patently misogynist comments about women as a joke, all in good fun — while winking to his chortling MAGA minions who view their leader’s sexism as proof of his manhood. We’ve also seen the mainstreaming of the alt-right, a political movement that can, at least in part, trace its roots back to a nebulous group of trolls who viciously target women and minorities in the name of preserving the so-called purity of geek culture. This year, we learned a lot of those guys weren’t joking at all.  

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“Finding Frances” reaches its climax when Fielder drives Bill to Frances’s house and, having dissuaded him from approaching her door trailed by cameras, watches as he phones her and confesses his regrets — knowing all the while she’s married with children and grandchildren. That didn’t feel abstract to me. My pulse quickened, my body tensed, and I couldn’t wait for the scene to end, for these men to drive away and leave this old lady alone. Morris’s and Carrey’s stance, the equivalent of a shruggie emoji, sidesteps the very real feelings of the very real people who participated in Fielder’s show and Kaufman’s antics — including the women who are often visibly uncomfortable with the scenarios they’re put in. I guess it’s all worth it if it makes Errol Morris scratch his head and think deep thoughts.

The truth is, comedy as we have always known it relies, to some extent, on the exploitation of women. Humiliating women is a safety net for male comedians; I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve seen a male stand-up who’s ever so slightly flailing pick on a woman or two in the audience, often with sexual overtones, because he knows it’s a surefire way to get a laugh. There’s scarcely a more predictable argument in this industry than the knee-jerk defense of a comic’s right to call a bitch a bitch.

We allow male comics a kind of breathing space between art and output, while constantly demanding that women answer for their work. Remember the instant, unrelenting outrage over Tina Fey’s “sheetcaking” bit? Or the frequent condemnations of Amy Schumer’s tone-deafness around race? Or the never-ending barrage of criticism any time Lena Dunham opens her mouth? And how many female comics, over how many years, were asked about the rumors surrounding Louis C.K. before the truth finally came out — as if their silence, and not C.K.’s, was the problem?

I don’t know what kind of impact the #MeToo movement will have in the years going forward, but one thing it’s certainly done already is shine a blinding, fluorescent light on the baseline situation for women going through their daily lives. As correspondent Michelle Wolf put it on an October episode of The Daily Show, “It’s like a Tough Mudder, but instead of mud, it’s dicks!” My hope is that this moment will also make us stop and think about the baseline of what we consider funny, and why. Loud farts? Sure. A woman being groped in public with no recourse? Not even as a joke.

There’s a moment from a recent episode of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast, with The Office star Jenna Fischer, that I can’t stop thinking about. Fischer is talking about her post-Office career, when she fielded offers for much racier roles than Dunder Mifflin receptionist Pam Beesly. “They thought I wanted to blow up the image of Pam,” Fischer says, so she’d get scripts where “she gets bent over a car and fucked in the ass, and her tits are flying but no one will expect it! And I’m like, what the fuck script is this? Why are you raping Pam on a car?” We’re talking about an Emmy-nominated comic actor fresh off a nine-season run of a wildly successful sitcom. And yet the producers who sent Fischer those scripts saw in her the potential not to make people laugh, but to re-enact a fantasy straight out of a porno — the good girl gone bad.

I hope #MeToo can take on another meaning besides the claim, “I, too, have been a victim of assault.” I’ve come to think of the term in a broader sense, as the collective cry of generations of stepped-on women to the men who call the shots: We, too, are people. We are not your mothers or your wives. We are human beings with a full range of emotions, experiences, and ways to appreciate and express humor — whether it’s Tiffany Haddish building her exuberant debut stand-up special around her foster care upbringing, or Tracey Ullman doing a goofy song-and-dance number as Angela Merkel, or the wonderfully weird Cocoon Central Dance Team’s “dance comedy space odyssey” Snowy Bing Bongs Across the North Star Combat Zone. We are so much more than a place to put your dicks.

In 2009, two years after Christopher Hitchens’s joke of an essay was published, Vanity Fair ran a piece about the dearth of women writers in late-night TV by Nell Scovell, one of the few women who was on the writing staff of Late Night With David Letterman. Scovell wrote that part of her motivation for the article was to “pivot the discussion away from the bedroom and toward the writers’ room.” It apparently took a sex scandal to prompt the magazine to publish such a piece in the first place; it was written in the wake of Letterman’s on-camera confession that he had slept with women who worked on his show. And it looks like it’s going to take a torrent of lurid stories about potted plants and shuttered window blinds and hotel bathrobes to really complete that pivot. The irony’s not lost on me. Maybe one day in the not-so-distant future, we’ll look back on all this and laugh.

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Andy Kaufman’s Brother Says He Was “Taken In” By Faked-Death Hoax

You shouldn’t believe Michael Kaufman, brother of late comedian/self-proclaimed “song-and-dance man” Andy Kaufman, when he says he was taken in by last week’s Andy-faked-his-own-death hoax. Michael is simultaneously a great and highly unreliable guardian of his brother’s legacy. So it’s not surprising that Michael was at the center of the performance put on by New York-based actress Alexandra Tatarsky at this year’s Andy Kaufman Awards, a competition that Michael co-founded and judges every year. There, Tatarsky claimed to be Andy’s daughter.

Even if he wasn’t in on the gag, Michael was still practicing his brother’s style of happening-based comedy. The Voice talked to Michael about the recent passing of Stanley Kaufman, Andy and Michael’s father, and why the Andy Kaufman Awards matter.

A lot of people treat Andy’s performances as a kind of comedy of confusion and uncertainty when it seems more about spontaneity and acting out. If he really were alive, wouldn’t his return be a singular event rather than something we would discover in dribs and drabs? Don’t you think that many of these conspiracy theorists, like the Puzzlementary people, are missing the point? These cryptic clues and ephemera don’t seem to get Andy’s style.

Andy’s unpredictable. Before [this year’s Awards ceremony] I was feeling pretty good — not very good, but somewhat good — about the possibility that he might be around. Things have happened since then that have…I still have a glimmer of hope, but not as much as before [the Awards]. But my thoughts even back then was that I could see him parachuting into the middle of the Superbowl half-time show this year rather than have somebody else show up, and talk about him. Is that where you’re going?

Exactly.

One of Andy’s ideas was to come back when he was 75, or even older. And nobody would know who he was. He would get a big kick out of doing that. Or wouldn’t it be something if he planned on coming back at 75, and died at 71? Then it would have all been for nothing! So Andy’s unpredictability would poke holes in your question because while I was thinking the same thing you were thinking, he could just as easily go for something very undramatic.

I want to ask about the letter you presented [at this year’s Andy Kaufman Awards], and the actress that posed as Andy’s daughter. Is it just that the Hollywood Reporter, Defamer, and the Smoking Gun took a joke too far, or were you taken in, too?

I was certainly taken in. But anyone there that night knows that I never said that Andy was alive. Twenty minutes, 24 minutes — that’s how long the whole thing took. I’ve seen a two-and-a-half minute version of it on YouTube. But I asked the audience, “How do you feel about this? Do you think she’s for real?” I gave them three choices: Is she legit, is she definitely not legit, or are you somewhere in the middle? Most of the people were somewhere in the middle. And I said, “I’m pretty much where you guys are.”

I wanted to believe it, but I’m also tired of keeping secrets. When we were children, Andy and I were supposed to remember who we could tell certain things to. We couldn’t tell certain relatives this or that. And I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone about Andy’s act in the beginning. I wasn’t allowed to tell anyone that I played Tony Clifton [Andy Kaufman’s lounge singer alter ego] at Carnegie Hall — I was the first other Tony Clifton. I played him out at Huntington Harbor out in L.A. I played a has-been singer with Andy at William Paterson University, and reporters wanted to interview me. I wanted to tell them the truth, but I couldn’t. Andy may have been not good at winking, but it’s not fun not winking.

I also couldn’t even tell my family that [Andy] had cancer. He told me, “Don’t tell anyone. Dad’s going through too much already with mom right now.” Because my mother had quadruple bypass [surgery], a stroke, and cancer all at the same time. So out of love for his father, Andy wanted me to keep it to myself. And then this letter from 1999 — I was told to tell nobody about that. So when this woman approached me, I was just ready to share whatever was bottled up inside of me. I wanted to believe it’s true, and I still want to believe it’s true. Even if I do feel a little more foolish for believing, I still will, to some degree.

Like you and Andy, I grew up in Great Neck, so I have to ask: Do you think Andy’s sense of humor was a reaction to where he grew up? I can’t imagine people in that environment were especially encouraging …

[

I think it had nothing to do with where he grew up … other than the fact that he was a nonconformist? It had more to do with his relatives. Between his father and grandfather – mostly grandfather – was a lot of the inspiration.

I’ve read stories about Andy’s grandfather, and how he was influenced by his sense of humor. But you don’t think that a sense of community outside of the family would have made him someone else?

As opposed to growing up in Miami, or Ames, Iowa? I think you could make a case for that as well as for not. Getting back to grandpa: Did you ever read [Andy’s novel] The Huey Williams Story?

Yes.

Wow, that’s a long book … not just long, but hard to navigate through. So do you remember that [in the book] grandpa faked his death a few times, and he only wanted Huey [Andy’s surrogate] in the room with him? That’s grandpa Paul, and his influence on Andy. Andy’s love interest in that was a woman on the side of a hot water bottle from grandpa Paul’s house. She was a woman in a bikini; we just thought that was the coolest thing. And I guess Andy turned her into his dream woman in The Huey Williams Story.

In the documentary The Death of Andy Kaufman you mention that your father was especially upset when Andy wasn’t allowed back on Saturday Night Live. Before his passing, did you ever talk to your dad about that, or even how he felt about Andy’s performances?

I think Bill Zehme, author of [Andy Kaufman biography] Lost in the Funhouse, did a lot of research on that. He interviewed Stanley, because he wanted to get to the bottom of why he was so pissed at [NBC executive] Dick Ebersol. Because it seemed that everything that happened in Andy’s career was planned, like any fight he got into was to prove that he wasn’t really a bad guy. It was all for the good; any hate mail that he got, he loved getting. But it seemed like being kicked off SNL was one thing that upset him.

Andy and/or Stanley felt like he was double-crossed or misrepresented. But when you hear Dick Ebersol’s side of it, he told Andy, “We have to go with how the audience votes. We can’t make it a sham, we’ve got to make it real.” So that’s what my father was upset about: He didn’t see Dick Ebersol’s point-of-view. He thought that Andy had helped to promote the show a couple of times], and that’s the thanks he got.

You said that [Ebersol mentioned] that “it has to be real, it can’t be a sham.” Do you see any continuity between the ways audiences reacted in the moment, and how we react now? Is it just a matter of slowly adjusting our expectations?

How do you think they reacted back then?

The uncertainty about whether or not he was putting on an act was prevalent. Today, after the Milos Forman film, after Bob Zmuda’s book, after a lot of these discussions and analyze where Andy was coming from – there’s still some ambiguity to it. That’s part of his legacy, no?

In the moment, when Andy was doing whatever he was doing, he got the results that he wanted. He got people to feel it: He got people to laugh, to get angry, whether it was not wrestling, or not doing the skit on Fridays about not playing stoned. All that stuff raised [the question]: Is this real, or isn’t it real? So that was perfect. Andy created the controversy, and whoever was there was immediately involved. The wrestling was — people just hated him. He loved it! And today, people are giving him the benefit of the doubt, or in hindsight saying, “This guy is a genius.” There were no surprises; everything was planned by him.

Speaking of “genius,” there’s a line in The Andy Kaufman Awards’ criteria about “spirit” that says it’s “hard to define, but easy to recognize when it’s present.” What did you see in this year’s contestants?

Harry Terjanian, this year’s winner, really did stand out. Andy would come up with a different performance each time he was on the David Letterman show, which was unusual, because comedians usually went on that show with their best six to eight minutes of material. Andy would always create a happening where he brings on this adopted teenager, or sing in his diapers. And Harry Terjanian’s performance was specifically for the awards. I’ve got to give him credit for really being fresh. And … you’ve read The Huey Williams Story. You’ve seen how [Andy] presented different realities: Am I in a dream or not? You remember that?

[

Yes, along with shifts in tone.

Right. A hundred years may have passed, but only two minutes had really passed. It could be snowing in the front of the house, you walk out the backdoor, and it’s sunny. Harry thought of different realities by creating a video of Harry in the future interacting with Harry onstage. The twists and turns he gave us were tremendous. I really have to hand it to Harry for exemplifying Andy’s spirit.

Given that Andy’s routines all try to elicit or provoke audience participation, how does the Andy Kaufman Award pay tribute to Andy? I’ve never attended, but there’s something uniquely perverse about making Andy Kaufman an institution or even a standard-bearer, no?

Like, how could anyone pigeonhole anything to do with Andy, let alone make an award out of it?

Yeah.

There might be something to that. But we are a safe haven for alternative comedians. The Andy Kaufman Award is also known as the Alternative Komedian Award. So it’s AKA AKA AKA, pronounced, “Akakaka?” Andy put the “K” in comedy. People love participating in this award. We don’t charge a fee to enter, but we do pay the winner. When people don’t make it to the semifinals, they get the most beautiful letter from us, the most encouraging letter from us. Nick Vatterott, who was the winner in 2011, was previously rejected twice; he didn’t even get to be a semifinalist. And when he made semifinals the first time, I don’t believe he won. The awards are designed] to encourage people to keep on trying.

I don’t know if you know, but Andy had a reputation for bombing, and he still stuck with it. We used to tell comedians for years about Andy’s tunnel analogy, but then we put that analogy on the awards’ program so that everyone could read it. It tells you: You’re in a dark tunnel. You go on-stage every night, and every night you’re onstage, you’re making progress in the tunnel. You’re getting closer, and closer to the end of the tunnel, even if it seems like you’re not, like you had a bad night. Keep going, and you’ll get closer to the end of the tunnel.

You know some of the previous winners here, like Kristen Schaal and Reggie Watts? The first time Kristen Schaal was a semifinalist in 2004, I went up to her and said, “Andy would love you.” I just knew from the first time I saw her perform at the Skirball Center. She was a comic version of Andy, but even more likable.

At this year’s awards ceremony, we played a recording of my father speaking to the audience at the 2009 Awards. And he spoke about Kristen Schaal as if she were a daughter to him. And that’s the other thing about the Andy Kaufman Awards: Reggie Watts came up with the term “The Andy Kaufman Awards Family.” If you get into the semifinals, you’re part of The Andy Kaufman Awards Family. My father was so proud of this award. It started for selfish reasons, for Andy’s legacy? But it’s turned into something so much bigger. I’m there for the comedians more so than being there for Andy. I can see it in their faces, I can see that they’re so grateful to me that this award exists.

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FUNNY PEOPLE

While Alex Borstein may be best known as a former cast member of MADtv and Lois on Family Guy, her stand-up comedy is not to be missed (just google “Alex Borstein vagina soap”). Tonight, she makes a rare New York appearance at What’s So Bloody Funny?, a benefit for the National Hemophilia Foundation (yes, she will be doing her popular character Ms. Swan). The evening also includes sets from Sarah Silverman, Marcus Monroe (2012 Andy Kaufman Award–winner), and more comedians to be announced. Enter the costume contest and raffle to win prizes; DJ Hesta Prynn spins the hits at the dance party.

Wed., Oct. 30, 8 p.m., 2013

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Arresting Images: Richard Ross, Andy Kaufman, Natasza Niedziolka

Richard Ross: ‘Juvenile-in-Justice’

Inside a Kansas detention center, a 12-year-old boy sits alone in a cinder block cell, completing a homework assignment on Old Yeller and trying to make it through a two-week lockup—punishment for expressing pent-up anger to a parked car. In Nevada, a barefoot eight-year-old, arrested for being violent in school, stands in a bleak, empty room and waits all day for his mother, who can’t immediately pick him up for fear of losing her job. The two startling portraits belong to a series of photographs—all shot by Richard Ross—that document the imprisonment of American youth.

The understated display here (the unframed images are simply pinned to the wall) pulls you close, face-to-face with troubled kids. Their own words, recorded by Ross in interviews, appear on text panels—stories of family strife, confessions of guilt, and a doleful resignation to a vast, often harsh system that doesn’t offer anyone much chance for rehab.

Ross’s compositions capture that quiet misery. The high-angle shot of a teen in court-ordered seclusion amplifies his submissive state and, at the same time, reveals a decrepit room flooded in depressive tones of blue. Color often creates an ironic tension. Peering through the window of his cell door, the desperate eyes of a young Seattle man are bordered by a steel frame painted in a soothing lavender. In a New Orleans jail, the day after a big fight, the red shirts of 23 inmates—all emblazoned with the word “juvenile”—suggest both a simmering resentment and, on this August afternoon without air-conditioning, the unbearable heat.

Other photos survey methods of severe control, using a cool formality to mirror the sense of cruelty. Blank, pastel-hued isolation rooms resemble those impersonal constructions of Donald Judd. Beds and chairs designed for restraint, seen one after the other, conjure visions of torture. Ross also defines the scale of this incarceration, showing us, from the outside, an immense detention center in Chicago—a white, modernist behemoth that sprawls across the frame like some dystopian factory. An image from a Miami facility, a “wall of shame,” disturbingly sums it all up: mug shots of almost 50 adolescents who’d been released and, some time later, shot to death. Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, 31 Mercer Street, 212-226-3232, feldmangallery.com. Through February 16.

‘On Creating Reality, by Andy Kaufman’

The comedian, actor, and proto-performance artist Andy Kaufman—whose reputation for pranks still convinces hopeful fans that he faked his 1984 death—gets a heartfelt tribute with a career’s worth of quirky stuff, assembled with reverence in Maccarone’s cavernous space. Peruse his virtually unknown novels, including The Hollering Magoo, with its hilarious staccato opening of non sequiturs. Guffaw over the priceless letters from women challenging Kaufman to rip-roaring fights—received by the dozens after he tauntingly proclaimed himself the “Inter-Gender Wrestling Champion of the World.” Meet Knuckles, a grinning puppet and co-star of Kaufman’s 1979 children’s-show spoof, Andy’s Funhouse. Watch videos of his boyishly earnest absurdity. Read his sad little will.

Got questions about this wild-eyed nut? Like: Was Kaufman actually lampooning existence itself? Well, you can talk to his friends, family members, and cohorts—Carol Kane, Bob Zmuda, and his brother Michael, to name a few—who will all make appearances throughout the course of the show, recounting the peculiar antics of their favorite clown. Maccarone, 630 Greenwich Street, 212-431-4977, maccarone.net. Through February 16.

Natasza Niedziolka: ‘In the Party of Ghosts’

Narrowly escaping associations with handicraft, embroidery keeps emerging into the realm of fine art, this time in the lovely work of Natasza Niedziolka. The Berlin artist draws with thread, stitching together primitive pictures reminiscent of Dubuffet: teetering stacks of dish-shaped objects in yellows, blues, and greens. Next to them, stripped-down versions of the same arrangements—outlines only, bearing just a few touches of color—reflect the show’s title, hanging on the wall like the originals’ ghosts. Horton Gallery, 55-59 Chrystie Street, 212-243-2663, hortongallery.com. Through February 3.

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The Audible Doctor Prescribes Beats, Rhymes, Working in Bulk

Many artists in the independent hip-hop world like to brag about how much they’re hustling or grinding. MC/Producer The Audible Doctor is far too busy to speak of such things because he’s actually doing it. The past two weeks have seen him release projects with both his group the Brown Bag All Stars and his own solo I Think That…EP as well as announce his forthcoming instrumental album Doctorin, which will be executive produced by famed hip-hop producer/MC Large Professor. We spoke to the Audible Doctor this week to get the diagnosis on what makes him such a prolific force in indie-rap.

See Also:
Large Professor, Bigger Than Life
OMFG Ghostface Killah Has a Namesake Beer!

How do you balance the time between all of these projects?
It’s a lot of very sporadic working. I get inspired very randomly, and when I work, I work in bulk. I’ll sit down and knock out four tracks at once, and then record three of them in one day. Same thing when I make beats, I’ll make ten beats in a day and 40 beats in a week, and that’s the batch I use for the next few projects. It’s a sporadic, impulsive way.

Do you plan out these stretches, or is it just when inspiration hits you?
I try to plan it out, but it never works that way. I’ll plan to work all day, and nothing will happen. When inspiration hits me, I just run with it.

Is there a lot of carry over between these stretches?
I do that all the time. I have two batches of beats, one that’s for sale and one of beats that speak to me more than others do. All my projects sort of evolve and change. I’m consistently moving things around, and my beats will wind up somewhere.

When working on a beat, do you know while working on it if it’s going to be an instrumental or one you plan to have rapping over?
Well me, as an artist, I feel I can rap over anything. A lot of rappers can’t rap over my production. I have too many vocal samples and my beats are a little too cluttered, unless you’re Ghostface. But, with me, I’ve never had that problem. From listening to Ghostface, I’ve had the mentality that I can rap over anything and it will sound good. So, when making beats, I never think of who’s going to be on it, I make it out of how I want to hear it as an instrumental and gauge, once it’s finished, whether I want to rap on it or not.

Of the beats you’ve produced for other artists, do you have one you particularly enjoy that you wish more people knew about?
One I go back to that I really, really enjoy was Has-Lo’s “Reincarnate.” It encompasses my style, but it’s a little different from what I usually do. It’s a beat I created that sounded more in tune with my usual work, but I ended up remixing the song for him and changing the beat to fit his track, and I love the way it turned out.

How did you link up with Large Professor?
I met him at Fatbeats at the Killa Sha in-store. I gave him a copy of my instrumental Brownies project, not thinking he would listen to it. A few weeks later, [producer] Marco Polo came into the store and said “Large Professor just shouted you out on Hot 97 on Rosenberg’s show.” I was like “Are you sure? That’s crazy.” Sometime later, Michael Rappaport came to the store for the [A Tribe Called Quest] documentary and he said that he interviewed Large Pro for the documentary and he shouted me out. He had no reason to do so. He supported it because he liked it. I reached out, and that’s how the relationship began.

What is your “Andy Kaufman Theory?”
Even before I made it into a song, I called it my theory on the way the industry is. At a certain point, there were artists in hip-hop who were getting a lot of money and respect who I thought were horrifically bad. It went from me wondering how they were getting so much attention, to thinking that they are so bad that they have to be playing a joke on the world, like a social experiment that they’re conducting with the labels. That’s how that song was born. They’re so bad that they have to literally be a joke they’re playing on the world.

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LIGHTS OUT

Ever hear the old expression “The holidays ain’t over till the beefy wrestler in tight underwear renders his opponent unconscious”? Yeah, neither have we. But that seems to be the mantra on the WWE Raw Holiday Tour, where professional wrestlers keep the festivities going with a “Fatal Four-Way Steel Cage Match.” What more could you want? Tonight, big boys John Cena, CM Punk, Alberto del Rio, The Miz, and other wrestling stars battle for WWE glory. For wrestling diehards, the show also features a special appearance by WWE Hall-of-Famer Jerry “The King” Lawler, who, some might remember, sent Andy Kaufman to the hospital in 1982 after going too hard on him in a wrestling match. (See it on YouTube, kids.) Also on the bill is something called the “Santa’s Helper Diva Championship Match.” Feel free to use your imaginations.

Tue., Dec. 27, 7:30 p.m., 2011

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Stand Up, Seriously. Or: When Lenny Bruce Got a Camcorder in Not Funny

A funny thing happens when you watch stand-up comics and performance artists together: The line between the two begins to vanish. That’s the set-up for this week’s “Not Funny: Stand-Up Comedy and Visual Artists” series at Anthology presented by the visual art performance biennial Performa 11. The punchline is that stand-up comedy movies, as critically ignored as any genre the movies have ever produced, might be even more artistically daring than their highbrow performance-art cousins.

Funny was not always the top priority. As evidenced by the selections featured in “Not Funny,” stand-up movies of the 1960s and ’70s were a unique outlet for personal expression; the best forum available to stand-up comedians who were too edgy for the world of stand-up comedy. Case in point: The Lenny Bruce Performance Film from 1965. In theory, what director John Magnuson shot at the Basin Street West in San Francisco was an hour of Bruce doing stand-up. In reality, Bruce delivered something closer to a long-form conceptual art piece about a zonked-out free-speech lawyer: one part legal rebuttal, one part self-reflexive critique. In lieu of telling any actual jokes, Bruce read descriptions of the jokes that got him convicted of obscenity in 1964. As Bruce wanders the stage, his mind wanders through the trial transcript; by the time he’s chaotically and haphazardly reading the part of the suit that describes his act as “chaotic and haphazard,” he has achieved new heights of meta.

Performance Film isn’t the most visually dynamic concert documentary—the entire film is a series of zooming, panning long takes from a single, fixed position—but it captures Bruce’s jittery energy at its most defiant. The audience is never seen and rarely heard, mostly because they’re not laughing. At a time when repeated arrests had made him persona non grata with nightclub owners, film not only gave Bruce the venue to answer his critics, it also gave him the freedom to do it without being funny.

Although Bruce would not live to see it, a trail had been blazed, one that would be traveled by a generation of comedians and artists who embraced Bruce’s button-pushing template and who used advances in portable film and video cameras to create their own space outside the mainstream. Men like Albert Brooks and Andy Kaufman (whose work takes over a whole night of “Not Funny” programming) transformed Bruce’s brazen disregard for the comedy component of stand-up into its own hilarious, high-concept goof. In “Audience Research,” which originally aired as a short film on Saturday Night Live, Brooks travels to the National Audience Research Institute in Phoenix, Arizona, to find out why people don’t find him funny. The obvious answer—that he insists on deconstructing himself rather than telling jokes—never dawns on his character.

If you’re a fan of Brooks and Kaufman’s deadpan, you’ll also appreciate “Piece to Camera,” a program of selected shorts from California monologists, pranksters, and exhibitionists like John Baldessari, Cynthia Maughan, and Eleanor Antin. Performa calls their work “visual art”; you might recognize it as the origins of YouTube. William Wegman has had a marvelous career as a conceptual artist, photographer, and professor. If he were 30 years younger, he’d also probably be the most popular filmmaker on Funny or Die. He starred in his own videos alongside his Weimaraner, Man Ray, delivering oddball non sequiturs or teasing his dog into adorable conditioned responses. In other words, Wegman anticipated the Internet’s two favorite things: weirdos saying weird things and animals doing dumb shit.

Richard Pryor had some jokes about his pet dogs, but he became the biggest star in 1970s stand-up because of his shockingly confessional material. In Pryor’s hands, Bruce’s defiant self-assessment became hysterically brutal self-critique. Richard Pryor: Live in Concert from 1979 sees Pryor poking fun at his own run-ins with police, the domestic abuse he suffered at the hands of his father, and even his own lovemaking skills. (“I do about three minutes of serious fucking, then I need eight hours sleep.”)

Pryor’s jokes are memorable, but it’s his performance of those jokes that’s truly remarkable. As evidenced by the slowly spreading sweat stains on the comedian’s red silk shirt, this really is Pryor live; the film is an unbroken 80-minute monologue filled with characters, voices, and full-bodied physical comedy. When a director makes a film in real time or a single take, he’s hailed as a maverick. When a single filmmaker writes and performs his own screenplay, he’s an auteur. When a modern comedian utilizes improvised dialogue in a Hollywood movie, he’s hailed as cinematic innovator. In Live in Concert, Pryor did all three simultaneously. He got credit as a stand-up, but he deserved more accolades as an artist. If only people took comedy a little more seriously.

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Have You Heard the One About the Art Scene Embracing Comedians?

Art and comedy have always circled around each other, intermingling. There are funny artists—Marcel Duchamp, John Baldessari, and Maurizio Cattelan—and comedians whose work feels like performance art: Charlie Chaplin, Andy Kaufman, or Zach Galifianakis. Right now, a groundswell of interest in comedy among artists and curators is bringing the two lineages closer than ever.

For Jeremy Sigler, it started a decade ago, when he began tweaking the format of his MFA classes at the Maryland Institute College of Art. Initially inspired by Dan Graham’s film Rock My Religion, he had students form bands. Then came a cabaret model (as in Dada’s Cabaret Voltaire), and eventually a final exam consisting of 15 minutes of stand-up comedy.

In 2004, artist and writer David Robbins published “Concrete Comedy: A Primer” in Artforum, an essay that looked at how a “single impulse—comedy” played out in two different contexts: art and comedy. Artists like Martin Kippenberger, Jeffrey Vallance, and Alex Bag were mentioned alongside Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Kaufman, with illusionism, sincerity, and trauma as shared tropes.

Kaufman also turned up in a show last fall at the Artist’s Institute, an exhibition space on Eldridge Street run by curator Anthony Huberman and his Hunter MFA students, in a video displayed next to a Fluxus work. And now artist Julia Dault has organized “Silent Clowns: From ‘Modern Times’ to ‘Zelig,'” a film series that explores the influence of silent movies on American film comedy, showing at the Parsons school of design, where she also teaches an interdisciplinary class in which students read texts like Henri Bergson’s “Laughter” and Freud’s “Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious.”

Meanwhile, curator Miriam Katz’s showcase of experimental comedy will run at MOMA P.S.1 on March 19. The lineup includes Jon Glaser, Dave Hill, Jenny Slate, Reggie Watts, Maeve Higgins, and Rory Scovel—performers who bend the conventions of stand-up, sketch comedy, journalism, music, and talk radio. MOMA has presented comedy before, but Katz says it’s usually “Here’s the ‘real’ art, and we’ll have comedians respond to it.” In her program, comedians are being presented as artists.

Several things paved the way for comedy’s current entry into the art world. One is that it’s performance-based, and performance has been increasingly embraced by museums. But the institutionalized nature of contemporary art itself has increased comedy’s appeal—Katz argues that while “you stand to make more money as a comedian by entering Hollywood, at the beginning, comedy is much less safe” than art. There are no MFA programs (where you can later teach), and no galleries where you can work as an art handler after graduation. Most of the comedians she knows are on unemployment.

Novelist Zadie Smith, whose brother is comedian Doc Brown (a/k/a Ben Smith), articulated the difference in terms of access. Her essay “Dead Man Laughing,” first published in The New Yorker in 2008, described becoming a comedian as “an act of instantaneous self-creation. There are no intermediaries blocking your way, no gallerists, publishers, or distributors. Social class is a non-issue.” In the comedy world, “if you are absolutely determined to stand on a stage for five minutes with a mic in your hand, someone in London will let you do it, if only once.”

Katz says New York’s comedy scene “feels a little like the ’50s in the New York art world.” She cites open mics at the PIT, the Creek and the Cave, Laugh Lounge, and shows and venues like Big Terrific, and Upright Citizens Brigade. Twitter provides a forum for constantly workshopping material.

For Sigler, the setting was still an art school, but the “premise was always to be experimental. I felt like I was reaching out to the wayward student who was about to drop out of art school, and the punk/DIY thing worked. I wasn’t thinking in terms of comedy, but developing a sense of humor—teaching them about writing, self-deprecation; how to keep track of your own humiliations and turn them into a kind of text.”

Comedy is a model for artists who feel art has become too academic or safe. “I talk about Dada a lot in my class, since much of comedy could be said to be anarchic,” Dault says. “The wry, ironic, subversive characteristics of some modes of humor can teach artists how to imbed their work with a point of view that is seemingly straightforward but actually quite complex.”

Art and comedy are places where “the crackpot can thrive,” says Sigler. Wilhelm Reich, the radical psychoanalyst, “couldn’t do it in science. He got imprisoned.” And yet Reich’s work wasn’t so different, in certain ways, from Andy Kaufman’s. “The spirit of Kaufman seems really important right now,” Sigler argues. “Maybe because he was able to do things that no one else could do or was willing to do. A lot of his gags are about a kind of displaced person that’s thought to be real. He’s a special case, even among comics.”

Despite the current blurring of art and comedy, however, there are still distinctions. “The bottom line in comedy is to get someone to laugh,” Katz says, and “because it doesn’t have to be heavy, it sort of slips in these radical ideas and you assent to them without thinking, whereas a performance artist would be more explicit.” What comedy lacks, however, is a critical infrastructure. “Laughter obliterates the actual memory of what took place, so people don’t sit down and write a response, aside from ‘Check it out, it’s so awesome!’ ” The comedians Katz knows are “hungry for critical feedback.”

And comedy, perhaps even more than art, is a death trip. Sigler and Katz both describe stage fright as a kind of mortality-mirror, and when stand-up comics do well, they “kill.” Kaufman talked about faking his own death, and Sigler believes he’s probably still alive, having the last laugh. Zadie Smith (notice her essay’s title) uses her own hapless, everyman father as an example of comedy triumphing over mortality: Her father “missed his own death” because he died in mid-sentence, “joking with his nurse.”

Dada, which was saturated with irony and humor, rose from the carnage of World War I. Our own art-comedy moment feels rooted in similarly apocalyptic soil: wars, natural disasters, and nasty elections. Four years ago, skulls were the leitmotifs in art, clustered in paintings or crusted with diamonds. Now, laughter is taking over.

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Goya’s Ghosts

Milos Forman has built his career by pushing the limits of the Hollywood biopic. Amadeus showed Mozart through the eyes of Salieri; The People vs. Larry Flint made a porn-pusher look like Jimmy Stewart; Man on the Moon hinted that Andy Kaufman faked his death. One thing Forman has never done with a biopic, though, is not make a biopic. In that respect, if in no other, Goya’s Ghosts breaks new ground. Set in late-18th-century Spain, the drama centers on Goya’s muse (Natalie Portman), the daughter of a wealthy merchant who converted from Judaism. Unfortunately, Portman’s picky eating (who doesn’t like pork?) leads the Inquisition to condemn her, and it only gets worse when a young priest (Javier Bardem), in a spectacular example of scholastic logic, takes her request for prayer as an invitation to rape. Not a bad setup, but then the French Revolution sweeps in and mucks everything up. After that, the film takes as many plot-twists as Pirates of the Caribbean; distinctly Goya in its emphasis on the grotesque, it shows none of the Spaniard’s artistic economy.

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And It’s Twisty Too

Andy Kaufman frequently bragged that he was a stand-up comedian who never told a joke. In his late career, Richard Pryor stopped telling jokes too—and now MS has limited his other activities as well. He liked to exaggerate, stretching the logic of his material to absurd conclusions, but his most effective comedy was deceptively simple. He told the truth but told it slant, providing the necessary distance for humor to sneak in. His first comedy act, he explains in the shaky autobiography Pryor Convictions, consisted of deliberately slipping in a pile of dogshit for his grandmother’s amusement. His most famous monologue recounts a suicide attempt by self-immolation, an act so unspeakable that conventional wisdom has chosen to record it as a freebasing accident. “Have you ever heard of a motherfucker burning up freebasing other than me?” he asks.

That devastating routine from Live on the Sunset Strip has now been reissued along with eight other out-of-print albums as the box set . . . And It’s Deep Too! No doubt seeded by Pryor’s 1998 Kennedy Center honors and Mark Twain Award, not to mention rampant speculation about his imminent demise, the collection is limited to his Warner Bros. output. Though it elegantly delineates the arc of Pryor’s career from the club-circuit cult figure of Richard Pryor to the iconoclastic superstar of Sunset Strip, it also gives the false impression that his best material was his best known, omitting, for example, the pivotal Craps (After Hours), his first venture into the self-revealing style he perfected, reissued along with several other missing albums by Loose Cannon in the mid ’90s. Recordings, of course, also deny access to Pryor’s gift for physical comedy; since a third of this compilation is available in concert film form, one feels a little robbed having to imagine what face black women make when they see a small dick. Given the consistently B quality of Pryor’s film acting, the box may lead to the conclusion that Richard Pryor left his most indelible marks on television and hip-hop consciousness. He won Grammies and Emmies, after all, and Jo Jo Dancer wasn’t even nominated. You can imagine Eddie Murphy happening without Pryor, but not 2 Live Crew, N.W.A, Lil’ Kim, 3000 lame “skits,” or least of all, Chris Rock.

In November of 1974, while guest-hosting The Mike Douglas Show, Pryor provided perhaps the best example of what kind of person and artist he would become, giving America the opportunity to compare and contrast post-Lenny Bruce, post-civil rights comedy with crusty, moribund vaudeville. In an early segment, an earnest if addled Pryor describes to a nervously chuckling Douglas how, as a child, he’d enjoyed drowning rats in the bathtub of the Peoria, Illinois, whorehouse where he grew up. Then Pryor bursts into tears when his childhood drama teacher Juliette Whittaker makes a surprise visit. In brilliantly childlike fashion, he leaps up and reenacts a scene from an adaptation of Rumpelstiltskin he’d performed in at age 15. By the time Milton Berle shows up to promote a confessional autobiography, Pryor’s at fever pitch.

Berle, who made his reputation pretending to be the prick he actually was, sits between Douglas and Pryor, demanding to be taken seriously. During a particularly awkward Berle story about taking a young actress to Tijuana to get an abortion in 1931, Pryor lets out a short burst of laughter. Berle ignores him and continues, earnestly pledging never to reveal the woman’s identity. “I’d better keep saying ‘Linda Smith,’ ” he says. “I hope I don’t slip and say who it is.” Pryor blurts out a name. It’s unclear whether or not he’s exposed Berle, but the elder comedian is perturbed, and attempts to protect himself by balancing superciliousness on top of condescension. “Pick your spots, baby,” he warns Pryor, chucking him under the chin. Pryor backtracks, yelping in his trademark pubescent falsetto, “I laughed ’cause it’s funny, man! The insanity of all this is funny!”

It’s a profound misunderstanding. In Berle’s generation, clear boundaries existed between tragedy and comedy, personal and private. Henny Youngman’s one-liners about marital strife came closer to autobiographical humor than most. Nevertheless, comedians then as now were among the most frustrated, insecure, and emotionally twisted of artists. Pryor’s generation, on the crest of a larger cultural wave, drowned the hypocrisy of Berle’s era in naked, cathartic confession, and as Berle demonstrates, this was impossible for the older guys to comprehend—they thought tragedy was the opposite of comedy. The only essential difference between Berle’s tragedy and Pryor’s comedy was the Dirty Speech Movement and a kilo of coke.

In his autobiography, the comedian recalls his work on The Richard Pryor Special? as a hellish battle against NBC’s censors, but his inability to shout “motherfucker” for a cheap laugh produced a milestone—one of the blackest, most hilarious in mainstream television up to that time, often cited as a precursor to In Living Color (where Pryor collaborator Paul Mooney was head writer). His sensibility remained intact, even gained some weight—its accessibility only increased its subversiveness. Pryor viciously sends up money-grubbing preachers, lets hoodlums rip off the police, parodies Gladys Knight & the Pips, and performs a weird, quasi-O’Neill drunk-people-in-a-bar play, at the end of which Maya Angelou lends a creaky pathos to the whole endeavor in the role of his dutiful wife. Cameos include Sandra Bernhard as the white girl backing up the Black Panthers who take over Pryor’s writing staff, and John Belushi as a slave-ship captain.

If anyone qualified as a Not Ready for Prime Time Player, though, it was Pryor. He struggled against his crossover jones so hard that the series spawned by the special went belly-up after four episodes. Pryor subsequently divided his time between stand-up and B films, and aside from an unsuccessful 1984 CBS series, only appeared in cameos on TV. But the late ’70s saw his most fertile stand-up period—inevitably, the worst part of his life created the best part of his art. By Wanted: Richard Pryor (1978), his anecdotes had veered away from universal observation and rushed headlong into self-reference. Megastardom thrust his drug habit, heart attack, ballistic divorces, suicide attempt, and womanizing into the public sphere. So he took advantage of the fact that America loves to absolve a sinner as long as it gets to hear all the sordid details. When he spared himself the least, he earned the most attention and money. This is such a complicated position for an African American man to occupy that it’d take a dissertation to completely unpack.

That Pryor had the most audacious mind and imagination of any comic his age just adds complication. His signature method is to personify some aspect of a situation. In the routine about his heart attack, he imagines his heart saying, “Don’t breathe, motherfucker!” The crack pipe tells him not to go out: “We’ve got smoking to do!” His dick talks to him. Dogs talk to him. Monkeys fuck him in the ear and shout at him. You could read into this technique a measure of paranoia and some considerable desire to deflect responsibility, but ascribing his genius to addict behavior alone is ass-backward. All aspects of his fractured identity grind against one another to create the unexpected twists and turns of his humor. In an early routine he advises, “Don’t marry a white woman in California,” then—suddenly self-conscious—continues, “A lot of you sisters are like, ‘Don’t marry a white woman anyway.’ ” The punch line comes from left field: “Shit, why should you be happy?”

Since Pryor’s personality is nearly indistinguishable from his humor, it’s all the more poignant that the climactic routine on the unsparing, quirky ninth CD, That African-American Is Still Crazy, consists of material about MS, impotence, disagreements with his penis, and his resultant inability to get pussy. Terminal illnesses, contrary to expectation, are a shallow mine for comedy. A clown facing real doom is too frightening to produce more than an uncomfortable chuckle, as comedians exist, after all, to help people forget that they’re going to die. Accordingly, the most self-aware moment in a boxful of self-aware routines arrives on the rarities CD’s “My Funeral.” “I want to be cremated,” Pryor declares. “Sprinkle my ashes in about two pounds of cocaine. Snort me up!”