Investigations In Art: Alex Cohen
Essay # 22
Photo: Unfinished painting, “Interruption” by Alex Co
My father, who is a physician, has never treated anyone or heard of anyone who has injured themselves slipping on a banana peel. I myself have not been imperiled by a banana peel, nor do I know anyone who has suffered such a mishap. Yet the banana peel has earned a peculiar reputation for liability.
The interior of the peel is the soft moist interface with the fruit, while the exterior is leathery and protects the fruit from the outside world. When a banana peel rots, microbes break down the plant cells, and the moisture escapes and makes a slick goo. For the pedestrian, what this means is that the skin of a rotting banana may be dry while the underside is slick and thus provide an optimal surface upon which to slide. While such a mishap seems a rarity, comedy has imbued the banana peel with a sense of ever-present danger.
Slipping on a banana peel has been a staple of slapstick comedy for long enough that it tends to convey the symbol of comedy rather than being funny in and of itself. Slapstick refers to the stage baton a comedian would use to produce a loud slap when hitting another actor without injury. The simplicity of physical comedy sheds the need for language to convey humor. Without the complexity of language and its associations to a contemporary context, physical comedy can tap into the roots of humor. Slapstick is comedic bedrock that illuminates the constant desire to laugh at tragedy and convert it into joy. In slapstick the tragedies and joys expressed are immediate and concise. The banana peel does its job well— upsetting normal life without delay. As a symbol, it neatly conveys this conversion of tragedy to joy.
Comedy employs the lens of absurdity to convert the situation from tragic to joyful. Here comes a fellow walking down the street lost in his own little world, carrying this story of himself and a sense of its importance. In that story either consciously or unconsciously he is the hero. Then fate collides with him through an inanimate object and he slips and falls. That story he was carrying gets shaken. Suddenly he has been ridiculously undone by a simple thing and the break in the story reveals the possibility that maybe he isn’t so special and perhaps he is even mortal. This silly little thing, a banana peel is for a moment the hero of his story and is indifferent while the fellow is bruised. It’s a brush with death in a way, but one that is trivial. These big results from insignificant sources are what cause us to think about the meaning of it all. Calling it absurd and laughing at it allows us to pass over the interruptions to our own stories.
The simplicity and predictability of slapstick are what give it the reputation of being dumb humor. There can be a lack of effort assumed in simplicity and a lack of originality in reaching for that lowest common denominator. But simplicity itself does not exclude quality, in fact when the right elements are simplified upon with the right intention and skill, the product is of great interest. The grace of timing, movement and expression are classical talents that can take simple form and imbue it with wonder.
The absence of language democratizes physical comedy and it also allows for the sublime. That sublime element is the art of comedy. Its when our recognition of humor moves past the explainable to a point that tickles the edges of our intellect and the roots of our emotion. In paintings the sublime emerges often when those unnamable feelings emerge from the confluence of two conflicting notions such as sorrow and beauty. Those intersections of feelings are ambiguous and thus it helps to clear away more definitive notions like narrative to give them attention. Again, the conflicting notions in comedy are tragedy and joy, and the absence of language or complex narrative lets physical comedy move into curious territories. Good physical comedy can quickly become metaphysical comedy and all those interesting implications of a mere banana peel.
Humor tends to disappear with scrutiny. Picking apart a joke breaks its delicate little mechanics. Jokes do not age well either. And the more timely and fresh a laugh might be, the quicker it speeds into obscurity. Physical comedy endures though, because of that purity of form, and simple reduction of eternal human foible. Its smartness is primal. Its absurdity is transcendent. The original laugh may erode away, but in its wake is an enduring pearl of human comedy.
Alex Cohen is a Bucks County painter. He exhibits at Riverbank Arts in Stockton, NJ. To view more essays and paintings visit www.themagpie.org