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Street Art Vs. Stand-Up Comedy Part 1

November 15, 2010

We won’t discuss traditional stand-up comedy theory in today’s post. Instead, I’d like to explore and compare stand-up to another art form that on first glance might seem completely different: Street Art.

First, a definition from my old pal Wikipedia:

“Street art is any art developed in public spaces — that is, “in the streets” — though the term usually refers to unsanctioned art, as opposed to government sponsored initiatives. The term can include traditional graffiti artwork, stencil graffiti, sticker art, wheatpasting and street poster art, video projection, art intervention, guerrilla art, flash mobbing and street installations. Typically, the term street art or the more specific post-graffiti is used to distinguish contemporary public-space artwork from territorial graffiti, vandalism, and corporate art.”


At this point you might think me crazy. There are huge differences between stand-up comedy, a performance-based art, and street art, a primarily visual medium:

  • One is legal, one is not.
  • One is very social, involving direct human interaction. The other is best practiced solo or in small groups, often under the cloak of anonymity.
  • One is celebrated and encouraged by society, for creating positive outcomes (laughter), and the other is derided by many as vandalism and defacement.

But what about similarities?  Today I want to talk about four patches of common ground shared between these art forms. With any luck, we’ll emerge with a deeper understanding of both. At the very least, you’ll get to see some really cool stuff:

This piece is found on Spadina just North of College in Toronto

1) Truth

I like that both stand-up comedy and street art are primarily obsessed with freedom. Both both occupy a niche slightly outside of the mainstream in their respective disciplines. For example, in the world of visual and performance art, most people know about The Group of Seven and Brad Pitt.  However, they might not know Blu or Mike Birbiglia.

Of course, both street art and stand-up comedy have their poster boys, the Dane Cooks and Banksys who become de facto ambassadors for the whole art form.

A freedom exists in the obscure.  The more media scrutinizes art, the greater the danger of corruption.  It is difficult for a profound message to survive the process of monetization.  The muse of both street art and stand-up comedy is often borne of anger, a selfish exercise initiated by people who are driven to voice their opposition.  It is less about “making it big,” more about “making IT.”

Both street art and stand-up comedy exist outside the conventional rules of decorum in society.  Both are absolutely liberated from concerns about fitting in.  There is no curator, policing public spaces, deciding what counts as art.  Likewise, if a stand-up comic’s message is too abrasive for club crowds, they can always show up at the local park with a megaphone. This wonderful, “you’re not the boss of me” attitude lends itself to a purity of expression that I find very appealing. At their best, both art forms celebrate the truth, no matter how ugly or uncomfortable.

2) Context

Street art and stand-up are art forms that need to be experienced. Sure, you can take a photo, as I chose to do for the art used in this article.  But a static picture will never capture the full message. The context and the setting of the piece is part of the art. Especially in street art, the setting is absolutely critical. A bold, anti-government message is much more meaningful when stenciled on the side of a municipal building, as opposed to an abandoned subway tunnel. I have learned over time to afford a greater appreciation for an epic mural created in a busy location over one tucked away nice and safe in an alley.

This seems an obvious point, but you’d be amazed.  [rant] It really ticked me off when famous street artist Banksy left his mark in an abandoned industrial area in Detroit and an “art appreciation” group  TOOK THE WALL and put it in an art museum. And then patted themselves on the back for “preserving” his work.  Why are these stupid sons of bitches running an art museum who don’t even understand the art they are hoarding?  [/rant] Live in Toronto and want more Banksy?  Check out this link for a round-up of all the locations he hit when he recently paid us a visit.

This is the Banksy piece that stirred up the contoversy

I think stand-up is like this as well. Sure, there are hundreds of DVDs out there capturing great stand-up performances, and even more comedy albums. But like the street artist, a comic’s context is so important.   Bill Burr’s hilarious rant against the crowd at “Opie and Anthony’s Travelling Virus” show in Philadelphia:

If you ignore the context, Burr looks like a huge douchebag, just ripping into this audience.  But that ignores the fact that the crowd had been booing and heckling all the previous comics, leading to the confrontation.  Just like Banksy’s message losing coherence when displayed in a sterile white room, Burr’s epic struggle to take back the dignity of he and his fellow performers is distorted if you watch an isolated clip.

Come on back tomorrow for the last two points, and some more dope art.

On the side of a covered parking garage in Melbourne

2 Comments leave one →
  1. November 15, 2010 8:27 pm

    Oh ya, I forgot to mention Banksy has a documentary he edited called “Exit Through the Gift Shop” that is really good, and there’s a nice collection of some of his work called “War and Pieces.”


  1. Cast A Wide Net: Improving Stand-Up Comedy Through Diversity Part 2 « Premise PUNCH Tag – Joel Buxton's Stand-Up Comedy Blog

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