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No Joke: Absurd Comedy as Political Reality

Oct 9 — Nov 17, 2019

“A fire broke out backstage in a theatre. The clown came out to warn the public; they thought it was a joke and applauded. He repeated it; the acclaim was even greater. I think that’s just how the world will come to an end: to general applause from wits who believe it’s a joke.” — Soren Kierkegaard

How does an artist reckon with a political environment that has grown too gloomy for soft spoofing, too deranged for caricaturing, too proto-fascist for ambivalence? As many of us find ourselves squarely in a renewed era of worry, No Joke sets out to chronicle some of the most inventive and ingenious ways artists have sought to answer these questions throughout moving image history. This pantheon of courageous entertainers captures a crazed world through subversive documentary (General Idi Amin Dada, the Yes Men), uncanny mirroring (Wolf of Wall Street, Starship Troopers, Bamboozled), unhinged kaleidoscopic satire (The Trial, Li’l Quinquin, Xavier, Mr. Freedom) and regurgitated collagery (TV Carnage). The throughline here is a committed engagement with reality as it is combined with a belief that the naked, pathetic and silly truth will always shine through whatever dressings of irony and artistry are chosen for decoration. To Kierkegaard’s famous quote, the artists in this series might well respond that as long as we can continue to listen earnestly to what society’s “clowns” have to tell us there may still be a glimmer of hope for humanity.

Organized by Max Carpenter, guest curator. Special thanks to Eric Hynes, Nellie Killian, Jonathan Rosenbaum and Daniel Witkin for their conversations and suggestions.