As the person who oversees the creation of MoMA’s teen-created, teen-directed online art courses, I have always been interested in the visual language of contemporary short-form videos—the look and feel of the TV shows and Web series that our audiences are looking at and talking about on their own time. When we work with our teens to create their videos, we almost invariably end up making comedic pieces—not straightforward sitcom-styled comedy but a more complicated, deliberately awkward, absurdist kind of abstract humor. It’s a style and a framework that seems inherently to make sense given our youthful audience, and one that lends itself to my projects’ tight production schedules, our casts of first-time actors, and the limited “special effects” budgets that necessitate our almost constant green-screen usage. Since the beginning of these projects, one of the most overt and continually cited influences on our group of emerging teen directors has been the work coming out of Abso Lutely Productions, founded by comedians Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim along with producer Dave Kneebone in 2007. Abso Lutely is the creative force behind a plethora of groundbreaking comedy series, including Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job!, The Eric Andre Show, Comedy Bang! Bang!, Nathan For You, and more. I recently had the opportunity to travel to Los Angeles to investigate the city’s seemingly endless “comedy + arts” communities, a project generously funded through MoMA’s Robert V. Storr Research and Travel Fund, which offers staff members the opportunity to pursue personal and creative interests through a series of fully funded, research-based, investigative trips around the globe. While there, I had the chance to sit down with Dave Kneebone at the Abso Lutely offices and talk to him about Tim and Eric’s production methods, Dada philosophies, performance art, finding humor in uncomfortable places, creepy uncles, and the strange space where visual art and comedy intersect.
Calder Zwicky: I feel like sometimes there’s something going on in your shows, almost like—Duchamp took this stool and put this bicycle wheel on it and said, It’s art, and it’s art because I’m an artist and so by me making this, it’s art. And I feel like maybe there’s something similar—It’s comedy because I’m a comedian and by making it I’m making it comedy…but there’s maybe no real humor?
Dave Kneebone: That’s right. Tim said something really penetrating the other day in an interview. Tim or Eric, one of the guys. They said, “Comedy for laughs is not really an interesting thing for us anymore.” Ending a skit with a “Ha Ha!” moment is not maybe where it’s at right now. There’s something else out there. The feeling of satisfaction that you get from a punch line and a well-written joke is wonderful but there’s a whole level of emotional response available in exploring a really horrible moment in an elevator with someone. Like, how much can you poke somebody’s sense of discomfort and elevate some sort of emotional response?
CZ: So are these comedies then more interested in mining these uncomfortable experiences rather than mining what we would traditionally consider humor? Or is there humor within those uncomfortable moments?DK: Yeah there’s humor in those moments. I think that’s what’s wonderful is that there’s humor in that stuff. We make comedy TV shows. I would define us as a comedy studio. But our definition may not be exactly what everyone else’s is. We’re interested in finding the next thing. Just finding someone who comes in with the next pitch or the next video or whatever that makes us feel something that we’ve never felt before or had before or seen someone elicit before. It’s like, “Oh that’s what you’re doing? Oh that’s weird. That’s great.” That’s messed up. I don’t know what I’m feeling right now but I’ve never felt that before….
CZ: I think that’s one of the hallmarks of great art, when you see something that you’ve never seen before. Or you feel something while looking at something that feels very disconnected from what it is you’re actually looking at.
DK: Yeah, and I think that Tim and Eric especially also really are into the genre. Saying they’re comedians is very difficult, because they’re more performance artists. I think they come from that place. They were in bands, they’re musicians, they’re video artists. Eric was a photographer. And I think they consider themselves artists, bigger than just comedians. And I think that it shows up a lot on the more recent work we’ve done. Where we’ve had the ability to, because of some of our relationships, explore more horror stuff. Like, let’s get darker, let’s get scarier, let’s get weirder. And pull away from like, “Here comes a big laugh moment” into more “Oh my God I can’t believe I‘m watching this” sort of moments. And I think that that is incredibly satisfying to us in our community because it’s escalating the response. And doing it with the tools we have, which are short TV comedies.
CZ: Can you talk about the idea of repetition in the things that you do, and also the idea of pausing things, extending things, and repeating things? Because I think that’s also a visual trademark, or definitely something that a lot of people think of when they think about what you do here.DK: Yeah…I think that’s a very…I can’t say that it comes from a broad sensibility base of all of us. That’s something that, as video artists, and a lot of this has to do with the editorial staff that we’ve hired…we’re fortunate to work with some of the very best young editors. Some who were trained formally and some who were just able to figure it out on their own.
CZ: Another thing that I think is really interesting is endings. The way that you end things, the way that scenes end, the way that you kind of stop things at the most inopportune moments or at the most unflattering expressions. There’s a breaking up of the language that we’re used to when we look at television, it’s breaking up what we’re comfortable with. You’re saying, “We don’t want to end the scene with a big laugh moment,” but you also don’t want to end the scene with an image that allows for a comfortable finish to what we’re watching.
DK: Yeah. The guys have their idea behind all of that. And the editors too, maybe would say something completely different, but my sense of that, having done this for so long, is that the challenge there and what’s great about that, or what’s interesting in that, is you never want to…a lot of times a proper editor, if you read the Editor’s Handbook or Walter Murch talking about editing, the idea is to foreground the story so much that the sense of the editorial work vanishes and that by doing so you engage the experience of the storytelling to the receiver of the story. Right? And we think that he’s obviously brilliant and great, but that can also be flipped on its head and by doing so you never lull your audience into “Here’s the end of a scene.” That’s either a laugh point, a breath point, an applause point. I’m supposed to feel a certain way, and then before the next piece of the story, the audience is never off the hook. The audience is never off the hook. They have to be along for the ride. You’re going to be challenged at the end of this weird scene, we’re not going to leave you with a satisfying little clap moment. Let’s push it a little bit.
CZ: It’s funny too because that sort of, “Hello.” Enter. “Hello.” Joke. Other Joke. Other Joke. Exit. We think of that as a normal way to film things and the normal way to display things visually, but it’s not normal in the sense of our world.
DK: There’s way more odd, messed-up shit in our world than simple scenes of people having a great time. Like, that does not happen. And it’s way more real that your uncle is a strange man, and you leave the room at Thanksgiving like, “Bleagh, what a creep. I feel gross.” That’s way more real.
CZ: And that glass does get knocked over. And it does ruin the moment.
DK: Yeah, and we like to think that that’s what’s funny in our world, and what’s funny in our lives, and we remember it as, “Oh that was a really funny thing,” but really someone has to go take a leak in the middle of something important. And all those things to us are funny and fun to explore. Like, let’s find the horrible discomfort and examine that.