What do Burning Man and Stand-up Comedy have in common?
Hecklers in the default world share certain values with Burning Man: participation, for one. They’re not just sitting back and watching the show. Immediacy is another: very few hecklers are just going through the motions. They have something to say and, goddamit, they care.
I’m going to suggest that this comparison is more than skin deep: that stand-up comedy is one of the few default world art forms that frequently connects with the same energy Burning Man produces. We’d like to think, in this comparison, that Burners are the stand-ups … the artists. But what if we’re the hecklers?
The morality of heckling is a philosophical conundrum that emerges from time to time when a comedian really, really, tears into someone. The most recent example is Daniel Tosh. According to media reports, Tosh was doing a set at The Laugh Factory when he lapsed into an “extended riff” on how funny rape jokes are, saying: “how can a rape joke not be funny? Rape is hilarious.”
A woman at the show found this questionable premise to be questionable, and said so, shouting: “Actually, rape jokes are never funny!”
This could have been an opportunity for a Socratic dialogue on the nature of humor, perhaps later to be published in the International Journal of Humor Research. I’m sure everyone at the show had their fingers crossed.
Instead, Tosh decided to keep the riff going, telling other members of the audience: “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…”
The debate that followed has gone viral, and some points are obvious to everyone concerned, like:
- Tosh has disproved his own premise by telling an unfunny rape joke;
- Tosh will go on to make some woman very, very sad one day; and
- Apparently there is a guy named Daniel Tosh who is a comedian, which is a thing some people know.
But beyond that, much of the stand-up world has actually put the moral onus on the woman Tosh suggested be raped for comic effect – because:
- If you go to a comedy club thinking you won’t be offended, you’re an idiot;
- Stand-up is a performance art, not a debate club, so you don’t interrupt the performer; and
- If you do interrupt the performer, you get what’s coming to you, because that’s the kind of place you’ve entered.
(No less a standup than Louis C.K. made this point forcefully and painfully in an episode of “Louis”)
Is this right? Is this true? Either way I hope, at this point, the parallels with Burning Man are becoming clear.
If they’re not, let me point out that I have no moral high ground to claim here, and it’s not just because I once made jokes about the Holocaust in print. You, personally, may have been insulted by me at Burning Man. Through a megaphone.
All kinds of people at Burning Man do all kinds of outrageous and offensive things: hell, we’re Burning Wall Street this year. Is that awesome? Yes – it is very, very, awesome. But it undeniably has the potential to offend.
Burners are both famously nice-‘n-welcoming and brusque and insulting. We’ll give you the shirt off our backs and then make fun of your costume. And there is a debate, very similar to the one in the stand-up world, about where the lines are. Both stand-up and Burning Man are trying to create aesthetic experiences that depend on being here now – in this moment – and rolling with whatever happens. There are no re-takes, and if something happens in the audience you can’t just keep reciting your lines and expect everything to quiet down.
It’s that immediacy and potential for participation that make stand-up a truly interesting art form instead of just a short-form one-man play … and Burning Man takes it even further by almost entirely eliminating the category of “audience.” People at a stand-up show can still fulfill their function by sitting in their chairs and laughing at punchlines. Everyone at Burning Man is expected to participate in a more meaningful way.
One way to look at this is to say that we’re all artists – each of us comes and creates art for others to experience. But saying “anything is art” makes the whole category of “art” meaningless. I don’t come to Burning Man and create art – I don’t make giant sculptures or beautiful paintings, I don’t create amazing domes or fabulous art cars, or even make my own costumes. In fact, many people don’t do those things.
It doesn’t mean we don’t participate. We do – in thousands of ways. And the expectation isn’t that we respectfully and quietly view other people’s art with the reverence reserved for cultural treasures … as though we were in a museum. The expectation is that (short of vandalism) we engage with it whenever possible.
Which is to say that the best analogy for Burners isn’t the “artist,” which some of us are, but the “heckler,” which all of us are at various points during our burns. We cross the boundary between art and spectator to engage directly. We express ourselves.
Yeah, I know, many of you would prefer “collaborators” or “co-creators” but … come on. People put their blood and sweat into these projects – if you collaborated with them, you’d know their names.
Besides, there’s useful a place for hecklers in this world. Not at the symphony, no, or at a the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, or the Met – but the stand-ups who say the audience for their act needs to sit down, shut up, and take it, are kidding themselves. You can’t “work the room” (“Hey, where ‘ya from!”) and keep a wall between performer and audience. You can’t call out “Am I right?” or “what a terrible shirt this guy’s wearing” and play for applause and still expect to enforce leze majesty.
More importantly: it’s the immediacy of a live crowd and the comedian’s interaction with it (whether it’s heckling or not) that makes stand-up done right so vital and engaging … and stand-up done wrong so very, very, painful. Even great stand-up performers need a crowd to be alive and in-the-moment. They need it to be responsive – and if they want to set the terms for that interaction then they can do one-man-plays at community theaters instead of working rooms with a two-drink minimum.
But they’ll never get the same kind of energy, for good and bad.
That energy comes from the ambiguous boundaries between artist and audience. That energy comes from the fact that you’re in that room – whether on stage or in the audience – and have no idea what’s going to happen next.
Burning Man gets the kind of energy it does because it almost entirely eliminates those boundaries, which makes us all hecklers.
But … but … all that said, there are good hecklers and bad hecklers, just like there are good comedians and bad comedians.
Which is to say that you can’t condemn Tosh on purely moral grounds for saying an offensive thing in a space specifically reserved for the artistic telling of uncomfortable truths. But you can criticize his capacity to tell them. Tosh’s response to his heckler suggests that he is a bad, bad, comedian … or at least had a really bad night. (In fact, he’s awful.) I mean come on Tosh: “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped?” How many years have you been on the road honing your craft to come up with that? Because it really isn’t paying off.
Similarly, you can’t condemn a theme camp or art project or costume at Burning Man simply because it offends you. If radical self-expression means anything at all it means the capacity to offend. (Otherwise what’s radical about it?) But you can condemn an art project or theme camp or costume for being badly done. Simply violating a taboo is one way to get a reaction, but it’s not especially interesting and it doesn’t take any particular talent.
Hecklers can also be judged by the quality of their heckling – including whether or not they know how to use their creative freedom to enhance the show, or whether they’re just being assholes. Good comedians, and good audiences, can tell the difference.
This is what it means to live in a zone of radical creative freedom. Moral boundaries – right and wrong – only exist on the periphery: we don’t do bodily harm or generally destroy property. But otherwise most of the actions that would normally be judged by moral standards are now judged by aesthetic standards. The question isn’t “is this act offensive” but “does it work?” Does it create an amazing moment … or at least an interesting one?
Reasonable people can disagree, but generally speaking: we all know when something works, when a burner is trying and failing to make something work, and when a burner is just being an asshole.
Radical creative freedom doesn’t mean you can’t be judged – but it does mean different standards apply. We’re hecklers, trying to contribute to our own show. That’s a privilege and a responsibility.
Caveat is the Volunteer Coordinator for Media Mecca at Burning Man. His opinions are in no way statements of the Burning Man organization. Contact him at Caveat (at) Burningman.com