On the weekends, I serve at a restaurant on Manhattan's Upper West Side. Most of the wait staff uses the income to support their more glamorous but less lucrative lives in New York’s entertainment industry. There’s Cate, the Columbia-grad who routinely hosts and performs stand-up at local comedy cellars, and Teresa, a dead ringer for Mandy Moore who also hosts and performs while collecting an arsenal of ludicrous waitressing stories for a future book.
As someone with a closeted dream of performing onstage, I find myself periodically bombarding them with questions about their sets and spending one too many late nights eyes glued to a Netflix comedy special, brain whirring as I try to figure out “being funny". Most of the material I’ve seen that works is commentary about the human condition and the current state of affairs. We seem to be looking for relief from ourselves, needing to be reminded that the sources of our anxiety are sometimes ridiculous. The ability to do this cogently, with proper timing and exasperation or matter-of-fact-ness, is a great mark of talent, and the sets I’ve seen commonly stay within this realm of reality. Sex, life, status anxiety, all in the context of the everyday. Pointing out the absurd, in the everyday. This is why getting a laugh when the context changes is impressive because all of a sudden the person baiting the laugh has to elicit the same response under slightly unfamiliar conditions.
Last December was the first time I’ve witnessed a comic successfully attempt this. It was Louis C.K. at Madison Square Garden, a set which has since been recorded and released on Netflix. About midway through his performance, he was actually able to work in a bit about Achilles’ heel:
My daughter is learning about Greek mythology. And she’s asking me questions about it. She’s like, “Daddy, who’s Achilles’ mother?” I said, “I don’t f*cking know. Don’t ask me that sh*t.” I don’t know who Achilles’ mother is.” Don’t yell out if you know. “It’s Campampetes.” Nobody cares what you know. [audience laughing] She had a question about Achilles, it was interesting. I’ll tell it to you. But first, the story of Achilles real quick.
Achilles was a baby. He was a Greek baby. And…he didn’t stay that way. But when he was…a Greek baby, his mother, who was a goddess, took him to the River Styx, which is at Hades, the land of the dead. And she dipped him in the water of the River Styx because there was a magical quality to that water that you would make you impervious of any harm. You couldn’t be hurt. It was like a shield, right? So, she dipped him in that water to protect him. But she held him by the heel. That’s the important detail. Held him by the heel, which is an awkward way to hold a baby. By the heel. Try holding a baby by the heel and dipping it in a river. You will never see that baby again. [audience laughing] That’s how to get rid of a baby.
[Spanish accent] “I lost the baby in the water.” I was trying to wash him, and he fell in the river. I’m sorry, Miss Achilles, I lost your baby. You told me to hold him by the heel. “He slipped.” [normal voice] Because Achilles’ mother has a Mexican nanny. It’s a lesser-known character in The Iliad. Anyway…his mother, she was able to hold on, of course, because she was a goddess. She was the goddess of grip or whatever, I don’t know. And she held on. And then he was protected, except on his heel. His heel was not protected. And so that’s what we call your Achilles heel, your one vulnerable place. Everybody’s got their Achilles heel. Achilles’ Achilles heel was his heel. [audience laughing] Like, literally.
Anyway, so, my daughter, here was her question. She said, “How come his mother didn’t just dip him again?” She could have just dipped him one more time…“with the other leg in there.” What does she just, like, get…You’re right there. Was there, like, a sign that says, “One dip per goddess?” You ever color an Easter egg? It’s not that complicated. You dip it, and then you hold it differently and dip it again. Smart kid. I was proud of her. But at the same time, I thought, “Who the f*ck are you to judge this woman?” [audience laughing] It bothered me. ‘Cause here’s what the story of Achilles teaches me, is that, if you’re a parent, it’s never enough what you do for these motherf*ckers. It’s just never enough. It’s still gonna be your fault. How much more do you want from a mother? She dipped her kid in magic water and protected 99% of his body. Is any of it up to him? He could have just wore a big shoe and be careful. But he goes out in sandals, f*cking flip flops. [audience laughing] And a sword, and fights the whole planet. “I’m Achilles ’cause my mother dipped me.” [audience laughing] Finally, somebody got him in the heel, and he’s like, “Mom!” [audience laughing] “Thanks a lot, Mom.” “What’s wrong, Achilles?” “My mom didn’t dip my heel. She’s so stupid. She ruined it.” F*ck you, Achilles, you Greek d*ck. [audience laughing]
Myth, history, science! These are not always evident backdrops for successful comedy, but the five films selected for this particular spotlight have proven that it is possible. What is especially great about watching comedy in science is the satirical poke, a reminder that we take science way too seriously.
This austerity gives science a somewhat inaccurate rap. Much like how the act of locating contradictions in the people and events around us has become a cornerstone of humor, studying science poses a similarly laughable paradox. From the whimsical hypothesis to a failed series of lab tests to an oddly enduring abundance of unsubstantiated optimism on the part of researchers, the scientific process is predicated on ridiculousness—until it is real, at which point science graduates from being the furthest removed from reality to redefining it.
I Want Pluto to be a Planet Again by Marie Amachoukeli and Vladimir Mavounia-Kouka imagines a future that rides on our achievements in robotics, our movement towards more minimalist design aesthetic, and our secret desire for dominion over the rest of the cosmos. In this more advanced world, there are two groups of humans: H-‘s, who constitute the lower echelons of society, and the H+’s, transhumans who are blessedly rid of the sloppy curves and blemishes all too characteristic of ordinary people.
Our leading guy, as well as the object of our affections, is Marcus, an “H- of modest origins” who is adorably pockmarked and in love with a girl from school. After a car accident alters her past any hope of redemption (one of the most eloquent sequences in the entire film) her parents pool their savings to upgrade her to H+ status, a decision that replaces all of her human parts with robotic implements, thus saving and augmenting her life. Suddenly she is sleek, powerful—and way out of Marcus’ league. Lovelorn, he begins plotting to get her back. Rather than doing what normal people would do, like hitting the gym or writing a ballad or amassing a small fortune day trading, Marcus sets his sights on cosmetic surgery, which is conveniently the prize of an upcoming lottery…
By introducing a protagonist who suffers under a classist social stratosphere and the throes of unrequited love, I Want Pluto to be a Planet Again seems to suggest that the sophistications of technology are no match for human vice. The exaggeration provided by the animation, along with the nuances of this futurist society (who exports all the body parts chucked in the H+ transitions to Pluto, which has itself been relegated to landfill status after losing its planet standing), makes this short all the more hilarious by questioning just why we expect the future to be so great anyways.
Andrew Bowler’s Time Freak leaves us with the same sort of hand wringing. After the tall, passively curious Evan discovers that his neurotic best friend, Stillman (ironically named), has invented the world’s first time travel machine, he is horrified to learn in that same instant that his friend’s insecurities have imprisoned him in a never-ending time travel loop of the same events and interactions of the past three days.
Evan: So you haven’t made it to Ancient Rome?
Stillman: Dude, I haven’t made it past 2:30.
He repeats an interaction with his ex dozens of times, uniquely screwing things up in each attempt. And no matter how many times he tries to bottle his anger towards the laundromat that’s holding his Roman dress shirt hostage, he gradually learns that history is bound to repeat itself in perpetuity.
The plot reminds me of “Dark Matter,” a vignette by The Office’s B.J. Novak. In it the protagonist forces a scientist to reveal the secrets of dark matter, only to be distracted in the moment of truth by thoughts of his friends hanging out without him. Once again, we see the supposed boundlessness of technology shackled by our own unshakeable quirks. After watching Time Freak, I actually sat my roommate down and asked if she was more interested in visiting Medieval Europe or fixing something regrettable in her life. I could see the answer in her eyes before she said it.
Oh, come on. Don’t tell me you’d rather shovel gruel into your mouth than relive your first love.
The Centrifuge Brain Project by visual artist Till Nowak takes a different approach to humor. In just over six minutes, we are brought into Chief Engineer Dr. Nick Laslowicz’s (Leslie Barany) laboratory where we are given a brief run-down on a series of physics-defying amusement park rides. Designed by Dr. Laslowicz, the rides are planned to provide insight on ways to improve cognitive brain function, thus bringing us closer to “the solution for all problems.”
Among them there’s the 126-seat, 2.7 G-force “Dandelion”, which simulates the prenatal experience of being in a mother’s womb as she moves around, and my personal favorite: a fourteen-hour-long ferris wheel. The vintage video filters and computer graphics are so convincing that it’s not until half the movie has already gone by that we start to wonder if everything we’ve just seen is totally fictional. The gradual realization that this is actually a mockumentary is more jarring than one might think because the world in Centrifuge is so quirky and fantastic. These are the ride concepts of a bright six year-old—or a young art school graduate, which, as it turns out, is Nowak’s profile.
The writing also plays a role in keeping the façade of the film. It is comical and smart, despite Nowak’s admission that he wrote the script in the two days leading up to filming: “I had no technical reference for the short film. I created the manipulated amusement rides and the techy talk just out of my own scientific humor. They are a mix of real physics, absurdity and deliberate contradictions. The goal was to create the biggest possible mistake, but still make it sound serious and convincing" (Filmnosis).
Capucine by Luis Nieto is fairly similar in style and tone, supplementing interview footage with “real” experiments involving capuchin monkeys. It begins by introducing Capucine, a capuchin monkey of above average intelligence who is living a life of servitude under Jean-Michel Wallyn, a tetraplegic music composer. Daily responsibilities include: helping Wallyn with picking books off shelves, popping CD’s in and out of a music player, and mixing music in a studio. As the two spend more time together, Capucine’s heightened receptivity to visual stimuli and passion for film become apparent. Before long, a Japanese primatologist by the name of Hirokazu Shibuya comes to whisk Capucine away to the Far East, where the professor enrolls her in a monkey film school hosted at a University of Tokyo research facility.
Up until this point, it is probably reasonable to assume that this is a real documentary about real capuchin monkeys. But once inside the film school, we experience a moment familiar to that experienced in Centrifuge and realize that the favors we allow for science are expendable. Monkeys studying Kubrick? Capuchins behind a 35mm camera? This is bold, even for zoology. To this day, Nieto has neither confirmed nor denied the improbability of these experiments, though he has insisted that while some scenes were filmed with actors, “the whole story is true.”
Real or not, the comic timing of the film is truly amazing, as is the dialogue. This line, uttered by Professor Shibuya in defense of his monkey film school, is particularly savage: “But in many film schools, most of the pupils fail to go on to become filmmakers, so we don’t do too badly.”
Capucine culminates with a screening of the capuchin Capucine’s debut film, an original short titled Oedipe that borrows from various creative influences, including E.T., anime, American Beauty, and Donkey Kong. I assure you, it is well worth the film’s 40-minute run time.
Finally, Tempête Sur Anorak (Storm Hits Jacket) by French director and animator Paul Cabon wraps up our spotlight. Recipient of the Short Film Jury Award for Animation at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival, Tempête is, as beautifully described by Fantastic Fest, “a delightful sci-fi comedy and a testament to the beautiful, bewildering chaos of nature.” As the storm of the century begins a feeding frenzy on everything standing in its way, two young scientists on the brink of a world-changing discovery find themselves “embroiled in a scheme of industrial espionage and an unexpected ménage-a-trois” (Fantastic Fest). Tossed in are some tertiary characters: a madman and a sleeping mystic who, when awakened, becomes a sort of omniscient gatekeeper with a battalion of phantom cows (that have been sighted and conveniently logged on Google Images).
Cabon’s talent for capturing and expressing the smallest details of both his characters’ movements and the madness of the world around them is nothing short of masterful. “Take us to your leader!” Commands one of the science boys, and as the trio makes their way through the storm, a surfer off to the bottom of the frame marches determinedly to the ocean to catch the wave of the century. The effort is undermined by her boyfriend who is lying on his stomach in the sand, arms wrapped around her legs as he desperately tries to keep her on shore.
At their best, these five films will make you briefly forget about your problems. And at their worst, these films will distract you from that thing you were going to do. Finally, if there is a lesson to be learned here, that is this: lean into your vices because they’re never going away. And then just laugh.