Theatre of the absurd is one of the most misunderstood forms — probably because of the unfortunate name Martin Esslin stuck it with. Thirty years ago Saturday Night Live ran wonderful parodies of bad theatre of the absurd and its accompanying high-minded criticism; Dan Ackroyd, as the sour confection Leonard Pinth-Garnell, would watch a pretentious bit of downtown performance art with us and then sniff, “Mmm. That was truly bad.” That’s very funny, because it takes the perceptions of that period about theatre of the absurd, which had sprung up on these shores in New York in the 1960’s, and magnifies them.
Funny, but not accurate. Because, as Edward Albee pointed out in 1962, if there was an “absurd” theatre, one devoid of life and humor, it wasn’t the one downtown. The theatre of the absurd I’ve always loved is packed with meaning, and tends toward the very funny. This includes the work of Pinter, the supposed playwright of menace, and the bleak existentialist Beckett, as well as Ionesco, and Shepard, and the other major writers Esslin put together. They were all saying important things, and they were all funny.
The most important class I took in college was Theatre of the Absurd, an elective taught by professor Jeanne-Andree Nelson. I took the class on a lark: I liked Jeanne-Andree and I figured I could sail through it and get on to the serious business of graduate school and becoming a novelist. But I emerged from the class someone I hadn’t intended to be: a playwright. Theatre of the Absurd was so much fun, so filled with wild energy, so easy to do at any place and on any budget, that fiction looked like work.
In Jeanne-Andree’s class I learned about the writers above, as well as Boris Vian (whose “Empire Builders” I still revere), and Amiri Baraka, and Jean Genet — and I learned about the wonderful comedian Emo Phillips. In 1984, Emo was doing a sort of standup comedy that no one had done before, an insanely inventive and funny comedy that functioned on two levels: piercingly intellectual on the top, and clownishly foolish on the bottom, as though a cocktail-party philosopher had been cross-bred with the town moron. In other words, like theatre of the absurd. Professor Nelson, to whom I remain indebted, was smart enough to recognize the affiliation and to somehow secure a tape of the newly emergent Emo and screen it in class.
Here’s a copy of that first recorded Emo Phillips video, which I just found on the web. (It’s on Emo’s MySpace page, but it hasn’t always been there.) I recognized it immediately because it left an indelible impression on me (especially the joke about the basement). (You can find part two of the video on Emo’s site.) My friend Mark Chaet and I went to see Emo last year at the Steve Allen Theatre and I’m happy to report that Emo is as clever and funny as ever. I’m sure he’ll be back there at some point; you might want to sign up for the email alert.