When the joke’s on you, perhaps the best defense is getting there first? Both Adrienne Truscott and Justin Vivian Bond convert noxious stereotypes and painful legacies of marginalization into resources for the excluded. In this they show how turning the joke on oneself or one’s own group may disarm criticism from the dominant by beating it to the punch and the punch-line.
Truscott’s and Bond’s bodies of work also defy settled genres and a politics of purity. Such unsettlements—aesthetic and political—are the joke’s work. Laughter comes upon us unbidden, and may even overpower or contradict our will or our reason or our politics. The joke slices in and releases the barely contained viscera of lust and aggression that social norms normally require us to deny. Think of the metaphors that surround successful humor: that joke “killed,” the audience “died” laughing. If this is success, what does failure look and feel like—and according to whose experience?
Aggression may well undergird all humor. But we still need to ask into the inequalities in power such that some individuals or groups get slotted in, time and time again, as the butt of a joke. This is the joke as a kind of cultural truth teller. We may not always like what we hear, including—or especially?—when the laugh is pouring from our own mouth. As in: This isn’t funny, so, why am I laughing?
Sticking with the disturbance of humor as it shakes our bodies and upends our borders, Truscott and Bond counter-punch and change up the rhythms of the expected. Truscott replays the rape joke with a feminist vengeance, daring us to really get the joke this time, understand how it works, what it does, for whom, to whom. Bond mixes up a witchy brew of musical standards you thought you knew, but now all bets are off as V stops and tells us a story, starts again, and launches us all into a different affective key.
There is an element in all this of what queer performance studies scholar José Muñoz termed “disidentification,” an attempt to transform a cultural logic from within. Such a transformation may require staying with the discomfort of laughing against your will, and refusing to refuse the toxins of dominant culture. It’s humor from the bottom up, and it potentially turns the hurtful joke another way. Both Truscott and Bond invite us to step into and laugh within the space they open between the original and its re-play. In such queer and feminist company, we will laugh ‘til we hurt—and on through to the other side—not because we’re kidding around. But because we aren’t. Because laughing matters. What new possibilities might we materialize through it?
Ann Pellegrini, Ph.D., is a Professor of Performance Studies at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. Her writings include “Performance Anxieties: Staging Psychoanalysis, Staging Race.” She is the official Mixologist for NYU Skirball Center for the Performing Arts.