In one of the more ingenious sequences in Mary Houlihan’s one-woman show Live N’ Good, which played at Brooklyn’s Union Hall in September, Houlihan’s performance is supplanted by faux-tough guy comic Rocky Petrano, who seizes the stage for his one-man show Love N’ Loss. Clad in a leather jacket, fingerless gloves, and a black fedora, Petrano (played by William Petrano) instantly distinguishes himself from Houlihan. His set is a half-coherent rolodex of observational comedy tropes—he lost his woman and his son, life was tough in the Bronx, blah blah—visually underscored by an unsatisfied struggle to light a cigar, then two cigars, then two cigars and a cigarette. It’s a short scene and a silly scene, yet it does surprisingly sophisticated work. Like the play-within-a-play in Hamlet—forgive me—Petrano’s interlude serves as an acknowledgment of the illusory nature of performance; it also distances her from performers, like Petrano, who work overtime to deny this nature. This whole shenanigan’s fake, it says. Why bother acting real? When Houlihan ultimately returns to beat him back into the wings, it is because his brand of comedy—naturalistic, solipsistic, oozing with testosterone—has no place on her stage.
There’s much to dislike about the moniker “alternative” comedy, a uselessly broad term for comedians as different from each other as they are from the mainstream that excludes them. It’s a cordon where no cordon is necessary, a bizarre segregation in what is ostensibly a meritocratic art form—as Houlihan says, “If you make people laugh, you get booked on more shows. That’s it.” Alt works best as a definition of what it is not: a tacit agreement between audience and performer that if I invest myself in your life for a while, you will share stories and/or observations that eventually make me laugh, whether by reminding me of my own experiences or surprising me so well that I briefly forget them. This contract is tried and true, responsible for much of the finest stand-up in history. It is also, given a moment’s thought, totally weird! The drawback of such a transparent structure is that it implicitly pits comic against audience. If I know when and how you’re trying to make me laugh, my resistance is naturally heightened; I instinctually try to predict where you’re headed, what the punch will be. You, meanwhile, must continually seek to distract me from this burdensome knowledge, must tell such rich stories that I forget every detail is potentially a setup. So much work! If alt comedy has any singular ethos, I suspect it’s a refusal to pretend that a performance is anything else. Just as Houlihan banished Petrano from her stage, the alt comic discards the traditional performer-audience relationship—or at least uses it in a broader toolkit—plunging both parties into uncharted waters where anything is possible, but little is predictable.
This was true of Live N’ Good, a mélange of stand-up, sketch, music and cartoons, and it is true of Houlihan’s oeuvre as a whole. A graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute, she is a painter, an animator, a humorist, and an intensely magnetic performer. She co-hosts Cartoon Monsoon, a monthly variety show at the Annoyance Theatre, and CUBE, a monthly stand-up showcase in Williamsburg; you can also find her at shows across the city, in any number of web videos, and as a guest on Tom Scharpling and Jon Wurster’s The Best Show. Her stage personality, heightened but not manic, is defined by the sort of sweet idiocy that propelled Maria Bamford and Emo Philips to stardom, although Houlihan’s material tends toward the brighter side—both as an artist and as a comic.
“I love bold solid colors,” she told me, “and I think working with construction paper is funny because it forces you to work with those. There’s no light or dark or pastels; it’s all just basic solid red, blue, purple.” In art school she challenged herself to create work as cheaply as possible—drawing with ballpoint pens, animating with construction paper—a skill equally useful in the shoestring world of DIY comedy. It also helped her develop a strong visual aesthetic in performance. “I like to dress in those colors,” she reflected, “which I think might help people view me as a character. Since my stand-up most of the time is short jokes, one-liners, voices, and impressions instead of observational/story stuff, I think my way of dress might help the viewer more easily get into a place that they’re watching a performance that’s supposed to be silly and absurd… there’s no illusion of like, ‘it’s just a regular girl up there telling us about her day.’ I think both are equally constructed, and your way of dress acts as a signifier.”
Embracing the construct is a powerful move, even in the service of silly one-liners like Houlihan’s “I love anal sex, but it hurts… I mean, fit a whole butt in my pussy?” In an immediate sense, the technique relaxes an audience’s expectations of what’s to come, giving the comic broad freedom to shape a more amorphous performance. (See: Kate Berlant, Zach Galifianakis, Demetri Martin.) By giving an audience permission to pretend, the comic delivers a sustained sense of surprise we typically only get fleetingly with punchlines. And silliness is a serious matter, capable of generating tension both superficial—“okay, where’s this going?”—and existential. One-liners like the above, which play on linguistic misunderstandings, point out the absurdity of comedy and reality entirely: we exist within the confines of a language that can barely convey anything, yet it’s all we have to convey everything. And you expected these jokes to be serious?
Houlihan describes her own aversion toward observational material mostly as a practical concern— “I don’t have a ton of life experiences”—but also as an aesthetic commitment to Feeling Good. “I think there is something nice about showing glee and wonder in any kind of art,” she says, “instead of replicating negative aspects of life. It feels so good when you see, like, a Charlie Kaufman movie or a Miyazaki movie or read a Vonnegut book, and afterwards you feel, like, oh wow, just a regular person like me dreamt all that up, and sheesh, I feel good and inspired to be a little more dreamy and inventive like them.”
“Alt” or not, the language of comedy is a language of pleasures: I give you attention, you make me laugh, I give you more attention. For Houlihan, this simple transaction came as a relief from the solipsism of the art world. “The state of fine art,” she said, “revolves very heavily on a perverted notion of intellectualism… There is a huge aversion to anything that is deemed as ‘entertainment,’ or anything that is experiential over intellectual.” She recalls being “eviscerated” by a classmate for wanting to make work for the web, or Adult Swim, rather than galleries. “I became much more interested in making things that are fun to watch, things that make you laugh—whereas I think most conceptual art programs want every student to graduate making work that very superficially talks about identity politics… When I started doing comedy, it was refreshing how it’s just about being funny.
One of the sublimest pleasures of stand-up is the entryway it opens not just to what other people experience, but how they experience it. For many comics this is an orderly, linear endeavor—a narrative that moves cleanly from A to B. Step into the dimly lit backrooms of Brooklyn and beyond, however, and you might be surprised how many shapes the human mind can take. In the meantime, consider whetting your palate with Mary Houlihan: Live N’ Good.
Seth Simons is a Brooklyn-based writer, performer, and birdwatcher. Follow him @sasimons.