Two guys walk into a bar – and what that means for cultural sharing

Arts / Article

Images courtesy Levi Weinhagen, Mobile Comedy Suitcase project.

Art making is the process of making something out of nothing.

For an improviser and theater maker like myself, it’s rare that the something I make isn’t temporary and experiential. I love the idea that most of the art I’m a part of making only exists in the moment with my collaborators whether they be fellow artists, audience members or participants in other ways. The central challenge, though, for most of the kind of work I make is it always asks that people come to me.

My latest art project, the Mobile Comedy Suitcase, created with support from a Knight Arts Challenge St. Paul grant, is a way for me to keep the temporal and experiential nature of my work while going to where the people are rather than asking them to find me. Here’s a quick break down of the project. The Mobile Comedy Suitcase is a four and a half-foot by two and a half-foot stage built on a bike trailer. When being pulled, the pieces look like a suitcase strapped to a bike trailer. When assembled, the suitcases pieces create steps and support for the stage. There’s a microphone in a stand, an amplifier, a chalkboard sign and a brick wall backdrop. It all amounts to a traveling comedy club.

One of the primary goals I have with this project is to facilitate cultural sharing. I know that comedy is a way of connecting through shared ideas and experiences, but it’s also a tool for letting those outside of a culture in and explaining the core elements of a culture. That can sound and feel very academic, breaking down comedy as an anthropological system for culture sharing. Luckily, the first public usage of the Mobile Comedy Suitcase resulted in very tangible examples of this.

The 2016 Minneapolis/St. Paul Mini Maker Faire was held at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds earlier this month. I set up the Mobile Comedy Suitcase outside at the Mini Maker Faire next to the Zabel Acres booth. Zabel Acres are the lovely folks who helped design and build the components of the Mobile Comedy Suitcase. Coincidentally, the 2016 MSP ComiCon was also being held at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds at the same time.

The core activity of the Mobile Comedy Suitcase is getting folks up on the tiny stage and having them tell a joke. Over the course of four hours a few hundred visitors stopped by and shared a joke or two (or in one case 30) with the ebbing and flowing audience. Plenty of these jokes were your standard knock-knock or a classic what did the blank say to the blank joke. But immediately the influences of people attending a maker faire and people attending a comic book convention showed up in the kind of jokes being shared. The very first person to stand on the Mobile Comedy Suitcase stage and tell a joke was a 12-year-old in an amazing Batman costume he had made himself. And the joke he told was a Batman pun. What position did Bruce Wayne play on his little league team? He was the batboy.

There were dozens of superhero jokes and comic book jokes. The science-loving do-it-yourself crowd attending the Mini Maker Faire also imbued their jokes with their particular cultural interests. For example: Two guys walk into a bar, the bartender asks the first guy, “what’ll you have?” First guy says, “give me an H2O.” Bartender hands the first guy a glass of water and asks the second guy, “what can I get you.” The second guy says, “I’ll have an H2O2.” Bartender hands the second guy a glass, he drinks it and dies.

That joke relies on the listener knowing that the chemical formula for water is H2O and the chemical formula for hydrogen peroxide is H2O2. It’s taking the well established “guy walks into a bar” joke structure and celebrating and rewarding listeners for their scientific literacy, a skill highly valued amongst a group of people who build their own science-based inventions. There were lots of smiles from joke tellers and lots of laughs from joke audience members and by that measure alone the day was a success. But the other element that really came through all day was people using jokes and comedy to say “here’s a thing I care about, here’s a way of thinking about the world that means something to me” and having the people around them respond with support, delight and joy.

I’ve got a full summer of community events, neighborhood outings, and small workshops ahead for the Mobile Comedy Suitcase. I know the cultural sharing through jokes will be highly varied from the simple to the deeply complex and I know that if everything lands flat I can always pull out a whoopee cushion and get people laughing again. But this first experience of having my project out in the world has already shown me that it really does work as a way to bring my work out into the world.

To learn more, or contact Weinhagen, visit the Mobile Comedy Suitcase site.