The humanism of stand-up comedy

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The humanism of stand-up comedy

The work of Tammy Rae Carland

by Mayukh Sen on Thursday, January 5, 2012 - 12:30pm

Artwork by Tammy Rae CarlandThe public responds more openly to comediennes who are non-threatening.  Lucille Ball was so disarming because she was loony.  Diane Keaton’s neurotic, gee-golly persona made her easy to love.  Viewers have struggled more with women like Roseanne Barr, Margaret Cho, and Sarah Silverman – ones who challenge presupposed social norms with their rhetoric.  These women have no filters. Political correctness isn’t part of their cultural vocabulary. As a result, there has been a tendency to view the field of stand-up comedy as a hostile one, most especially when this comedy arrives at the hands of women. 

Tammy Rae Carland, a Bay Area artist and photographer, recognizes this, and she seeks to move past such a notion.  To her, stand-up comedy is a naked art.  Comics have no handicaps.  They do not, as Carland tells me, have an instrument, singing voice, or similar conduit to rely upon.  Rather, they simply expose themselves with disconcerting clarity. Stand-up comics must draw upon personal experience; it is the nature of their profession. Carland’s latest series of mixed-media pieces, aptly entitled “I’m Dying Up Here,” is a work of uncommon lucidity.  Her photographs illuminate the inherent vulnerability in this artistic practice. 

"I'm Dying Up Here"

“Dying” is a series of seven whimsical photographs that showcase stand-up comediennes – faceless, intentionally ambiguous in terms of sex – in states of total vulnerability.  One woman wears a mop on her head, reduced to the retrograde notion that the female is a mere domestic. Another crouches onstage in a bent, pathetic banana costume, a stance of phallic subjugation.  Carland accompanies these works with seven framed quotes, most of them famous punchlines, from various female comediennes, ranging from Bette Midler to Joan Rivers. Reading these quotes, of course, reminds us that America is host to a rich legacy of female comediennes, though many of these women have often faced more scrutiny than their male counterparts.

Though Ms. Carland’s work functions as apt social commentary, it is grounded by a sense of warm, touching humor.  She takes cues from 70s-era comedienne Gilda Radner, a woman who branded a particular breed of artistic self-effacement, to craft her images.  To Carland, the performer stands in a curious position, using the stage as a space of aggression – she can channel her hostilities into her art.  Carland is interested in how the audience shapes this potential for transgression.  What role do the consumers of this humor play in how the performer is gendered? Artwork by Tammy Rae CarlandHow do their social conditions inform these judgments?

The moment of failure

In particular, Carland is intrigued by the moment of failure in performance.  Stand-up comedy relies upon an establishment of rapport with the audience.  Once this rapport is lost, Carland says, it cannot be easily regained.  There is always an instance in a comedienne’s act when she stands at the cusp of falling – take, for example, when she is heckled.  Will she save herself?  How, if at all, will she reestablish camaraderie with those who watch her?

Many of Carland’s subjects do not, in fact, save themselves.  They stand in total states of humiliation, and Carland’s photographs capture these enduring seconds.  Though her works have a gentle absurdity to them – take, for example, the sight of a woman draping herself in a Strawberry Shortcake towel – they project a subtle sense of sympathy for her protagonists.  These women are isolated.  They stand on empty, barren stages, ready to be sacrificed for judgment.  Their words have alienated them.  

In this sense, Ms. Carland is an artist of great compassion.  She recognizes that social and political transgression is rooted in human vulnerability.  That this transgression is often cast as abrasive or antagonistic is merely a symptom of a greater sociocultural short-sightedness.


Tammy Rae Carland is a zine editor, filmmaker, visual artist, and music label owner.  She is also a Professor and Chair of Photography at the California College of the Arts.  In short, she is an artist.  Represented by Silverman Gallery, her works have been shown nationally and internationally, and, more recently, in the Istanbul Biennale. Her photographs have been published in such books as The Passionate Camera: Queer Bodies of Desire and Lesbian Art in America.  Carland has also produced a series of influential fanzines, including I (heart) Amy Carter.  She also co-runs Mr. Lady Records and Videos, a record label and video art distribution company dedicated to the production and distribution of queer and feminist culture. 

Mayukh Sen is a sophomore majoring in History (History, Literature, and the Arts track) with a minor in Science, Technology, and Society.   He is a member of the Clayman Institute Student Writing Team, and also serves as a contributor for Artlog and The Film Experience, both based in New York, and writes regularly for the Stanford Daily’s Intermission.