EPISODE: "Humor"

Release date

October 1, 2003


The four artists profiled in “Humor” have been influenced by the history of humor and comedy, including vaudeville, cartoons, and comic books. The artists in this hour reveal how humor and satire can stimulate laughter as well as serve as a vehicle to explore serious subjects, such as feminism, the natural environment, the excesses of consumer culture, social injustice, and war. Filmed on location in San Diego, California; Hermosa Beach, California; New York, New York; and Great Barrington, New York.

In the opening segment created by Charles Atlas, comedian Margaret Cho takes on the task of educating her audience about the subtleties of humor. Unfortunately for her model pupil, Bruce, the subject of her lecture is not comedy but antiquated medicine. Surrounded by anatomical diagrams, Cho uses Aristotle’s “Theory of the Four Humors” as her source material. Cho diagnoses Bruce with an excess of Blood, and covers his head with gummy worm “leeches” while praising, stone-faced, the virtues of bloodletting as a remedy.

Eleanor Antin is at work on her photographic series "The Last Days of Pompeii," a commentary on the affluent residents of the paradise of La Jolla, California. There is a comparison to be made, Antin explains, “between America, as this great colonial power, and one of the early great colonial powers, Rome.” In her highly-theatrical films, photographs, and performance art, Antin draws from the childhood play, an infatuation with stand-up and slapstick comedy, and the tragic humor that is part of her Jewish heritage. “I always tend to see the funny side of things,” she says. “That’s the richest experience, when it’s the laughter and it’s the tears together.”

Raymond Pettibon’s drawings and paintings pair text and image in provocative and sometimes disconcerting ways, creating a powerful comic art for adults. Pettibon explains, “even though my work is usually just one drawing, it is more of a narrative than it is a cartoon with a punch line and a resolution and a laugh at the end.” The characters of Gumby and Vavoom are recurring motifs in his work, but so are American presidents like Nixon and Reagan. Pettibon finds subjects for satire and social commentary in a broad range of images from popular culture. “I don’t feel constrained by subject matter, “ he says, “I welcome practically anything into the drawing.”

In her studio, Elizabeth Murray is painting a shaped, colorful canvas with inflated, bulbous forms. “I want there to be conflict and I want there to be tension. And yet somehow I want to make these very conflicting things live together, and not just butt up against each other.” Murray has spent a lifetime developing her particular vision of zany and vibrant images, beginning with her time as a student at the Art Institute of Chicago where she was surrounded by great works of art such as the Abstract Expressionist paintings by DeKooning. “I just realized this was going to be my life,” says Murray.

A voracious reader of colonial letters and diaries, Walton Ford is fascinated by the fear and wonder of nature that he finds in historical texts. “The big thing I’m always looking for in my work is a sort of attraction-repulsion, where the stuff is beautiful to begin with until you notice that some sort of horrible violence is about to happen or is in the middle of happening.” Commenting on a large watercolor depicting a frenzy of birds falling with a massive branch, he explains that the birds are “satisfying all their lusts...as they are going down.” Contrasting the romanticized tradition of Audubon with the destructive qualities of existence, Ford merge a dreamlike vision with a frenetic and comic reality.