When anyone in Philly talks about their favorite live comedy moments, it’s almost always something involving Andrew Jeffrey Wright – he’s been somebody’s dad teaching you about sex while breakdancing, a parkour artist slapping Garfield stickers on street signs, a dancing pile of shit, a vaping boss and even a playwright. He melds all of his artistic skills into his performances and will be teaching students how to do it themselves in his upcoming Experimental Comedy class. On a couch in Space 1026’s gallery, the art collective he helped to found over 22 years ago, we talked about money, the role that laughter plays in comedy, and how his own creative career—which includes illustration, animation, performance art, comedy, photography and more —has been an experiment in itself.
What is experimental comedy?
Either you are experimenting to create a new form of existing art or a new way to approach art. If the comedy itself or the art itself is different from the mainstream or different from other forms then that is experimental.
Does experimental comedy need to be funny?
Experimental comedy, for me, has to be funny. I think all comedy has to be funny. Comedy is one of the only art forms that, to be the thing that it is, has to have a result. If you put on a play, you’d be like, “yeah, that was a play.” But with comedy, it’s like, “I just did stand-up comedy. If no one laughed, was it stand-up comedy?” Some people say comedy is all reliant on surprise—it’s like you’re leading people one way and then you bring them over here. Sometimes, though, you’re leading them a certain way and they know what the payoff is gonna be but they just wanna hear you say it. With experimental comedy, it’s too easy to be different and experimental and not be funny. Being both experimental and funny is where the challenge is.
So it has to make an audience laugh?
I guess you don’t really have to laugh for it to be experimental comedy but you have to think it’s funny. I accept the fact that a person can be in a room doing something funny and no one watching will laugh…you might have the wrong audience. But you can always find the right audience.
You’ve been involved in so many art forms over the course of your career: illustration, animation, performance art, comedy, photography, the list goes on and on. Would you call your life an experiment?
Yeah. Definitely making it up as I go along, for sure. I never liked to call myself weird or say I’m weird because if you say you’re weird then you’re not really weird.
One of your most well-known projects is photographs of money: either with you or with animals or in different domestic scenes. Can students of your class expect to make lots of money with experimental comedy?
No. The reason those money photos exist is because I didn’t have a bank account and I’d make money and it would disappear so fast. I’d take the photographs like a portrait of something that was about to disappear. We’ll talk about comedians that have been experimental and made money [in the class]. It’s always a possibility, just like anything else. You can talk about success as financial success and fame but you can also talk about success as making something that you find interesting and worthwhile.
Who are the successful experimental comedians that you’re going to reference in the class?
Reggie Watts is experimental. And, to a degree, Kristen Schaal is. Also Kate Berlant.
Experiments in a scientific context are trying to prove something. Is experimental comedy trying to prove anything?
I don’t think it’s trying to prove anything. I just think it’s trying to get to a result where the result is taking people’s brain on a trip that, even if they know they’re in for something unexpected, they’re still surprised and taken on this journey where they didn’t know where they were gonna go and they went there and they laughed. It’s about taking people on a trip.
Andrew Jeffery Wright’s Experimental Comedy class starts on Tuesday, October 22nd. You can enroll right here.