The blurring of lines between stand-up comedy and performance art is not a new phenomenon, but over 90 wordless minutes in late June at the outdoor portion of the Long Island City space REMAINS (run by the artist Matthew Barney and the writer and curator Brandon Stosuy), a performance by the comedian and actor Josh Fadem provided perhaps a new entry into an important alternative canon. The piece, a collaboration with Barney, Stosuy, and the writer and artist Vernon Chatman, also made quite a bit of a mess, and saw, among many other things, Fadem collapse a stage, cover himself in vaseline, and jump into the East River.
“I think I broke my record for not telling any jokes or speaking on stage,” Fadem told me the week after the performance in a phone interview. Although the comedian has a history of working on the fringes of the comedy community, the performance at REMAINS is quite possibly the closest he has come to art-in-earnest. As for a backstory, Fadem said that it all began when he was approached by Chatman, a comedy/art polymath who is known for his work with the collective PFFR and for co-creating the groundbreaking comedy programs Wonder Showzen and Xavier: Renegade Angel. (It should also be noted that he is the voice of Towlie on South Park.) Chatman had seen some of Fadem’s physical comedy work—which has included a show titled “30 Minutes of Falling Down,” among other performances that veered towards the abstract—and “asked if I would be interested in doing this strange collaboration with Brandon Stosuy and Matthew Barney,” Fadem said. “So we started tossing around ideas and it came together pretty quickly.”
Fadem, whose acting credits include 30 Rock and the most recent incarnation of Twin Peaks, told me that Chatman created a Google Doc which the four used to collaborate on ideas. “We all kind of added and subtracted to it, and underneath it Matthew made these little notes about, here’s how this gag will be made, and here’s how this gag will be made,” Fadem said, calling the process “a dream” for a comedian. “You want to riff out an idea and then here’s someone who walks in and knows how to execute it,” he explained. The result of this preparatory work was an hour-and-a-half-long performance that utilized a scaled-up, studio-assisted production budget to actualize a durational piece in conversation with both the histories of fringe comedy and extreme performance art. It was like Barney gone vaudeville.
After a hyped-up introduction through a blown-out amplifier, a formally dressed Fadem took to an outdoor stage lit by a single bright spotlight (and, as dusk turned to night, the glare from adjacent Long Island City condos) and proceeded to spend quite a bit of time fumbling with a microphone and its stand. His movements, while expertly rooted in traditional physical comedy, were abstracted to the point of becoming a kind of performance art gesture in their own right. Even the mic, which gently generated feedback at times throughout the affair, pointed toward experimental music in some ridiculous way. As this went on, the microphones and their stands multiplied, interchanged and added by Paulo Paguntalan, a heavy metal vocalist who for the purposes of the show played a sort of ad-hoc stage manager and straight-man foil to Fadem. Eventually, one stand started to shoot out water. Then Fadem started eating one of the microphones—it was made of chocolate. This extended bit was just the beginning of a performance that moved through a variety of situations, always at its own pace.
“There wasn’t a lot of pressure to get laughs,” Fadem said. “I mean obviously I’m a comedian and I want to get laughs, but there wasn’t pressure to because it was an art crowd, so they’re not necessarily watching for laughs.” This freedom allowed for him to stretch out in ways that are possibly unimaginable within the more regimented structure of a traditional comedy night. One of the notes that Chatman gave to Fadem was for the comedian to “take his time” on stage. “So there was a lot of milking things and maybe trying people’s patience more, getting stuck inside a tiny activity, and it wound up being 90 minutes,” he said. “I think no one thought that it would go on that long.”
Some of the extended bits that Fadem pulled off in that time: sitting down on a rubber stool, kicking a hole through a stage that would eventually collapse in full, slamming a weird sort of metal gate/screen-door combination affixed to the building’s wall, jumping into the East River and then reappearing inside of a barrel of vaseline that was treated to looked like toxic sludge, hurling himself into a pile of cardboard boxes and then sounding the world’s most pathetic airhorn, addressing the performance’s one heckler with a drawn-out gesture involving his middle finger, drinking a number of glasses of water in rapid succession before moving to a sort of thick, clear liquid that he repeatedly spit up and attempted to drink again (I heard an audience member worry that this would trigger a series of chain-reaction vomiting in the audience. Thankfully that did not happen.). “I didn’t know [the liquid] was going to cause me to throw up. I did knock back a little bit of whisky prior to the show,” Fadem admitted. “I may have knocked back a shot too many.”
By the end of the performance, a portion of the crowd had dissipated, but I could feel a bit of camaraderie between those who stuck it out on that pleasant Thursday night. The previously silent Paguntalan reappeared and provided a bit of a twist, ending the performance with its only real vocals—an extended bout of guttural metal-informed screams. Then a very large and bright LED clock was switched on at the top half of the REMAINS building and things were over. “It all kind of feels like a dream, because I had a couple of drinks, the spotlight was bright in my eyes the whole time, and then the sun went down pretty early on,” Fadem said. “So it’s weird how certain things in my memory are a blur.”