Local creatives speak to the power of comedy

REASONS TO LAUGH: Local writers, visual artists, musicians and other members of the creative community share their thoughts on what humor brings to artistic projects and productions. Pictured, from left, Cactus, Courtney Cahill, Eric Nelson, Tarah Singh and Bob White. Photos by or courtesy of, starting left, Mike Belleme, Cahill, Nelson, Cindy Kunst, White

To celebrate our annual Humor Issue, Xpress reached out to local artists to share their thoughts on the role comedy plays within the creative sector and what it can teach us about life.

Participants include: Cactus, the Asheville-based hip-hop artist also known as Secret Agent 23 Skidoo; Courtney Cahill, musician; Eric Nelson, poet; Tarah Singh, visual artist; and Bob White, artistic director at Asheville Community Theatre.

Editor’s note: Responses have been lightly edited for clarity and space. 

Xpress: What is the role of humor in the arts? 

Cactus: Art and music are made of ideas, and if ideas get too serious or solemn, they start to mutate into dogma. If you don’t watch out, they can degrade into politics and religion. Yuck. Humor is perfect for poking holes in overblown gasbags — whether it’s aimed outward, speaking truth to power with wicked punchlines, or inwards, keeping the artist relatable with a sprinkle of self-deprecation. Or as the Irish put it, “to take the piss.”

Nelson:  The humor role is very much like a yeast roll. It doesn’t have to be included with the feast that is art, but it is a nice part of the meal. Sometimes it’s the best part. The arts don’t require humor — God knows there’s a lot of great but humorless art out there (looking at you, William Wordsworth). But art does require tension, conflict, some sort of friction. And since humor is basically about surprise — the unexpected — it can provide tension. It can also relieve tension. So it’s a double threat.

Besides, humor is part of our daily lives. Even in the darkest moments, we often turn to humor to help release some of that darkness. Give me that warm, airy, delicious yeast roll with every meal. I find that the people who dismiss humor in art have zero sense of humor. And probably don’t like yeast rolls.

White: Humor is a saving grace in the performing arts because it is often the thing that keeps you going. No matter what kind of play or performance you’re building, humor is the thing that keeps it human. Some smart soul once quipped, “Comedy is watching tragedy from the wings.” And it’s true!

Laughter is binding in a way — it brings people together much like food does.

Unless it’s kale. That’s pretty divisive.

How does humor influence your work?

Cahill: People get a babysitter, get dressed up and leave the house only a few times a month, and I want to make it worth it for them. When playing a rock show, I use humor to make the event more than just about watching a band play songs. I want to engage the crowd and have them join us in an experience. Showing your personality and making them laugh between songs is a great way to do that.

Nelson: I have great fear and loathing of pretentiousness. I never want my poems to seem like I’m earning my sensitivity badge, or my sincere-speaker-of-truth sash, or my art-for-art’s-sake certificate.

So humor is a way for me to undercut my own tendencies toward those things. The trick, I think, is to balance humor with seriousness of intent. If humor’s only purpose is to be surprising, then it remains a small, negligible thing like a knock-knock joke. But if humor provides contrast or balance to a serious point, it’s an effective tool.

I kind of like the word “dramedy” to describe a TV show or movie as a combination of drama and comedy. I want my poems to be “poedy,” although that’s a dumb-sounding word.

Singh: I am often asked what I consider obvious questions about my works. For example, “Is that painting of you?” Isn’t all of a creative’s work an aspect of themself?

So, one thing I began doing was giving many of my images a beauty mark like mine. I mean they are all reflections of some part of me, so I think it is funny to identify them in this way with myself.

Additionally, I try to incorporate witty anecdotes. I think that humor is so much more than a laugh.

What is the funniest thing you’ve seen in Asheville in the last six months that has inspired you?

Cactus: My dude, local puppeteer Toybox [Keith Shubert] is a master. Watching him in the cartoon witch persona makes me feel like I’m 7 years old — especially when a piece of extra spicy improvisation cracks him up while trying to stay in character. To me, there’s nothing better than watching someone on stage trying not to laugh. It’s the best.

Cahill: I am a big fan of the ever-growing drag scene in Asheville. Some of the funniest stuff I have seen recently was at “Paint: A Drag Cabaret” at the Getaway River Bar.

Persephone Pickle is the creator/host of the regular show and is hysterical. They inspire me to be bold in what I do, to keep pushing the envelope with the crowd’s comfort zone and to trust that the people can handle it.

Nelson: I was walking my dog and noticed a big green trash bin in the middle of the street, the top still tightly strapped down to thwart bears. When I walked past, I saw that the bear had simply torn out the bottom of the bin and helped itself to the trash from that end. Funny. And inspiring. And already a draft in my notebook because it seems to illustrate something about the authority of nature over the cleverness of us human beings.

Singh: One of the funniest things in Asheville I’ve seen recently is the painting “Upside Down Circus” by Jennifer Kelting. It was just a memento of how very topsy-turvy life is, and it inspired me to work on an idea of multidimensional paintings on mirrors. A reminder to play, create and smile in my own voice!

White: That’s tough. I’m new here, and I’m still learning the culture and humor of my new town. But here are two good examples that I found completely inspiring: The Magnetic Theatre’s production of Midsummer for Haters and the Montford Park Players’ Much Ado About Nothing. Both shows played with gender and power in ways that challenged our expectations of material that was, otherwise, pretty familiar Shakespearean territory. Both plays were hilarious and both expressed a deep sense of love for reimagined characters as well as for us in the audience. I thought that was a pretty winning combination — hilarity and affection — because they let us know that anything is possible.



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About Thomas Calder
Thomas Calder received his MFA in Fiction from the University of Houston's Creative Writing Program. His writing has appeared in Gulf Coast, the Miracle Monocle, Juked and elsewhere. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is now available.

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