MOCAtv’s Art + Comedy venture aims to leave ‘em laughing, artfully

Fred Armisen as Ian Rubbish plays a few songs at the premiere party for the launch of MOCA TV's comedy channel at the Museum of Contemporary Art.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

Jack Black is sitting on a ratty basement couch in his underwear. His fleshy belly spills over the elastic band, and he’s emanating a profoundly foul odor.

Performance artist Jibz Cameron, a.k.a. Dynasty Handbag, sits beside Black, relishing in the stink. In this superhero spoof, recently screened at Los Angeles’ Museum of Contemporary Art, Black plays uber-villain Unidentifiable Odor. Cameron is his dour sidekick, Buzz Kill. Like cranky kids, they sit slumped over with scowls across their faces, plotting ways to ruin a perfectly good dinner date that is unfolding at a nearby restaurant.

“Do you feel that?” Black says. “A couple in Pasadena got the ambience just right.”

“Pasadena? Not likely,” Cameron quips.

“Well, I don’t like it,” Black snarls. “Let’s do something about it.”

VIDEO: Highlights from MOCAtv


They bump fists in true evil-villain fashion and the couch, with them on it, zaps into the middle of the restaurant.

Enter: Ambiance Man, a metrosexual, flight-challenged superhero in renaissance garb who has taken it upon himself to make the world a more pleasant place — one scented candle at a time. Played by “Portlandia’s” Fred Armisen, Ambiance Man gently places a rose-tinted candle on the dining couple’s table and strikes a match.

“Look at how pretty that is,” Armisen coos. “OK, well, my ride’s here.” And with that, he shuffles off.

This sends a rumble of laughter through the theater audience watching the scene unfold. The event, packed and filled largely with artists, curators, museum donors and gallerists rather than Hollywood types, is the “world premiere” of “Ambiance Man,” a new Web series debuting on MOCAtv, the YouTube channel for contemporary art that the museum launched about a year ago. The show was conceived and directed by artist-filmmaker Alix Lambert, who previously co-created “CRIME: The Animated Series” for MOCAtv.

“These days you see such a resurgence of the superhero, and they’re generally these larger-than-life ‘let’s save the world’ characters,” Lambert says of the cheeky series she filmed at YouTube Space LA. “I feel like: ‘You know what I need help with? This terrible date or this horrible gas that’s happened at dinner.’”

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It seems MOCA, even with its leadership transitions and financial woes, has a sense of humor these days. “Ambiance Man” is part of MOCAtv’s new Art + Comedy programming initiative, spearheaded by Emma Reeves, the online channel’s creative director.

The Web channel, which now draws a global audience and has more than 150,000 subscribers, already shows a broad range of art-based programming, including interviews and short films to complement MOCA exhibitions, video art and even music videos. Comedy was always part of the long-term plan for MOCAtv, Reeves says, because it’s such a natural fit on YouTube.

On the new comedy strand, MOCAtv will show varied takes on the genre, from mini-docs by and about fine artists, comedians and performers, to sillier, original series.

Included in the programming lineup is a short documentary about Andy Kaufman narrated by artist-curator Jonathan Berger; a short film about New York-based multimedia artist-performer Alex Bag and “Unicorns and Rainbows,” the cable-access show she did with Patterson Beckwith from 1994 to ’97; a series of three, humorous video shorts by artist-performer Martin Kersels; and a film adaptation of the book by 2014 Whitney Biennial artist David Robbins, “Concrete Comedy: An Alternative History of Twentieth Century Comedy.”

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“We’re being a little bit provocative,” Reeves says. “We’re looking at art historical moments through the lens of MOCAtv, where we celebrate people who’ve been associated with comedic values but are still artists. Plus, we’re a YouTube channel, and comedy is such a natural and successful thing on YouTube. So it made sense.”

Art + Comedy is also an attempt by MOCA to cast its net as wide as possible and continue to broaden its audience, Reeves says. YouTube is traditionally young and comedy-centric, not to mention global. And comedy right now feels very much of the moment. Comedic shorts also provide vehicles for TV and film stars, who then draw in pop-culture fans.

“In some ways,” Reeves says, “a lot of these collaborations with [big-name comedians like] Jack Black and Fred Armisen mean we can find new audiences who might then find related artists like Martin Kersels and Dynasty Handbag.”

In addition, every new production the site creates — comedy and otherwise — physically draws in members of the local film community, including camera and sound crews, editors and animators, many of whom become museum members or at least start attending events, Reeves says.

“We’re constantly seeing people who have new relationships with MOCA, a connection through having worked with us,” she says.

A particular focus of MOCAtv’s comedy strand will be the intersection of comedy and fine art. Sculptor, videographer and performance artist Kersels, who has work in MOCA’s permanent collection and who is now director of sculpture at the Yale School of Art, was also a member of the performance troupe SHRIMPS. He stands 6-foot-6, is 350 pounds and is known for poking fun at his own largeness. Kersels’ three short MOCAtv videos make up the short film “XXXXXXXXO.” It depicts a petite dancer, a slender drummer and Kersels, each taking turns wearing the artist’s roomy clothing.

Watching the wisp-thin young women dance or play drums while seemingly drowning in folds of fabric is as much a visual sight gag as it is a serious statement about body image and being comfortable in one’s own skin. That sort of thematic duality — a collision of humor and fine art — is extremely powerful, Kersels explains.

“People look at art and they want to be challenged in a serious way,” Kersels says. “But humor is a challenge to one’s own sense of right and wrong: Where is that line between a violation that is benign or where it is aggressive or hurtful? Ideas of identity, ethnicity, nationality, body, gender — these topics are very present within our culture. Humor challenges what we feel about those things.”

Buzz Kill’s Cameron has always walked that comedic-art line in her career as a video and performance artist, she says. Her work has been shown at New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art, MOMA PS1 as well as MOCA and beyond. In October she performed in the music-comedy Festival Supreme, curated by Tenacious D at the Santa Monica Pier. Cameron says she often finds it easier to perform comedy for the art world: “People are just so relieved to be able to laugh.”

Performing comedy in the art world, she says, also gives her a distinct niche.

“Under the art canopy, people view my stuff with a kind of cultural criticism that’s a little different than how they view [straight] comedy. They’re not like: ‘Is it funny or not?’ They’re like: ‘Hmm, it’s funny, but does it address certain binary constructs of contemporary patriarchy?’” she jokes. “I think about what my career would look like if I’d gone the straight route instead of being carried by the art world. I think I’d be more successful — but not as sophisticated!”

“Ambiance Man” director Lambert says more episodes of the series are in the works as well as a fictitious Twitter feed, voicing character rants and musings written by actor-comedian Damian Baldet.

This sort of ongoing experimentation, Reeves says, is key not just to the new Art + Comedy programming but to MOCAtv itself.

“It’s really important for us to reach audiences who wouldn’t normally come to the channel if it was strictly about the exhibitions at the museum,” Reeves says. “So we’re blurring through to other areas because there’s a natural confluence. It’s important to investigate art and music, art and comedy, all of it, but to do it through the lens of MOCA.”