Art Spiegelman says he's not the kind of guy who spends a lot of time on YouTube. The Pulitzer Prize-winning comics artist behind the seminal Holocaust memoir "Maus" says he uses it mainly for listening to music.
"I don't keep up with the cat videos," he deadpans.
But Spiegelman is currently hooked on a YouTube video that depicts a vaudeville act from the 1930s. The four-minute short shows the performer known as A. Robins (born Adolph Proper) pulling out and playing with an increasingly absurd selection of props from beneath his oversized coat. These include a giant magnet, a cigar, a bar set (complete with cocktail shaker), a mandolin, a violin and a woman's dress.
"To me it's this entertainment that was surprising and uncategorizable," says Spiegelman over the phone from San Francisco. "Plus it's very contemporary to look at, too, with all the cross-dressing going on."
The idea of the uncategorizable is something that is obsessing Spiegelman these days. Currently, the artist is on an eight-city tour for a hybrid musical performance/comics lecture called "Wordless." Friday evening he will be on stage at UC Berkeley, up in the Bay Area. On Wednesday, he lands in Los Angeles, at UCLA's Royce Hall.
In an interview with the Jewish Journal, Spiegelman described his act as "intellectual vaudeville."
Certainly, "Wordless" is the sort of cultural happening that eludes easy classification. The performance is a collaboration with composer and saxophonist Phillip Johnston, and consists of Spiegelman doing a scripted presentation about early 20th century woodcut comics, while accompanied by musicians playing compositions inspired by the art. (See a trailer.)
This is not, however, just a simple lecture set to music.
"It's incredibly tight," Spiegelman says. "There are a lot of hairpin turns. It's all written out. And what's interesting about it is how it works like clockwork. Everything fits together."
"The sounds are all very tied to a specific page and a specific image," explains Spiegelman. "And they're not all the same sauce. Some are very melodramatic. Others are serious and topical. Some are very funny."
For the voluble Spiegelman, who often lectures about comics and their history, and generally improvises his statements, working with a defined script and a team of musicians has been a learning experience.
"It's much harder," he says. "It's so easy to blabber. If I make a mistake, I can just careen back and make up for it. But now, if I make a mistake, I'm taking three horns and a bass fiddle along. I have to be on my toes."
Which is why the vaudeville act on YouTube caught his eye.
"That's what I like about the A. Robins bit," explains Spiegelman. "He wasn't improvising in those four minutes. But surprising things keep happening. He has that part where he is playing a mandolin and then it turns into this Cubist reality where there are lots of mandolins. It looks really casual and effortless, but it's not."
Interestingly, "Wordless" got its start as a performance for the Sydney Opera House at the end of 2013.
"They called me and they said, 'Come be interviewed on stage,'" recalls Spiegelman. "And I said, 'I can be interviewed in bed. You have an opera house, let's use it.'"
So Spiegelman reached out to Johnston, a friend with whom he has collaborated in the past. The pair have worked on-and-off on an experimental opera called "Drawn to Death." Johnston, who lives in Sydney, Australia, was game to try something new. And the pair set about creating a fusion musical/spoken word/visual arts/comic book experience.
Spiegelman says it's been a joy: "To someone who is used to sitting in a cave by himself, it's really a pleasure to be working with other people."