What’s So Funny?

Aaron Siegel

Jason Cady and I have been working together at Experiments in Opera for the last 5 years, and have known each other for several years longer. We talk all the time off the record about what makes our music work and I have always been impressed and slightly intimidated by the intensity with which Jason believes in things, music, books, art, just about everything. I had the idea to interview him because I was interested in getting to the bottom or at least somewhere inside his mind and, on the record, sharing it with others.

AS: I think humor actually sort of thrives on the edge of nicety and truth, and that good humor balances the desire to poke fun at things and raise truths in a light that might reveal how silly it is or how ridiculous it is. Like, absurdity, basically. So, how would you describe the way that your work is funny?

JC: Well I guess when I think of a story, I try to start from a premise that could be humorous. So it’s not something as simple as just a broad idea of parody or something like that. So I, when I am developing a story, I first think of a premise that could be funny. Like, what if there was a monologue by a guy who didn’t realize that he was a zombie? And so that’s just a starting point. And then throughout it, there can be various jokes, but a lot of the jokes, for it to be natural, will just derive from the premise. Like in that example, he doesn’t know why his friends and family are fleeing from him. And again, that’s just funny because that’s going right back to the premise. But then, there can also be, at different places, unrelated jokes. You don’t want things to become too jokey. It’s usually better to focus a little bit more on the story and have the humor develop naturally. Humor in opera is a little bit easier, because the voices are funny to begin with, and then for some reason, people associate that type of voice with seriousness.

AS: You mean an operatic, vibrato voice?

JC: Yeah. People associate the operatic, the traditional operatic voice with gravitas. As well as they associate it with the past, and with the Italian language, and a certain kind of elitism. So if you have something in current American vernacular, and a certain amount of pop culture references and silliness to it, that juxtaposed with the voice kind of preps the listener for humor.

AS: Yes.

JC: So it makes it slightly easier. A good example would be Nick Hallett’s piece, [To Music]. We were talking with him about it, and he was saying he was surprised by how much laughter it got. And it was definitely funnier when we saw it performed than when we did the libretto reading of it.

AS: Even as you make work that is meant to make people laugh, one of the things I am struck about is that you’re kind of a deep thinker. You are sort of trying to tackle serious things. And most funny things are, at their roots. For instance, that example you just gave, about the guy who doesn’t know he’s a zombie. I mean, somewhere in there is a story about an artist, or a closeted homosexual, who just can’t have any perspective on themselves who doesn’t know that they’re an asshole to everyone. Someone who doesn’t realize they’re making themselves crazy by trying to pretend to be straight when they’re gay, that we fool ourselves as human beings. I was struck with the most recent piece, The Captives, by how it felt to me like kind of a representation of a conversation that many couples have about whether to have children. And what are the pros, and what are the cons, and what are the arguments about the impact on society and the environment, and whether it’s morally acceptable to actually have children, or not. So there’s some heaviness there. And I guess I just wonder how you would talk about the urge make light of those situations, and how that dominates the urge to spell those out as melodramatic, or as drama. What does that conversation look like? Is it even a conversation? Or is it just always, “This is funny.”

JC: Since you mentioned The Captives, to use that as an example, I started out with the premise that the human race was going extinct, and that alien scientists were doing a captive breeding program to try to bring the human race back, and they pair up a man and a woman, and the woman is not interested in sleeping with the man. That seemed like a funny premise to me. And in my first draft, I was going for total silliness, and I had the guy just be an absolute creep. He’s delivering these cheap pickup lines. And it was funny to me because if you’re one of the last men, why do you need these dumb pickup lines? But that joke didn’t sustain itself for very long. I wrote about two pages, and then I thought, where am I going to go with this? How is this going to become a twenty-minute piece? And then I also did a certain amount of research on the piece. I read some books about extinction and about ecology, and then watched a few documentaries about the AIDS crisis, and then I started thinking, well, maybe this isn’t a comedy at all. Maybe this is a totally serious piece. And then I had a draft that was almost no humor at all. And then later, after sitting on it for a while, I brought back a certain amount of comedy to it.

AS: How do you decide whether to play something straight or play it for laughs?

JC: Well, you know, I like to read a lot. And it’s always exciting to me if I find a novel or a book of short stories that’s actually funny. And what I mean by that is, on one hand there are certain literary books that some people will claim that are funny but simply aren’t. They may be interesting, but you’re not actually going to laugh when you’re reading it. and then there’s also some books that are kind of low brow, and it’s like, “Okay, maybe this would be funny to a twelve year old.” You know? But it’s really hard finding fiction books that are smart and actually really funny. So I get really excited when I find those. To me, as an artist, it’s nice to develop all of your interests and on the most basic level, your cultural context should be represented in some kind of way in your work. I mean, in other words, if you are living in New York in 2015, your music shouldn’t sound like it’s coming from Vienna in the eighteenth or nineteenth century, or the twentieth century for that matter. I mean, there’s something really wrong and bizarre about that.

And then, separate from that, there’s also all your more personal idiosyncrasies. Like for example, you had your stamp-collecting piece. And I don’t know how interested you actually are in stamp collecting, but to any extent that you are, why not make a piece about that? You know? I think sometimes people that have been a little bit too influenced by schooling, they get an idea of what’s appropriate in art, or what their teachers would respect, and then that’s what they focus on. And it comes out being dull and dishonest. I do have an interest in comedy, and I mean, obviously probably most people appreciate comedy on some level. And I’m not the biggest fan boy of comedy, but I’m certainly more than the average.

AS: That makes me think about something else that I wanted to ask you about, which was a question about how you write, and where you draw your writing from. And you just sort of talked about it a little bit in terms of wanting the things that happen in your life to be a part of your art. For instance, there is a number of, I would say, doltish sexually-frustrated men in your operas. Guys who stereotypically are very hungry for sex, and are sort of idiots about actually talking to and engaging in anything that might actually lead to sex at some point. They’re just sort of clueless about it. I’m thinking about I Need Space. I’m thinking about Nostalgia Kills. I’m thinking about The Captives. And I don’t have any sense that that’s particularly how you feel about yourself, in terms of your relationship to your wife?

JC: It’s actually not at all autobiographic. I’ve had a certain amount of sexual frustration or disappointment, like anyone. But if anything, maybe less than average. I have no complaints about that aspect of my life, currently or even in adolescence and young adulthood. So, partly what it has to do with is one of the rules of comedy is that you should afflict the comfortable, and comfort the afflicted. So in other words, you have the banker slip on a banana peel and fall, not the guy that just lost his job. In most cases, depending on the context that’s what you’re supposed to do. So if there’s going to be a story about a man and a woman, and bad things are going to happen to one of them, it’s a little easier to make it be the man.

AS: Cause he naturally has the upper hand, upper advantage in terms of power…

JC: Yeah. Which is not to say that I’m actually making a feminist statement with these. But some of these scenarios, if you reversed them, it starts to become potentially less funny. So it really just has more to do with the dynamics of comedy and storytelling than anything else.

AS: Coming out of the notion of your work and what’s important to you, we have talked a little bit about comedy and conventions around comedy, storytelling, around your interests in aesthetics and style. When you actually get into the concert hall or the theatre, and the work is happening, and people are listening, how do you imagine them listening? What are they listening for?

JC: I don’t know. I don’t think I have any kind of idea for how they should listen. I mean, I don’t know how I listen. Maybe I don’t understand the question.

AS: Well, maybe we’ll start there then. When you go to a concert how do you listen? What are you looking for?

JC: Well, I guess I can say one thing is that the majority of my listening is passive. I listen to music constantly, and since I’m listening to it constantly, then that means that I’m not one of those weirdoes that just sits in a chair and listens to music and focuses on it, or follows it with a score or something like that. I mean, there are occasionally times to do that, but I mean, I’ve heard people say things like, “Oh, I don’t have enough time to listen to music.” And I’m like, “What are you talking about? Do you wash the fucking dishes?” “Do you get dressed in the morning?” Put some music on! That’s the weirdest thing. I mean, that to me is the sign of not someone that likes music, but someone who thinks that music is a chore or something. So, not that I’m saying I want people to listen to my music passively, but I mean, on one hand, I prefer recordings over live performance. I would much rather just make recordings, rather than do performances. I would be the second half of the Beatles and not the first half. And of course, the second half of the Beatles, their contribution to civilization was much greater than the first half of the Beatles. And all we have left of the first half of the Beatles is the recordings that they did make at that time. And all those stupid concerts with screaming fans are not as important.

AS: So the lesson is, no screaming fans at your next concert.

JC: No. Actually, well, okay. Here’s one thing, is that I actually hate: the uptight formality of classical music concerts where people aren’t supposed to applaud until the end. And of course, the opera world is a little bit less uptight with that. You know, people will applaud after an aria if they think it’s good, even though it’s in the middle of the piece and there’s actually still music happening. I think that’s great. And, I find that opera audiences are more sincere about that than jazz audiences. I hate the kind of polite applause after solos in jazz, where you can tell that close to a hundred percent of the audience is just applauding out of politeness and not, a spontaneous thing like they were actually blown away by that solo. But in opera, it kind of seems like, if you go to an opera, on some nights, there might not be any applause after arias. But there definitely will be some applause after certain ones. But not after every single one. I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed that. And if that were to happen, it probably would be because it is actually a stellar performance, or some kind of magic is happening, and not out of obligation. But anyways, what I hate is this idea that you have to sit in utter silence, until the end, and even then, you have to wait for like ten seconds of silence before you can actually start to applaud. I would like the audience to applaud the moment the music ends. And if they applaud at various points in the middle, even better.

AS: That’s what you want them to do.

JC: Exactly. And hearing them laugh during it, that’s also very satisfying. You know, the first concerts I went to were punk shows. And in a lot of those, there was as much happening in the audience as there was on stage. And then, as an adult, going to churches to hear gospel music, Pentecostal churches, again, there was as much going on in the congregation as there was from the band. And that’s the kind of thing that I like. I don’t like some kind of quiet polite audience and then, of course getting back to opera, we all know that historically they were not quiet and respectful in the past. They were playing cards and doing all sorts of things.

AS: As an artist, as someone who is choosing what to write about, how to write about it, how to present it, imagining how people might respond to it, do you think it’s more important to say things that you’re sure about, or are you more interested in people walking away with a sense of question or scratching their head?

JC: Well, I don’t really think that anybody is going to learn something from a piece of art. And that doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be art that’s politically engaged.

AS: So you’ve never learned something from a piece of art?

JC: Only about art making.

AS: So, you’re talking about work that’s basically about revealing the art making process, or something about the artist, but not necessarily like about, like overpopulation.

JC: Right, right. Yeah, yeah.

AS: I mean, using The Captives as an example, and coming back to that piece, I felt like I came out of that, and thought, “Wow. Maybe I had children for the wrong reason.”

JC: [Laughing].

AS: Which is not how I felt, but you’re talking about real things that have consequences on people who are observing your work.

JC: Yeah. Yeah. I guess I said that I don’t think you learn anything from art. But it can be, it can be provocative, certainly. Yeah.

AS: So in that instance, is it more important that people take away how you feel about reproduction? Or is it more important that people just think more deeply about their own relationship to an issue?

JC: It depends on the particular piece and the particular viewpoint. I mean, I’m certainly opposed to the idea of art as propaganda. Yet, on the other hand, I often classify people’s work as either supporting the status quo or not supporting the status quo. And I am turned off by the work that supports the status quo. So this was the question about what people are supposed to go away thinking. I don’t believe that art should be propaganda. On the other hand, I think that it’s the duty of art to not support the status quo. So those two notions are slightly contradictory, except that it’s not that I think someone should have this work that’s like perfectly socialist and feminist and egalitarian and whatnot and the piece just clearly conveys that and nothing else. But you know, our values are kind of tacitly expressed in our work whether we want it or not. And there’s no getting around it. But you know, I think in general this is also responding to conversations we’ve had before, where you have said before that you like questions more than answers. And I’m the opposite. I like answers more than questions. Because I think that you just, you have to put it out there, and then people can agree, disagree, or go in numerable different paths. But I do think it is good to have a clear strong statement. But again, I don’t ever want it to be as propaganda.

AS: Yeah.

JC: I mean, I’m not going to write a Bernie Sanders for President opera. Although maybe someone ought to! He needs whatever help he can get.

AS: I want to talk a little bit, about sort of a sense of morality. I consider you someone who is very moral. I don’t think that you would steal from anyone. You wouldn’t do anything in private that you wouldn’t do in front of other people which I kind see as the definition of morality. How do you respond to that sort of understanding of you, and also what part does that play in your understanding of your identify of yourself as an artist?

JC: Well, there was that Plato idea that everyone would behave morally if they knew what the moral thing was to do. I think there’s a certain amount of truth to that. Not in terms of everybody, but I think most people try to be moral most of the time, but sometimes, in real life, it can be complicated. It can be hard to figure out what the moral thing is. You know, there are definitely clear cut examples: invading Iraq under false pretexts, that’s unambiguously immoral. But in terms of day to day relationships, sometimes it’s confusing. And we always think that we’re the good guy. It’s really hard to not think of ourselves that way. But how that relates to the work, I guess that partly goes back to what I was saying before about our values are always reflected in our work, and that some work supports the status quo and some does not. But that’s slightly different from morals.

AS: I’m just wondering how much you think about having a responsibility to be moral in your work.

JC: Well, yes and no. Yes, going back to what I just said before about the work not supporting the status quo. But then no in the sense that I very much believe in art being about fun. And that doesn’t happen if an artist tries to be too moralistic. Here’s an example: Fidelio. Beethoven was just a little too moralistic. And he thought that Cosi fan Tutte should never be performed. He thought it was immoral. So I’m a little bit more of the Mozart and Da Ponte side, and not at all of the Beethoven side, but only if we’re talking about eighteenth century opera. We don’t agree with a lot of those values anymore. You know, that’s a good example of what I was saying before, about why I have the bad things happening to the male characters in my operas. You know, like Cosi fan Tutte, it kind of makes everybody look bad, but especially the women. And that’s one way that the piece is still good today, but it’s a little bit funny in that way.

AS: Sure.

JC: Wait but sorry, say what you just said.

AS: Well, no, no, no. Go on. I mean, I think it’s interesting that you’re saying that, because I think that the politics of opera are really complex, and we’ve talked a little bit about the fact that opera is traditionally a format in which women are treated poorly. And usually they are done so in a very serious way. I’m thinking about like, Lulu, right? Like the ladies don’t make out so well in that one. Or they’re not portrayed as functional members of society. They’re portrayed as hysterical. So, where is the artist’s responsibility in these circumstances, in terms of how they’re portraying the characters, and how they’re giving the audiences opportunities to engage with and relate to the characters.

JC: That has to do with the craft of storytelling. You have an idea, and you have to figure out how to convey it. If you have a story that needs a hysterical character, maybe that character isn’t going to be a woman. It’s as simple as that. But again, it’s not that you want to be too bogged down on righteousness. But also you don’t want to just be reinforcing old stereotypes. That’s not interesting. I mean, both things are not interesting. If you get too much old stereotypes, that’s not good art. But also if you’re trying to be a little too heavy handed with your message that’s also not good art either. I guess that goes back to craft.

AS: Yeah. And also a balance between comedy and drama, or understanding conventions in that way.

JC: That’s interesting that you said comedy, because that’s where you can express certain values, but if you’re willing to laugh at yourself a little bit, then you can take things down a notch, just enough that it will not be heavy handed. People that are really good with political satire are generally the people that are not going to run for office. Except for Al Franken.