Last week Kanye West dropped a promotional video for his Yeezus album in the form of a (comedic?) tribute to the film American Psycho. The clip is a near mirror image of the unforgettable scene in which Christian Bale axes Jared Leto after torturing him with a pedantic speech about the genius of Huey Lewis and the News -- except in this parody we have handsome assholes Scott Disick, of Kardashian fame, in the role of killer, and Jonathan Cheban as bleeding victim. The script was adapted by none other than Psycho author Bret Easton Ellis, with the long-winded monologue switched from Huey Lewis to Mr. Yeezy himself.
There are a number of things Kanye West could be trying to "say" with this video, but none of that really matters. Like almost all of West's songs and Ellis's books, I think it's hilarious. Even if there was no joke intended.
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With any piece of art, perception always trumps intention. Whether you're reading Allen Ginsberg's surreal description of people "who ate fire in paint hotels" or hearing Bob Dylan simply and directly stating that "everybody must get stoned," you're always free to take these things in any direction you want, regardless of the creators' intention. Art itself may be static, but the absorption of art will always be subjective. And this is never more true than with comedy.
A few weeks ago I was watching local comic Jim Hickox perform a marijuana-themed after-hours gig at a Sexy Pizza location; it was late enough that the owners allowed anyone to haul in their bongs, pipes and vaporizers and smoke themselves stupid while watching standup comedy. It was a fun novelty, but didn't make for the most alert and receptive crowd. "Sometimes I like to go into a restaurant, put down a reservation under the name Bueller, then leave and never come back," Hickox said to the blitzed crowd. This was followed by a good ten seconds of silence when no one laughed. But then I couldn't take it anymore and exploded with laughter, thinking how hilarious it was that everyone in this room was so transcendently high that they couldn't follow a complex joke about Ferris Bueller's Day Off.
Unless Hickox was up to some mind-bending Andy Kaufman shit, that probably wasn't his intention. And while it wasn't him or even the crowd I was laughing at, I was still laughing.
Hip-hop aficionados often chastise me when I say that Kanye West's public persona is one of the greatest jokes played on the American public in modern times. "He's not being funny," they tell me. "He really believes these things he says about himself." They explain that he's serious when he says he's a genius, that he should be in the bible, or that Kim Kardashian is a worthwhile human being. To me, this is no different than when Oasis said they were better than The Beatles. Whether it was their intention or not, it's still funny. And if I have to explain to you why it's funny, you probably wouldn't laugh.
Both American Psycho the book and the film were experienced in all sorts of directions. Simon & Schuster was so grossed out by the original manuscript it dropped the book shortly before its publication date. When Vintage Books put it out, Gloria Steinem rallied against its violence toward women (fun fact: she's Christian Bale's stepmom!), while critics saw the torture and murder of prostitutes as a metaphorical commentary on 1980s greed leading to a spiritual darkness. Few people talked about how funny the book or the movie were.
It's probably no coincidence that the funniest scene in the movie is the same one that Kanye West (and, several months earlier, Weird Al and Huey Lewis) chose to mimic. It's possible that the creators of this Yeezus promo understood the humor of the scene, since Scott Disick puts on this god-awful Screech-like cartoon voice in his portrayal of the inhuman Patrick Batemen (though it should be noted that he does have a surprising physical presence when it comes to the darkness of the character).
It's possible that even the seemingly humorless Kanye West intended the clip to be one big joke. Or perhaps he was using his and Disick's alignment with the character as a self-effacing commentary on their shared celebrity, anger problems and unapologetic narcissism as a vehicle for addressing the futility of consumerism and the deficit of empathy that it leads to.
Though my guess is probably not. I assume that West has the same one-dimensional view of Patrick Batemen that many hip-hop artists have when they glorify Scarface's Tony Montana: a badass who is so powerful he can get away with the most egregious behavior. At least that's the way I'm choosing to interpret this video, mostly because it makes sense and it makes me laugh.
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Maybe I have it wrong and West is being both thoughtful and playful with this Yeezus promo. Or maybe those hip-hop experts are wrong and he really is a Kaufman-like comedy genius who uses his persona as a post-modern joke on American celebrity. It doesn't matter. Comedians are quick to use the phrase "funny is funny" when answering these types of questions, implying that humor is static and universal. But that's simply not true. Humor is always in the belly of the beholder -- and sometimes it's delivered by a serious person wielding an axe.
For more comedy commentary, follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.