Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

03 October 2012

Interview #4: Justin Abarca

It's been a while since I did an artist interview, but my friend, comedian, improvisor, actor, and writer Justin Abarca, and I both had a great time discussing comedy, art, and inspiration for Tea to Pour's fourth artist interview.

ACT: I think of you primarily as a comedian, although you are a talented actor as well as a designer, but this interview series is really a series about art, so I thought I might begin by asking how you see comedy and art as linked. Is comedy an art?

JA: Most definitely comedy is an art. Aristophanes? Ever heard of him? (pats himself on back for remembering something from college) What is comedy, though? I think it is something intentional to make another person laugh/think. I say think because you'll often watch or hear something and say That's funny without laughing, but it has made you think in a certain way. I also say intentional because that's what makes it work, and art is work. That is why comedy comes in so many forms, from stand-up to cartoon strips to movies, TV, etc. Yet, like all art, there are tiers of it. Arrested Development is a masterpiece, According to Jim not so much.

Tell me about art as work. You stressed the importance of that, but what do you mean by art is work?

Like any field or profession, the only way one gets better is to work at it. People think that artists are born artists, that they are brought into this world with their skills already honed. While that may be true of talent, it doesn't necessarily mean that success is around the corner. How many super-talented people do we know that did nothing with said talent? That's what I mean by art is work. It's why mediocre talent can rise to success, which is what I'm hoping for.

Do you think of the effect of laughter as, perhaps, something akin to the sublimity an audience might get from a great piece of theatre or a great painting? Am I going too far?

You're not going far enough. All great plays have moments of levity. People still love the Mona Lisa because of its enigmatic quality, its cleverness, her "smile". I am not a stand-up, but I can see how certain shows would be cathartic to an audience. Someone on stage saying the things they wish they could and being funny about it, making them feel at ease and not alone.

How does the labor of invention function for you? Are you always simply coming up with ideas for things?

I wish it were that simple. Here's my writing process:

Step 1 - Wake up.
Step 2 - No, really, wake up.
Step 3 - Facebook.
Step 4 - Coffee.
Step 5 - Open script.
Step 6 - Check what's up with Miley and Lindsey.
Step 7 - Eat.
Step 8 - Try to focus on an idea.
Step 9 - Miley nip slip?
Step 10- Decide that today is a wash and start again tomorrow.
Step 11- Awake in the middle of the night with a brilliant idea; promptly forget it.
Step 12- Repeat the next day.

But you have spent many years as an improviser, so part of your entire comedic repertoire is forgotten in the middle of the night – even designed as such – right? How does improvisation (as a form and as a theoretical model) inform your work?

Not being a trained writer, I am basically making all this up as I go along. I don't have an English degree; I've never taken a screenwriting class. I am horrible about outlining a story and barely remember the three-act structure from the one directing class I took in college. What I can draw on is my years of experience as an improvisor. So when I start to write a script or story outline I just... well, write. I improvise the entire thing from beginning to end, surprising myself on where the story is going just like in improv. Callbacks naturally happen, characters and themes weave in and out, and in the end something resembling a script is formed. If I tried to do it the "classic" way I'd be screwed; my brain doesn't think that way.

Let's talk about popular culture and creativity for a bit. This is not new, but a lot of comedy (and art in general) uses punchlines that twist things we already know very well in our culture into something else – essentially puns. I see hipster culture as an extended, endless series of puns (which I sort of love). What are your thoughts on this self-referential quality that is so popular?

Does it give me a ton of glee that this happens? No. Most people lack that certain x-factor to really affect anyone; you don't have to be Sherlock to see that. As our modern families grow we may need bigger houses in bigger communities, but that's life. Cereal. Serial Killers. The Killers. Mr. Brightside? Side of bacon. Kevin Bacon.

I guess I asked for that. Perhaps comedy itself is made to be sort of ephemeral?

Yes and no. The heart of a good joke can last forever even if the context changes. However, if the joke or premise is all context, it's pretty much dead on arrival (I'm looking at you Scary Movie franchise).

Is there anything that is off-limits? Anything you won't joke about? Do you have a philosophy about this?

There is nothing I won't joke about given the context. I'm not going to write off-colored jokes for a kids' show or tell the old lady in the checkout line my hilarious observations about the Kardashians' beautiful, bulbous butts. That's why I have you, my gay, gay friend.

But are certain jokes not good for certain people simply because they won't create pleasure? I mean, isn't that comedy's whole purpose?

I don't think that comedy's main purpose is pleasure. Ideally, without sounding too pedantic, it should reflect the human condition. The best stand-ups and the best comedy writers make us look at ourselves, warts and all. The "pleasure" you speak of, I feel, is the realization that when something makes you laugh you know you are not alone.

So do you primarily consider yourself a writer now?

Yes. Or as e.e. cummings would say:



You can check out some of Justin's writing and acting by visiting the website of The Clubhouse of Dickheads, or you can watch episodes of Hulu's original comedy series Battleground (which is excellent), and you can follow Justin on tumblr.