The Week in Comedy: Stand-up comics lead art gallery tours for Fancy Meeting You Here
Thursday, 1 May 2014
It is 4pm on Saturday and our guide at the Tate Modern has just dismissed a stainless steel sculpture as “the leftovers from last night’s dinner party”, spent five minutes talking about a fire door as if it were a piece of conceptual art, and finally told his group to go to Tate Britain. “They have proper paintings there.” If it wasn’t already abundantly clear from his Ray-Bans and offhand manner, he is no ordinary guide, and this is no ordinary Tate tour.
Rather he is the comedian Harry Deansway and this is Fancy Meeting You Here, a pop-up tour of the gallery led by stand-ups. Josie Long is on the second floor in a room of Russian revolutionary art, battling a hangover, swearing loudly and, confusingly, talking about Joseph Wright of Derby. Meanwhile Tom Meeten is leading a group on a merry dance around the empty Turbine Hall, talking entirely in gibberish. Maeve Higgins is standing on a wall outside the café riffing on Tate cake.
The afternoon is the brainchild of two American stand-ups, Dave Hill and Carl Arnheiter who staged their first comedy heist at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2009. They had been looking for a venue for a new stand-up night but could not find a back room they liked. Instead, they hit upon the idea of a walking tour, that would start in Washington Square Park, say, “bump into” various stand-ups along the way and end up in a Greenwich Village bar. To test out the walkabout concept, they started at the Met. “Because it’s a controlled environment with several floors, is open late on Fridays and has a rooftop bar”, explains Arnheiter.
It turned out that the Met offered far more than a controlled environment; indeed, that there was something inherently funny about letting comedians loose in the hallowed halls of a museum. The mix of the usual hushed respect for art and the boisterous irreverence of a stand-up set is an explosively silly one. The paintings and sculptures, meanwhile, offer a uniquely dramatic and inspiring backdrop. “We always like to say we’re the only comedy show that takes place on a $350million stage”, says Arnheiter. Since 2009, they have played the Met tens of times, museums in San Francisco and this week the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and Stockholm’s Moderna Museet.
In the UK they have played the National Gallery and the British Museum before last Saturday’s debut at Tate Modern. It was a popular choice. Over 200 people signed up (all shows are free; the only cost is museum entrance, if applicable) via the website and had to be split into somewhat chaotic groups. Usually Hill and Arnheiter lead one group, dropping them off with local “guides” or stand-ups along the way. “The only thing we ask of them is that they do not do their regular set”, says Arnheiter.
Tate Modern, it turned out, was particularly ripe for ribbing. Standing in front of a wall of Dan Flavin neons, Hill announced, “These are on loan from the Tate giftshop.” Later he rushed the group through a hall of cubist masterpieces with the pithy assessment, “Everything in this room is bullshit!” It turned a few heads, but that is part of the subversive joy for audiences. Event exhibitions like those at the Hayward by Antony Gormley and, most recently, Martin Creed can be fun but it’s rare to hear belly laughs in a gallery.
Not everyone sees the funny side. Some join the tour by accident and are unimpressed. On Saturday, Long had a contretemps with a security guard who didn’t understand why she was swearing at her group. “We always tell galleries that we want to do a tour,” says Arnheiter. “We don’t necessarily tell them we’re comedians.”
Now back at the Met for the summer, they plan a return to London soon. In the meantime, they are working on a podcast guide for museums they have yet to infiltrate – like The Louvre. “They would never let us in in a million years”, says Arnheiter.
To read this review on The Independent’s website, click here.