Trapped and forever stuck with people who annoy you. Trying to entertain one’s self, it’s futile. Never learning a lesson. Repetition. Mundanity. Futility. Guns and poo jokes. These are common elements in much of the content on Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, the network’s popular late-night programming that features both cartoon and real-action sketch comedy. They are also basic elements of Samuel Beckett’s work. And while irritation with idiots around you, stupidity and poo jokes have been staples of comedy for years, it is specifically by examining ennui and using absurdity as tool to comment on the human condition that Beckett has influenced modern comedy. This can be seen in shows like Aquateen Hunger Force, Squidbillies, Mighty Boosh, Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! and one of its newest shows, The Eric Andre Show.
Beckett played a major role in the Theater of the Absurd, a movement that consisted of playwrights who fundamentally believed in and depicted the fact that human existence has no meaning or purpose, thus all communication breaks down. Miscommunication is a fundamental driving force in drama and comedy, but it is by escalating the circumstances to absurd levels, both metaphysical and cartoonish, that this meaninglessness can best be expressed.
Waiting for Godot was first produced in 1953, and its effects reverberate in comedy today. In a 1956 New York Times review, Brooks Atkinson described Godot as “a mystery wrapped in an enigma” and an “acrid cartoon of the story of mankind.” He also said that it conveys “the impression of some melancholy truths about the hopeless destiny of the human race,” and that it was an “uneventful, maundering, loquacious drama.” The basic plot—if you can call it a plot—is that Vladimir and Estragon are waiting for Godot, who never comes. During the time, they attempt to alleviate their boredom by doing things like contemplating hanging themselves, which they think will give them erections, but they never actually accomplish anything, and they remain riddled with ennui.
Estragon: What about hanging ourselves?
Vladimir: Hmm. It'd give us an erection.
Estragon: (highly excited). An erection!
Vladimir: With all that follows. Where it falls mandrakes grow. That's why they shriek when you pull them up. Did you not know that?
Estragon: Let's hang ourselves immediately!
The dialogue is full of nonsequitters and pointless banter, and there is no resolution or character arcs.
The absurdity in this situation arises from their desperate attempts to find fulfillment in a landscape filled with nothing, their only hope being Godot, who never comes. Charm characters Pozzo, a high-status land barren, and Lucky, his slave who has a gaping goiter and wears a rope around his neck as he pulls Pozzo along, bring comic relief in their absurd interactions. Lucky’s enslavement results in physical comedy, constantly dropping his loads, trying to fall asleep and die on the ground, etc. In fact, every character wants to die but is too lazy or gets easily distracted, “We’ll hang ourselves tomorrow, unless Godot comes,” says Vladimir, who then reminds Estragon to pull up his trousers. Beckett’s point seems to be that death will not relieve meaninglessness because that is all there is.
Some might think that the mere endeavor in trying to find meaning in Godot is futile in itself — but not everyone embraces the meaninglessness-as-meaning in Godot. Chris Aurilio, a director at the People’s Improv Theater and sketch performer said:
What I like about Beckett is that in the end of Waiting for Godot, we find out that they had each other. We have each other here on this rock where we're waiting for something to happen or for answers. Vladimir and Estragon can be compared to Aquateen Hunger Force’s Shake and Frylock or the Squidbillies or even some of the terrible creatures that Tim and Eric play…The existential loneliness/we have each other message I take from Godot, and apply it to these freakshows you and I love.
Being alone, stuck in a meaningless situation, and having no one else but a connection to another person — which most likely proves your existence — are rampant themes in Beckett. In Molloy, he says, “In me there have always been two fools, among others, one asking nothing better than to stay where he is and the other imagining that life might be slightly less horrible a little further on.”
Beckett’s influence on comedy has not gone unnoticed. For example, Seinfeld, the show about nothing, has been ubiquitously described as Beckettish, as well as Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David’s show. In fact, Larry David quotes the The Unnamable, the last in the trilogy that began with Malloy. “Can’t go on, must go on,” he says mockingly, following a funeral for his wife’s aunt, who’s just committed suicide. He’s trapped there by obligations for a woman he doesn’t care about and all and is waiting to leave so he can go golfing.
While Seinfeld and Curbed emphasize the ridiculousness of the mundane, it is only with cartoons, and using extreme forms of the surreal landscapes that were hinted at in Beckett can one bring out the absurdity and futility of existence, as exemplified on Adult Swim.
Here are some other examples of Beckett’s use of absurdity: In Endgame, Hamm, unable to stand, and Cov, unable to sit, are stuck in a room with two windows. They are accompanied by Nagg and Nell, Hamm’s parents, legless ghost-like creatures who live in garbage cans and are kept as pets, sitting in sawdust. These characters are also waiting to die. In Happy Days, Winnie is up to her waist in a mound, fiddling with quotidian objects and giving a rambling monologue about them — although her revolver does fall out a few times, but she misses her chance to use it because she is convinced she is happy. Her husband Willie crawls invisibly around her on all fours, occasionally popping in with lewd punch lines from the paper he’s reading — in the second act she’s covered up to her head and immobile, and her husband tries to kill her but can’t, and she is annoyed that he doesn’t even try to dig her out.
Although Beckett never explicitly says what the mound consists of, given his propensity for poo jokes, that probably makes the most sense. Author Gary Indiana announced in a lecture on dystopia, “Come on. It’s shit. She’s buried in shit. Everyone knows it.”
Fantastical figures, exaggerated stage directions, and poo jokes, are especially present in Adult Swim programming because cartoons and surreal sketch are a perfect medium with which to convey the absurdity of existence. In Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie, the movie inspired by their TV show, Eric undergoes a cleansing by the “Shrim Gods,” and he’s placed in a bathtub where children continually defecate onto him, filling the tub until his head goes under and he’s clean again, thus reflecting Beckett’s theme of nothingness — that there is no salvation or anything beyond shitty life. As a result of this nothingness, Beckett’s characters don’t have story arcs. They are usually trapped by their surroundings, and burdened by the void of existence, they perpetually go through the same actions and make the same mistakes, just like cartoonish figures.
But perhaps even more poignantly, Squidbillies follows around a family of anthropomorphic redneck squid. The introduction to the show reflects the sense of stagnancy and boredom that is so often represented in Beckett. In it, Early, the patriarch of the family seems to be driving, but as the shot pulls out, we see he’s riding in a broken car that’s on cinderblocks while his son Rusty bounces it up and down to give him the illusion that he’s going somewhere. One anecdote that shows Beckett’s sense of repetition of existence occurs in the episode “The Liar, the Bitch and the Boredrube.” Early explains the tattoo he got for his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Krystal. Originally the tattoo on his tentacle said, “Krystal forever,” but after he finds her cheating on him, he changes it to “Krystal Whore ever.” They get back together and he changes it to “Krystal Whore? Never.” She cheats on him again and it goes to “Krystal Whore, Never gonna tear my heart out again!” Eventually the tattoo gets so big that it fills up several paragraphs on his legs, so the next time she cheats on him, he cuts off his legs.
The warped sense of time — the perpetual waiting for something to happen, forgetting about the past, being bored in the future, waiting for a tomorrow that will never come — is evident in Godot, Happy Days and Endgame. Vladimir and Estragon can never remember what they did they day before. “What did we do yesterday?” Vladimir asks, and Estragon replies, “Yes,” to which Vladimir says angrily, “Nothing is certain when you’re about!”.
The surreal British comedy — what some call a “trip-com” — The Mighty Boosh plays with mystical creatures, ghosts, and the sense of time to obtain the absurd, especially in the episode “Eels.” The duo Howard and Vince are stuck watching the Nabootique shop while everyone else is on vacation. After getting into an argument about what kind of elbow patches they should sell to academics and their ilk, Vince leaves Howard alone. They are soon visited by a Victorian ghost, who harasses them about the old times of the shop, its golden years. Eventually, the ghost realizes that he is obsolete and decides to compromise with Vince and Howard. They sing a song and attempt to combine Victorian times, present day and the future. The final line of the song is, “Elements of the past and the future coming together to make something that is not quite as good as either.” Thus he is reiterating Beckett’s point of view that the present is a pale version of what was in the past — which we can never really remember — and the future, which we will never really get to.
As Aurilio said earlier, Aqua Teen Hunger Force is very similar to Godot, especially the dynamic between Master Shake and Frylock. They are stuck together, bound by their roommate contract. In the “Bart Oates” episode, Meatwad, the third roommate, and Master Shake get thrown in jail for a DUI and call Frylock to save them. They must wait for him to save them. They meet many charm characters similar to Lucky. However, because they’re idiots, they are doomed to repeat their mistakes over and over again.
The writers of these shows have not necessarily read Beckett, or are even aware of him, or his influence on their work — they just follow their comedic instincts. Eric Andre, star of the newest show on Adult Swim, The Eric Andre Show, said, “I don't know shit about Beckett. That's the Waiting For Godot guy? Fuck that asshole, he don't know me!” In Andre, he and his cohost Hannibal Buress, are stuck together on the set of a talk show, bored, and talk about dying a lot. At the end of one episode Andre emerges from the set of the show, and as the shot pulls out we see that it is a shack buried under a mountain of dirt and rubble, similar to the one that Willie was buried in.
Comedians were using absurdity before Beckett, but it’s specifically the meaninglessness of life and existential crises that Beckett analyzes that have pervaded the comedic mind. Beckett himself was influenced by vaudeville and comedy when he was writing, and if he were writing now, it would be different according to modern style — his pacing would probably be quicker, he’d get to an inciting incident faster, Winnie’s revolver would fall out of her purse sooner, the second acts wouldn’t be as repetitive as the first acts, and they’d heighten on the games of the first acts.
Several years ago, Ari Voukydis of the Upright Citizens Brigade explained to an improv class the primal reason that people laugh. Just as with vomiting, it was originally a survival tactic. When someone vomits, whoever’s around that person will start gagging too — it was a warning to the immediate community that the food supply might be poisoned, so people puked the poison up and didn’t die. Similarly, people laugh because of the element of surprise. According to Voukydis, people laughed when they were surprised — specifically when they thought there was going to be a threat, but then the circumstances turned out to be harmless. Laughter was the signal to the rest of the group that everything was ok, and usually laughter in a group is infectious just like vomiting is. Maybe the reason that using absurdity as a commentary on the human condition — and the comedy that arises from it — just goes to show that we as people can stare into the void of human existence, and it makes us laugh because it’s really not that scary at all.
Melissa Surach is a freelance beer writer and house sketch writer at the PIT.