Abdul Aziz has never considered himself an ‘art person.’
The Vancouver-based comedian is the creator and host of We Know Nothing About Art (WKNAA), an ongoing two-hour comedy show built around iconic — and often bizarre — works of art. The show is helmed by a group of amateur Vancouver comedians, whose collective talent and enthusiasm reflects the vibrant comedic energy of the city.
As the show’s name makes clear, none of the performers are experts in the field of art critique; rather, they use witty observations to offer their own interpretation of the artwork. What the show lacks in educational value, however, it makes up for with its unique premise and high-paced energy.
“The concept of the show is: let’s get all these classic pieces that changed how people did and thought about art, and get comedians who are not necessarily art literate to do their best to share their perspective about what the art is supposed to be conveying,” says Aziz. “Comedians are by no measure art experts, but there’s a lot of interesting art out there. A lot of of people don’t understand its history and significance, including myself.”
He’s not alone. Art history and art theory can often feel inaccessible and dry, filled with dead painters and endless depictions of Jesus, naked babies, or both. WKNAA is the perfect remedy for those who lack the interest or incentive to learn the ins and outs of art criticism. Instead, the show’s irreverent attitude offers a refreshing alternative to the often-deemed pretentiousness of art interpretation.
Aziz’s inspiration for the show came during a visit to an art museum with his wife. “We didn’t want to pay for the guided tour, so we just walked around the museum making fun of the art,” he says. “I was like, oh, this is actually not a bad idea for a show.”
When asked how he’d managed to recruit the roster of performers, he says, “There’s a lot of amazing comics in the city . . . so I got my pick of really talented and funny and smart people who were interested in doing the show . . . I chose some pieces of art from the internet and sent it to them and they prepped their sets.”
Although Vancouver’s comedy scene is relatively small, its isolation from comedy meccas such as Toronto has encouraged a thriving group of alternative comics. Aziz is a firm believer in Vancouver’s power to foster innovation and talent, citing the city’s notoriously discerning audiences as a key factor in ensuring the quality of its community.
“It’s a lot harder to make people laugh, I think, in Vancouver than other cities. You end up getting forced to work harder, write better jokes. You get trained to be really authentic on stage in this city.”
But the audience at WKNAA’s March 18 show seemed more than willing to laugh. Comedy-loving Vancouverites mingled shoulder-to-shoulder at Hot Art Wet City — a Main Street gallery and venue featuring “fun, weird, and accessible” art. Since opening in 2012, it has hosted a wide array of shows including Vancouverite and Teen Angst Karaoke.
Despite the night’s cheery atmosphere, there was a lingering sense of finality; the night marked the gallery’s last show before its permanent closure at the end of the month.
“It really sucks,” says Aziz, in reference to the venue’s closure. “The . . . owners Chris [Bentzen] and Erin [Gibbs] always put so much work into making the shows great, and the shows were really special . . . The vibe at that venue was always like, ‘hey, we’re all just friends hanging out.’”
Joining Aziz onstage were comedians Brent Constantine, Ross Dauk, Chris James, Devin Alexander, Jenny Toews, and Charlie Demer, each prepared to riff on a set of artworks. Between sets, Aziz kept the audience engaged by asking trivia questions based on Pieter Bruegel’s Netherlandish Proverbs. Audience members had the chance to win various masterpieces purchased at Value Village, the most coveted of which was a majestic orange boat painted on velvet. When two audience members — both named Steve — answered a question correctly, they received matching wooden carvings of an elderly woman.
While the fast-paced nature of the show made it hard to keep track of individual jokes, standout bits of the night included Constantine’s lengthy riff on a painting of George Washington, Aziz’s interpretation of a photo of his Saddam Hussein-lookalike father, and Toews’ bit on a chariot race. The most memorable performance came from James, whose cokehead art critic persona (think Jesse Pinkman meets Bon Iver) was outlandish yet believable.
The show ended with a spirited singalong to Semisonic’s 1998 hit “Closing Time.” While it’s doubtful anybody left We Know Nothing About Art feeling educated, per se, who needs knowledge when you can make dick jokes about a surrealist rooster painting?