An Evening with Henry McHenry: The Anti-Comedy of Annette

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An Evening with Henry McHenry: The Anti-Comedy of <i>Annette</i>

Henry McHenry is here to make you laugh. In fact, he tells that to his audience point blank: “I’m here to make you laugh tonight.” In the universe of Annette, stand-up comedian Henry McHenry (Adam Driver) is a world-renowned star, selling out packed venues of paying fans who are dying to see something funny—his newest tour, “The Ape of God,” is certainly no different. And, well, his audience does laugh…to frustrating effect. You see, Henry doesn’t really tell jokes. He complains, he muses, he prances, he monologues, he coughs uncontrollably—he questions why he even became a comedian in the first place, yet his fans eat it up. He’s more of a performance artist, sure, as some critics have pointed out in their reviews of Leos Carax’s two-and-a-half-hour rock opera about an ill-fated celebrity coupling and their gifted, titular young daughter. But, as other critics have pointed out, Henry is also “not even a little bit funny.”

Instead of, perhaps, the anticipated out-of-touch humor bemoaning political correctness or woke culture in his tour, which purports a “mildly offensive evening,” McHenry mostly offends the very expectation of comedy. Pioneered in part by names like Andy Kaufman, Norm Macdonald (though he rejects the label) and Gregg Turkington’s Neil Hamburger, Henry McHenry’s routine utilizes the concept of “anti-comedy”—humor where the aim is to tell a joke that is intentionally unfunny or confrontational, thereby deconstructing and toying with comedy conventions. With anti-comedy, the joke is in the absence of one, in the irony of the poor performance—and there couldn’t be a term more in-tune with the sensibilities of a film like Annette than one which aims to disarm peoples’ expectations of a given genre of performance. The story derives from brothers Ron and Russell Mael, prolific pop-rock duo Sparks, who wrote the music and co-wrote the screenplay alongside director Carax. The pair have been toying with artistic expectations their entire careers and, as Juan Barquin wrote for Reverse Shot, Annette “has inspired frustration from critics for its willingness to alienate them both aesthetically and musically.”

By this measure, if Annette is essentially an anti-musical, it makes perfect sense that its star comedian would employ anti-comedy. Like anti-comedy, Annette is not necessarily setting out to make fun of the artform of musical theater, but to restructure and expose its fundamentals, thereby creating something new. This could be the crux of what has been so distinctly frustrating about Henry’s comedy to a number of critics who have watched Annette: This inherent expectation for Henry’s stand-up to be equally funny outside of the film’s universe, wherein Henry is overwhelmingly beloved. But with anti-comedy, the goal is typically to derive humor from the alienation of intrinsic comedic customs and potentially alienate the audience itself. As Henry emerges in his first performance to a billowing cloud of smoke—which he gratuitously play-acts as giving him respiratory issues—in his trademark green boxer’s robe, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the opening to comedian Tim Heidecker’s 2020 stand-up special and recent anti-comedy showcase, An Evening with Tim Heidecker.

In it, Heidecker walks across the stage confidently, waving to the audience in a bulky leather jacket and ridiculous, slicked-back hair, before immediately knocking over the mic stand as he reaches for it. He fumbles with the stand for an extended period of time while generic, lyricless rock muzak drones on in the background. He becomes increasingly frustrated with his embarrassing inability to fix things for which, through the performance, he essentially absolves himself of blame. When he finally regains control of the stand, he verbally abuses the sound technician to turn the music off so he can start his set over. This bit lasts nearly three excruciating minutes; the special is one hour long.

When Heidecker was shopping An Evening with Tim Heidecker around to television networks, he was met with a disheartening reaction: Many of the places he thought would be into the special didn’t care for his particular approach to stand-up. “In fact, one place was like, ‘We feel like he’s making fun of stand-up comedy.’ What, is that the sacred cow that you’re not allowed to make fun of? How insecure,” the 45-year-old half of comedy duo Tim & Eric told Vulture.

Stand-up comedy isn’t Heidecker’s bread and butter—he is most known for his more absurd sensibilities found in cult series like Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job!, Tom Goes to the Mayor and, most recently, On Cinema at the Cinema, and has put on live comedy shows with frequent collaborators Eric Wareheim and Gregg Turkington. But Heidecker had been perfecting this particular stand-up routine for a decade, felt good about it and thought it would be fun to finally shoot. In the routine, Heidecker plays a bumbling, anti-woke, misogynistic version of his comedian self who is painfully inept, aggressive and frustratingly unable to tell one good joke—but it’s Heidecker playing this persona that makes it funny. The comedy of An Evening with Tim Heidecker wouldn’t come as a surprise for fans of the alt-comic, who has never shied away from making fun of Saturday Night Live and is generally uninterested in more mainstream approaches to humor. But if you’re not a tried-and-true fan of Heidecker’s extensive backlog of comedic work, this stand-up routine probably won’t work for you. No, Henry McHenry isn’t very funny to us. But is that really the point?

Take another example: Andrew Dice Clay’s infamous, 1989 performance of The Day the Laughter Died at Dangerfield’s comedy club in New York City. The year after becoming the first comedian to sell out two nights in a row at Madison Square Garden, Clay goes on to engage in a routine that is functionally performance art. Largely improvised, his usual topics of discussion are explored while being incredibly combative and hostile towards his audience. At the time, Clay was popular but still reviled by many for his on-stage “Diceman” persona, which incorporated humor that was seen as “crude, racist, sexist, and misogynistic” and “playing to disaffected young white males.” The Day the Laughter Died only takes this humor to new heights. Producer Rick Rubin’s idea was for Clay to do a small club in front of a crowd who would most likely not be fans of Clay’s, and for Clay to not tell a single real joke. From one inscrutable yet brilliant bit towards the end of the set, in which Clay plays out a “joke” that makes sense neither to himself nor his audience, Complex writer Dan Charnas gleans that “You understand, in that moment, that telling a joke and being funny are not the same thing at all.”

Many comics still hold Clay’s The Day the Laughter Died as a crucial and subversive work of comedic art. But what appears to set Henry McHenry apart from something like The Day the Laughter Died is that the latter was, during the performance, designed to make people unfamiliar with Clay angry. Henry neither tells jokes nor is funny, yet is beloved by his massive, adoring audience. He is astonishingly antagonistic to positive results. “Why should I make you laugh?” he prods his crowd, later commenting that making people laugh is a “disgusting, deceitful trick,” and concluding this first performance in Annette by faking being killed by gunfire to realistic effect.

Yet his audience still worships him—albeit, at first. He even instructs them to laugh on command at one point, which they do. Coincidentally, Heidecker does something similar during his own stand-up routine (“I tell jokes. You…?” “Laugh!” the audience eagerly replies). Henry McHenry’s comedy does not yet truly alienate his audience; as if, within the world of the film, the stand-up that Henry is performing is objectively hilarious. Clay had initially become successful through his comedy which was provocative and “edgy” but still, nonetheless, standard comedy. He wasn’t yet dabbling in performance art. Similarly to McHenry, Heidecker’s stand-up is mostly relished by his crowd, but by virtue of Heidecker being a niche artist with a passionate fan base anticipating his comedic subversions. In the end, there is a little bit of Clay and a little bit of Heidecker in Henry’s routine—an alienating performance artist somehow beloved by the mainstream.

It’s a difficult pill to swallow if you’re angling for a film with realism—something Annette decidedly, proudly rejects. Baltimore Magazine’s Max Weiss remarked that “It sort of annoyed me that Henry is such a bad performer and it pinpoints one of my larger issues with the film—that Henry’s contempt for his audience is, in fact, mirrored by Carax. Look how they drink it up, Carax seems to say—they’re so desperate to be entertained, to feel like part of something ‘edgy,’ they’ve become masochists.” Richard Brody went long on another aspect he sees as a fault in Henry’s stand-up: Adam Driver’s casting. “Annette proves an implicit maxim of casting: never cast a non-comedian as a comedian,” Brody wrote in the New Yorker, “because being funny is the equivalent of being able to sing, except that, with funniness, when an actor hasn’t got it, it’s impossible to dub someone else’s sense of humor onto the soundtrack.”

This latter quote is under the assumption that the intent of Henry’s comedy is to make not only the in-universe audience of “The Ape of God” laugh, but the audience of Annette as well. If you view the film through this lens, it certainly fails to achieve both ends. However, if you understand that part of the object of anti-humor is to alienate, then in one crucial way, Henry’s comedy succeeds. Indeed, it seems that many people’s takeaway from Annette was that Henry was simply a poor comic undeserving of his stardom. But those familiar with the work of Sparks shouldn’t be surprised by the pair’s approach to their character’s stand-up comedy, just as those same people shouldn’t be surprised by Annette’s functionality as a nesting doll of various satires of performance: From the film itself, of course, to the musical numbers, the characters’ own shows, their celebrity status and even their intimate lives—to the point where Henry and his wife, fellow performer Ann (Marion Cotillard) hardly exist outside of their star power. There are few moments in Annette that aren’t performed.

But Annette is not just a satire of performative artifice and the ultimate hollow existence of its characters—it is as actively disaffecting as Henry’s stand-up. The film is playfully preoccupied with its own artifice—grandiose, fantastical set pieces; fourth wall-breaks; baby Annette being a literal living prop—all kicked off with a song commenting on the nature of the film’s existence. In fact, the rest of the film’s music has drawn particular ire from audiences and critics, some of whom have deemed it “unlistenable.” However, it’s all part of Annette’s aim to craft a new viewing experience by turning the rudiments of musicals on their head, working in a film that functions both as satire and a tragic story of loss and the emptiness of fame. Henry tells his curious audience at one point that he became a comedian not for the money, or the fame, or the women, but to disarm people; that it’s his only way to tell the truth without killing them. It’s another aspect crucial to the idea that Annette’s characters struggle for honesty in their lives without artifice, furthered as Henry only continues to lie throughout his performances.

Because of this, it’s hard to not view Henry’s “cringey” stand-up as another thread in Annette’s darkly satirical web, with the Mael brothers overhead gleefully pulling the strings. In a musical that’s set out to upend conventions of genre, why would we expect to laugh at its version of stand-up? But it’s also the sort of in-joke humor that has proliferated Sparks’ work. Their songs are often imbued with cheeky, misdirecting comedy, as with something like “Tits;” or sardonic, occasionally pitch black lyricism not meant to be taken at face value, found in the lyrics to songs like “White Women,” “Everybody’s Stupid” and “Throw Her Away (And Get A New One).” They wrote an entire radio play where Swedish avant-garde director Ingmar Bergman travels to Hollywood and finds himself increasingly tempted by commercial work, entitled “The Seduction of Ingmar Bergman.” For much of their career, Ron Mael sported a mustache reminiscent of Adolf Hitler.

In Henry McHenry’s second and final stand-up show in the film, he takes things one step too far: He goes into an extended bit in which he play-acts a fictional scenario where he has killed Ann by tickling her too hard. She laughs to death. The audience paid for a mildly offensive evening, not a fully offensive one. They feel that the bit has crossed a line and revolt against Henry, who revolts right back. “You used to laugh,” Henry sings violently at his audience, “What’s your fucking problem?” But the thing is, it’s actually kind of funny. And not only that, it is distinctly reflective of Sparks’ dark sense of humor. It’s maybe the only truly funny bit in either of McHenry’s performances—but the audience can’t deal with it. Neither can we. It makes them uncomfortable; it disturbs them, like how Annette makes us squirm with its disjointed music and its realistic treatment of a wooden puppet.

And despite how things may seem, there is no contempt from McHenry, or Carax, or the Mael brothers for their audience. On the contrary, they need their audience, just as we need to be entertained. This is not necessarily proffered as a negative, but instead a simple, parasitic fact of life. In one way or another, we all need performance to survive. Henry cannot live without his audience—his biting words and physical attack against his crowd are less an offensive ambush than the defense of a wounded beast. It is then further ironic (more dark humor) that a real joke would be the thing to sink Henry’s comedy career. It’s as if the audience didn’t want real jokes at all. They never wanted to be disarmed by the unexpected. They wanted the comfort of the ordinary, just as many reject Annette’s disarming approach to musical theater.

As the credits roll on Annette, one might notice that Adam Driver gives personal thanks to two comedians: Chris Rock and Bill Burr. While some may sneer at the acknowledgement—both comedians could not be more far removed in style to Henry McHenry—it’s hard to not see the expression of gratitude as one final, winking joke; a joke by way of Driver sans the persona of Henry. If your reaction is to take the thanks at face value, that reaction feels like the intended one. It’s another yarn in Annette’s unending corkboard of satire, misdirection and provocation. Yes, perhaps Henry McHenry isn’t funny. Perhaps his anti-comedy isn’t very successful. But if that’s your only takeaway, then you’re missing the point. As Andrew Dice Clay illustrated, it’s not about the jokes, it’s about the performer. An Evening with Tim Heidecker isn’t funny because of its bad jokes, but because of the way that they’re performed and by whom. Annette wants you to think about performance, and in the world of the film, Henry McHenry’s combative anti-humor is exactly what drives people to see him.

But perhaps the most crucial distinction between these real-life comedians and Henry McHenry is that the former are both playing characters—this confrontational “bad boy” image meant to satirize over-the-top belligerence. For all we know, Henry’s “Ape of God” persona could be faked, like Clay’s and Heidecker’s. But the thing is, it could also be real. We don’t know, his audience doesn’t know; most importantly, Henry doesn’t know. That’s the irony in the artifice of Henry McHenry, how just as there is no truth to his performance, there is no truth to his self, his life, or his relationship with his wife and daughter. Is Henry McHenry the type of person who would kill his wife by tickling her to death? Who’s to say, and so his audience believes it could be real. Henry told them that his comedy was in service of the truth, after all. And just as his audience cannot discern between truth and lies in Henry’s stand-up, we cannot distinguish what’s supposed to be funny about Henry McHenry, and we get frustrated. We, too, revolt. If performance and spectatorship are an exchange, where’s our cut of the deal? If we’re angry about that, then good. Annette is meant to provoke us, as is Henry McHenry. We expect him to make us laugh and he doesn’t, but those in his audience do. Why are they laughing? What’s their fucking problem? What’s ours?

Brianna Zigler is an entertainment writer based in middle-of-nowhere Massachusetts. Her work has appeared at Little White Lies, Film School Rejects, Thrillist, Bright Wall/Dark Room and more, and she writes a bi-monthly newsletter called That’s Weird. You can follow her on Twitter, where she likes to engage in stimulating discussions on films like Movie 43, Clifford, and Watchmen.