New York

The Kipper Kids, Into the Box, Out of the Box

The Kipper Kids (a.k.a. Brian Routh and Martin von Haselberg) are the original bad boys of performance art. Nonsensical nuttiness was the Dadaesque raison d’être of this Los Angeles-based duo when they practiced their acts of infantile aggression in the serious Conceptual art context of the mid ’70s. Such antics were at most taboo-threatening, as when they burst baggies of realistic-looking fake excrement over their jockstrap-clad rears, and at least amusing in their acting-out of messy-children-at-play (i.e., slinging paint, spitting up partially chewed food, etc.), but their “forbidden” behavior had great shock value at the time. Now, after a period of relative inactivity, including almost ten years’ absence from the New York scene, they have brought their essentially unchanged act into a freewheeling ’80s situation that would appear to be more congenial to their work. However, like the neo-folkie bands that flourished in the psychedelic ’60s, the Kippers’ idea seemed to work better when they were bucking the cultural tide. These days, outrageous behavior on stage is a performance commonplace, from standup comedy to heavy-metal music. In their latest show, Into the Box, Out of the Box, the Kippers came off like amiable, almost sweet-tempered entertainers rather than the serious transgressors they were once considered to be.

As before, their routine was based on a manic, deconstructed form of British music-hall numbers. Singing old musical chestnuts at ridiculously fast speeds (“Shine on Harvest Moon,” “Roaming in the Gloaming,” “Tonight”), repeatedly bopping and jabbing each other like the Three Stooges, and making farting noises with their mouths throughout the entire performance, the Kippers worked their changes on English vaudeville’s traditional conceit of grownups acting like naughty children. Taking the notion to an extreme, they strove mightily to become truly offensive, staging food fights, donning outré outfits (jockstraps, T-shirts with balloon breasts underneath, and commedia-like false noses), and trying to gross out the audience (for instance, by exposing their genitals while singing “It’s only cock and balls, but you like it,” a takeoff on the Rolling Stones song). They began their performance in a gigantic Jack-in-the-box “house” with many openings through which the Kippers (and their various body parts) poked out and withdrew; they then climbed on top of the box and used it as a platform for a Laurel-and-Hardy-like ritualized routine of escalating abuse.

The Kippers’ fast-paced, concise 35-minute show seemed a more polished, better-edited, and more consistently funny demonstration than the one I remember from their show here in 1978. Yet without the longueurs or awkward moments, without an intimate physical setting to heighten the sense of potentially embarrassing audience-performer interaction, without, in short, a sense of behavior whirling completely out of bounds, the Kipper Kids appeared to be models of amusing comedy. While that’s no mean feat in itself—and the Kippers are now, it’s clear, quite accomplished comedians, even when compared to mainstream “shock” comedy—the emotional subtext of infantile feelings conjured up in the early performances was missed. The edges of this “box” were carefully smoothed instead of cutting.

John Howell