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The discomfort of comedy

By June 29, 2008Uncategorized

Picture_3I don’t remember how I came upon George Carlin’s record, Class Clown. My parents had no idea that it might be risqué so I was able to sneak it into my room and listen to it. And listen to it, and listen to it, and listen to it…

For some reason, to my 12 year old brain, that album was more than just comedy. It was TRUTH. Carlin talked about things that I knew were true but, for some ‘adult reason, were not discussed. I got older and put aside my Carlin albums, although I’d catch him on TV or recite some of his material from memory every now and then. In law school, we studied the case based on a bit he did in the Class Clown album. It was ironic to come across Carlin in my ‘career studies.’ Each time I came back to him I found myself respecting him more. He had no great message, no method, no tidy summary. He just pointed out the way things were.

Sometime around 2000 I went to Las Vegas with my then-wife Monique. Carlin, as it turned out, was doing his act in the very hotel where we were staying. I insisted we go see him, and she readily agreed. I was a little worried about seeing him in person, especially in Vegas—the pinnacle of hackneyed illusions. Sure enough, the audience was a mish-mash of Vegas tourists, many of whom didn’t seem to likely to accept Carlin’s hard edge viewpoints. Then again, maybe he had learned to tone it down in Vegas.

The curtain came up and revealed him next to a stool that had a stack of messy papers. After the applause died down he began:

“Thank you for coming tonight. Before we begin I want to make a few things clear. Every couple of years I do an HBO special, which is basically all the material I’ve worked on for the past two years. As you can see from the papers I have here with me, I’m working on some new material. So, sometimes I’m going to have to refer to my notes. I hope you don’t mind, but that’s the way it is. Look, let’s just all face the facts: you’re here for me, I’m here for me, and no one is here for you. Okay? Let’s get going…”

He then went on to talk about his bad driving habits and how that caused him to occasionally hit a pedestrian but he never stopped because it didn’t make sense. As he explained his logic I was doubled up in laughter. And, sure enough, next HBO special came out and he had honed that bit into something even funnier.

I’ve always been intrigued by stand-up comedians. It’s such a difficult thing to do, and the people who do it are usually completely crazy. And yet their best material comes from topics that we don’t feel comfortable with. It’s like the only way you can talk about the truth is if you learn how to disguise it in humor, and even then your path is riddled with obstacles.

After Carlin died I tried to avoid listening to the TV news accounts of his ‘importance’ because it would would be like listening to a serial murderer talk about the virtues of his victims. The other day I was scouting the blogosphere and found a link to an interview of Carlin at New York’s 92nd St. YMCA. Actually, the link included two interviews on iTunes Store (free): one of Carlin and the other one with Charlie Rose interviewing Steve Martin. I just finished listening to both interviews, the Martin one last.

If you are inclined to hear these interviews I recommend that the Steve Martin interview should be listened to last. Rose asks Martin some really personal questions and he winds up becoming very uncomfortable, but in a ‘good way’ if that makes sense. It probably doesn’t. If I was a stand-up comedian I could probably make a joke and explain it, but I’m not. So, you’re better off listening to the interview.

I guarantee you won’t regret it.

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  • tok says:

    EES: Carlin was pure comedic genius. His strength was showing the humor and the ridiculousness in the every day parts of our lives.

  • Phil says:


    Carlin was always one of my heroes not only because he made me laugh out loud while sitting alone listening to his albums but because of his mastery of language. Whether he could say them on television or not was beside the point; words were his weapons to skewer what needed skewering. They were his tools to show us our world from a slightly different angle. They were his lights to illuminate those dark corners where we were uncomfortable going. Nothing and no one was immune to the power of his words. “Important?” Maybe, maybe not. I don’t think Carlin cared if you thought what he said was important. Like any stand-up, I’m sure he thrived on the laughter but I think he would have kept on using those words of his even in dead silence.

    One of his wonderful comments taken from his “Occupation: Foole” album is welcoming the audience to his job. Not everyone has an audience at his or her job but it might be better if everyone did. Imagine two or three people sitting on the other side of your desk, applauding, booing, or sitting silent in reponse to your work product. We all might be wise to picture those folks during our workday.


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