Saturday, August 06, 2011

Last Words, by George Carlin

I was beginning to realize something: I had a powerful new tool for my tool kit, though I've only made sparing use of it since. Getting laughs all the time wasn't my only responsibility. My responsibility was to engage the audience's mind for ninety minutes. Get laughs, of course, dazzle them from time to time with form, craft, verbal fireworks, but above all engage their minds.
                                        —George Carlin
, Last Words

As I've written before, I think stand-up comedy is one of the few remaining vibrant art forms in this country. There are, as always, only two or three great talents, but there's a whole constellation of worthwhile secondary talents, a real sense of excitement about the medium, and a sizable and engaged audience.

Part of the energy comes from diversity: stand-up comedians are racially, economically, and philosophically much more varied than the usual creators of today's "fine" arts. Also, since good comedians work in many different registers—jumping, like Shakespeare, from farts and boners to reflections on death—they also attract a very mixed audience. Louis CK will riff at great length about masturbation, and then include a bit—maybe based on Peter Singer's ideas, maybe just his own thoughts—about how we make needless purchases when we know, on some level, that the same amount of money could probably save someone's life in another country. George Carlin could win over a crowd with an accomplished but fairly safe routine on airline jargon, and then hit them with a subtle and disturbing monologue on the fraudulence of most modern environmentalism (“The Planet Is Fine”).

While I was watching Carlin's routine on the American Dream, I remember thinking—Jesus, people are paying to hear this! These are some of the most honest and destructive reflections that anyone is going to hear on the state of this country, things a few wise writers have been saying for years (although maybe not so sharply) to a tiny and shrinking audience—and here this comedian has an auditorium of thousands, and millions on HBO and now on YouTube, willing to listen to him say them. And they're enjoying it! It's possible they ignored the disturbing parts and went home chuckling about something else, but the words still reached them. The seeds are in their head now.

I noticed, though, that some of Carlin's most profound routines, like the two I've mentioned, work better as transcripts. The ideas are coming too fast to digest in the monologue—they need the time and space that the page grants them. Nothing fundamental is lost when you read the words instead of hearing him deliver them. As Carlin notes in the quote above, which is from his "sortabiography" Last Words, it's not just about getting laughs anymore, it's about fully engaging the mind, and the page is usually a better way to do this than performance.

So I thought I would read one of his books. Last Words is the posthumous autobiography that Tony Hendra compiled from a hundred pages that Carlin wrote about his early life and many hours of interviews. I wish Carlin had lived to complete the writing, because the first third of the book about his childhood is by far the best part. A sample of his writing:
The highlights of my life were my trips to midtown with Bessie, listening to the radio, and thumb-sucking. I was a world-class thumb-sucker. My specialty at bedtime was to loosen part of the bottom sheet, wrap it around my thumb, and cram the whole thing into my mouth for extended, overnight sucking.
Imagine reading this out loud, delivering it like a comedian—I don't think it makes it better. This is written humor. And there's many more passages in the first third of the book that are just as charming. It's a wonderful picture of growing up in 50s New York, with all of the education and energy that a largely unsupervised street childhood can provide.

The book then goes into Carlin's time in the Air Force and the beginnings of his comedy career. And then Hendra must have had to step in, because the book features more transcripts of Carlin's routines, and the prose is less sharp, although it is animated with the same lively intelligence. Carlin's life becomes less interesting when he gets famous: the work takes over, along with predictable cycles of drugs and rehab, creative exhaustion and reinvention.

There are still thoughtful passages on the art of comedy, though, and the book is worth reading all the way through. In one section, Carlin discusses a line about abortion that he wanted to include in a routine, but that never seemed to work. “Audiences wouldn't follow me there,” he writes. “It was one step too far. They didn't enjoy the risk. I'm a realist. After a while, I dropped the line. And maybe they were right: maybe it was too complex an idea or the phrasing was too harsh. But it shows how the audience shapes the material. They are part of the process. I write, they edit.”

Now, a writer might say that this is selling out, the kind of compromise that makes stand-up comedy something less than a genuine art form. I'm not so sure. A few decades ago, Philip Larkin wrote about the two tensions from which art springs: “the tension between the artist and his material and between the artist and his audience.” In the previous century, he wrote, for most serious artists “the second of these has slackened or even perished.” And he saw this as a disaster for both the arts and the audience, as artists restrict themselves to ever smaller circles (and begin to say increasingly inconsequential things) and the mass audience falls back on purely commercial entertainment, never encountering anything that might wake them up a little.

Undeniably, most stand-up comedy falls into the category of commercial entertainment. It is slavish in its desire to please, exhausting in its endless facetiousness and refusal to say anything serious. (Go to a comedy club on a bad night and it is about as depressing an evening as you can pay for.) But when a comedian realizes, as Carlin did, that getting laughs is not his only responsibility—that something honest and challenging can take place in the space between the artist's personal vision and the audience's expectations—the night can become special.

Louis CK, who wrote a fine piece about Carlin when he died, is probably the best stand-up around right now, has been freeing himself more and more from the obligation to be continuously funny, especially on Louis, his TV show, and some of the episodes of that show are simply works of art (“The Bully” is my favorite of the ones I've seen). So are parts of Carlin's specials; and this book may have reached the same heights if Carlin had had time to complete it. It is interesting that he names more writers as inspirations than comedians: Noam Chomsky, Hunter Thompson, Gore Vidal. It's a shame he died before finishing—I think he had another career ahead of him.

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