In an episode of his Comedy Vehicle TV series, Stewart Lee pokes fun at preconceived notions of the stand-up comedy as a job that involves courage, describing stand-up comedians as braver in many ways than a fireman or somebody fighting in a war. At the heart of the joke, in my interpretation, Lee was lampooning the way many comedians are deified by their audience for, essentially, doing their job — one that they all went in to by choice. We often celebrate stand-up comedians as individuals who hold a mirror to the rich, the powerful, the privileged, and even society itself, but we forget that most of these people, however staunch they are in their views, went into comedy primarily because they just wanted to make us laugh.
It isn’t that Lee sees what he and others do as insignificant. On the contrary, throughout his career he has argued, both through his jokes and his commentary, that comedy is as much an art form as theatre, opera, music and cinema. In his book, How I Escaped My Certain Fate: The Life and Deaths of a Stand-Up Comedian, he transcribes and meticulously annotates the scripts to each of his stand-up shows, deconstructing every line and drawn-out laugh, demonstrating that even the simplest gag goes through weeks, even months of testing and proofing before it’s uttered for global broadcast at a recorded theatre show.
I mention Lee at the opening of this article because he was the comedian that opened my mind to the idea that comedians are often doing a lot more than just making you laugh. From simple comedic tricks like the rule of 3 — all funny lists should come in threes, with each item funnier than the last — to the phenomenon that the funniest words start with a ‘k’ sound, there’s a lot going on in comedy behind the jokes.
One of the biggest talking points on comedy podcasts such as Richard Herring’s Leicester Square Theatre Podcast and Stuart Goldsmith’s The Comedian’s Comedian podcast is where you draw the line between comedy and real life. I’ve never been a fan of Jimmy Carr’s style, but when he explained quite simply that he ‘just write[s] jokes’, thinking up between 180 and 300 jokes per show, I was able to reconcile myself with him. Love him or hate him, Jimmy Carr writes gags, and he writes gags very well.
Likewise, when Goldsmith confronts David Cross about his regular breaching of topics such as rape, race and learning difficulties, his blunt response is surprisingly thought-provoking: ‘I hear what you’re saying, but I don’t care. I don’t care to engage in debates about what has more leeway in quantitative offensive qualities.’ Cross doesn’t go on stage to act as a moral arbiter for society — if we’re ever going to find the answer to these big questions, it’s unlikely to be at a David Cross set in New Cross. When asked to recount a particular joke about date rape, he refuses to do so on the basis that ‘there’s a lot of performance involved’. Like Lee, Cross believes that there’s a line between the writer and the performer, even when they’re the same person.
Thanks to platforms like these that grant us access to the inner-circles of stand-up, we now have a better understanding of its nuances, and this feels like quite a new development. After all, some of the greatest comedians of the 90s and early 2000s are revered because it feels like there’s no line between the person and the persona. Such was the case with George Carlin.
Though his earlier career was often more focused on topics like language and how it informs societal norms, as he got older Carlin was surely best known for the “crotchety old man” persona that he took ownership of, walking out on stage for 60 minutes and tearing anything and everything to shreds. Returning to that preconceived notion of the comedian as the voice of rebellion, his blend of deeply considered social issues and caustic destruction of those he viewed as on the “wrong side” of the argument created some of the most memorable one-liners ever. This was the man who could fire off beautiful one-liners like, ‘Why is it that most of the people who are against abortion are people you wouldn’t want to fuck it the first place?’ then slice through the noise minutes later saying, ‘When some of these cardinals and bishops have experienced their first pregnancies and labour pains and raised a couple of children on minimum wage, then I’ll be glad to hear what they have to say about abortion.’ He exposed the realities and hypocrisies of modern society with seemingly zero regard for whether the audience was ready to hear it or not. And he did it by making you laugh.
All of which makes I Kinda Like It When a Lotta People Die, Carlin’s first posthumous release, so interesting. The material itself isn’t anything out of the ordinary in the context of Carlin. He opens with a rant about ‘rats and squealers’, segues into some light scatological material about farts and enemas, and complains about how there are ‘too many songs’ now before reaching the heart of the show’s title; a celebration of mass tragedies — ‘To me, you can never have too many dead people’. Morbid? Yes. Carlin? Naturally.
But the recordings for this release come from two performances at the MGM Grand in Las Vegas on September 9th and 10th 2001. Less than 12 hours after he performed this material live, Carlin’s character got his wish, for want of a better phrase. The show was immediately shelved, and the acceptable segments salvaged and restructured for what would later become Complaints & Grievances.
Prior to the events of 9/11 this was typical Carlin, but looking back fifteen years later, this is some of his darkest material. Not only does he mention plane crashes, he celebrates his favourite words to hear on television — ‘We interrupt this programme…’ — and at one point even mentions Osama Bin Laden by name. This isn’t just unfortunate timing. It’s uncanny.
Was it right for Carlin to stop performing this material? The answer feels without question. Comedians are used to hearing the words “too soon” all the time, but this is material that actually predates the event that negates its humour. On September 10th, Carlin had all the time in the world to tell these jokes. After September 11th, the rest of the world needed time. But to think of a man whose entire career was predicated upon forcing the world to confront uncomfortable truths about humanity coming face-to-face with the real-life manifestation of one of his jokes is unquestionably fascinating.
Even those comedians who build their on-stage persona upon the notion of not giving a fuck, on some level, do. Bill Hicks, a man who spent his career denigrating religion and nanny-state crybabies who complained about smokers and drugs, developed some semblance of spirituality and reflection when he was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 31, according to anecdotes at least.
A decade and a half later, clearly the publishers feel that enough time has passed for us to hear this material and assess it on our own terms. As with all comedians, behind the George Carlin we saw on stage was a man who thought deeply about what “funny” is. He understood that comedy was something that those in society without power could use to hold the privileged and powerful to account. Of course, whenever a comedian plays with shock, offence and controversy in their act, they catalyse a discussion about where we draw “the line”, but Carlin was no Frankie Boyle, slamming grotesque imagery and pop-culture references together in search for the next tabloid scandal. Carlin tore everything down and then forced you to look at the rubble and ask yourself what’s really important.
In my opinion, the most interesting track on I Kinda Like It… is the first track on the album; a homemade recording by Carlin from 1957 in which he pours vitriol on the police and firemen as crooks, conmen, thieves and liars. ‘Don’t watch the firemen carrying the hose and the axe — those guys obviously have something to do. Keep your eye on the fireman who doesn’t seem to have anything to do, because odds are after that guy has been in your parlour for twenty minutes, he’s got half of the small articles of your parlour in his pocket.’ Again, in the context of 9/11 and the sacrifices the police and firemen of New York made on that day, this material from nearly 60 years ago is equally as sinister as Carlin’s 2001 material. But what it does, positioned at the album’s opening, is remind us that even the most timeless comedy is a moment in time that can be informed by experiences that precede it, but cannot dictate what will happen in the years that follow. Comedians can hold a mirror up to society. They can negotiate how best to perform their material to show us what society should be. But changing the world isn’t the job of one person on stage. That’s the audience’s part.