I had been planning a feature for Guys Lit Wire in September that discussed books by comedians that would serve as a sort of underground education for teens. Carlin was among the lot, as was Lenny Bruce, a pair whose work spoke of language, challenged conventions, and faced the Supreme Court.
Steve Martin and Andy Kaufman are also in my notes as examples of conceptual humor and how it can change your view of the world without you realizing it. Other things in my notes: Carlin and Bruce were linguists, Martin was a philosopher, Kaufman was a situationist and didn’t write a book – should he be included? Pryor?
Comedy appeals to teens because comedy is dangerous to an ordered society. Comedy asks questions and challenges the norm by getting people to laugh at what makes them uncomfortable. It isn’t as easy, as Carlin once said, as finding the line and crossing it; nor is it a matter of pitching funny with dirty (though it looks good on a bar graph eulogy).
Things have changed. Check out how “liberal” TV was back in 1975 with this classic sketch from Saturday Night Live featuring Richard Pryor and Chevy Chase. No way anyone would run this today. Why? My guess is that we have allowed ourselves to be censored, censored from thinking or discussing these issues by pretending we’ve matured as a society. There is a glimmer of change on the horizon in this respect, but the simple fact remains that the humor in this sketch comes from a sense of both recognition and discomfort from the audience. It’s been 30 years since this sketch first aired on TV, and the only thing that’s changed is that people are more afraid to say these things this openly than they did back then. Or rather, they’ve gotten better at hiding their true feelings and this humor would be viewed, even by racists, under the cover of “My, how unenlightened people were back then. We find nothing funny about that now.”
What we find funny now is the scatological, the biological, the observational, and the excessive. We can no longer be shocked (or so we think) and so our humor bends towards making fun of specific people and characters. Carlin held a mirror up – to himself and society – and found the absurdity and humor in it all. Lenny Bruce found the hypocrisy in post-war America. Today, the only person who I feel is carrying on in the same tradition is Chris Rock, and even there it sometimes feels like he’s preaching to the choir. Sarah Silverman comes off as a little too mean in her humor, though her shock tactics are very much in keeping with the big boys.
George Carlin had a good run and he taught me, when I was a teen, that words had meaning and that there were no bad words; bad thoughts, bad intentions, and bad people who would attempt to control those words and thoughts, yes, but no bad words.