Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Class Clown


When I was a kid I loved to listen to comedy albums. These days I get most of my comedy from cable TV. But back in olden times I spent hours memorizing comedy routines on vinyl LPs. My favorite comedy albums were by Bill Cosby and Flip Wilson. Does anybody remember Flip Wilson? "The Devil made me do it!" Sometime around junior high I heard some albums by Cheech and Chong and Firesign Theater. Those were pretty cool. But the coolest comedy album I ever heard was definitely "Class Clown" by George Carlin.

Probably the first time I saw George Carlin was when he did his 'Hippy-Dippy Weatherman' routine on the Tonight Show. That was back when Johnny Carson was the host, by the way. George was probably the first counterculture comic to really break through to the big time. And TV friendly bits like 'Hippy-Dippy Weatherman' made him a Carson regular. "The forecast for this evening: dark!" But those late night TV appearances did not prepare me for the education I would receive when I first heard one of George's albums.

Of course the main reason that Class Clown was so cool was because it featured the infamous "Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television." Hearing George recite that list of taboo words was one of the most mindblowingly hilarious events of my adolescence. I had never even heard some of those words before. They were dirty. And George just blurted them out right in front of God and everybody. I'll never forget them...


Of course George wasn't saying them just to shock us or to blow our minds. He had a point. "They're just words, man." He was trying to reveal the hypocrisy of a society that seemed to be more concerned about what a person says than what they do. Go ahead and bomb Cambodia, lie to America, cheat, steal, kill and plunder to your hearts content. But Goddammit, watch what you say!

George had a way of making you laugh and think at the same time, which is kind of like walking and chewing gum for some people. He made comedy hip and smart, but also childish and goofy. He looked like a hippie, talked like a college professor and acted like a fool.

George's coolness factor skyrocketed, however, one seemingly normal day when I went over to my friend's house to listen to Class Clown for the hundredth time. When my friend pulled the album from its protective sleeve we noticed that the last cut on the second side had been totally scratched out with what must have been a ten penny nail. I mean these were some deep gouges. The scratches had been made by his mom in a fit of righteous indignation and long-suppressed hostility. Apparently she disapproved of the Seven Words.

My friend's mom was way too late, however, the damage had already been done. You can't unhear something. And we had more than heard that routine. We had committed it to memory. In fact, rather than erasing the evil words from our minds, she had made them indelible. And she elevated George to the status of a martyr. He was our hero. He was Saint George The Fool.


A couple of years later, George became even more hip when he appeared as the host of the premier of a new TV show called "NBC's Saturday Night." Although the show as being broadcast live, George did not take the opportunity to unleash the "Seven Words" upon the unsuspecting American airways. In fact, he didn't really do anything outrageous or mindblowing that night. It was just a treat to see him there on my TV set, live from New York, hosting the coolest show ever.

I did get to see George live and in person when he came to Louisville one year. The show was great. It was the first time I'd ever seen a comic onstage. Watching him work was amazing. He seemed so relaxed and comfortable, ambling around the stage using the microphone like a musical instrument. He performed for over an hour and did all the classic bits I knew from his records. Including the "Seven Words."


I didn't hear much from George in the Eighties. Steve Martin took over as the perennial host of SNL and became the new king of comedy. George moved over to HBO where he didn't have to worry so much about censorship. I never had cable TV in those days so I missed most of George's specials.

Late one night, sometime around the end of the Eighties, my friend Beck Lee and I were passing a bar on the upper west side of Manhattan. They had a sign out front advertising the "Funniest Unemployed Comic" contest. As I happened to be unemployed at the time, Beck dared me to enter. It seemed harmless enough. Three minutes onstage telling jokes. I'd been onstage tons of times back with my old band the Charismatics and even more during my solo-folkie period. And how hard could it be to write a few jokes? I'm a funny guy. Piece of cake.

Not so fast, Monkey Boy! First of all, being onstage with a band is one thing. Going solo is a whole other deal. I had conveniently forgotten how difficult it was when I made the transition from rhythm guitarist in a rock band to singer-songwriter in a coffee house. No drummer to keep time. No bass. No lead singer. Just little old me. Those first few gigs were terrifying. But I got used to the drill and eventually I was an old hand. Why should comedy be any different?

Here's why: Because when you play a song, the most you expect is some polite applause at the end. And the fact is, getting an audience to applaud is pretty easy. They want to applaud anyway, so all you have to do is make sure they know when to do it. If you end your song in a very clear and obvious way, I guarantee half the audience will clap -- if only out of pure Pavlovian reflex.

When you tell a joke, on the other hand, there is a whole different expectation. You want them to laugh. And that means you need to be funny. And as any comic will tell you, "Dying is easy, comedy is hard."

The good thing about comedy is that the audience wants to laugh. They came there to laugh. All you have to do is provide the opportunity. And that's why my number one rule of comedy is: "Always put the punchline at the end of the joke." That way the audience will know exactly when they should laugh. Sounds simple, right? Yet you'd be surprised how many people tell jokes where the punchline gets buried somewhere in the middle and then they keep going. Meanwhile the audience is confused and suddenly the joke is over and nobody knows what to do.

The other thing about comedy is that it's really just talking. And talking is something I've been doing most of my life. I definitely know how to talk. I may not know how to sing or play the guitar, but I've got this talking thing down pat. So all I gotta do is write some funny jokes, get up there on stage and talk. Oh, except for one other thing. I have to remember the jokes. That shouldn't be so hard, since I am used to remembering the lyrics to hundreds of songs. But here's the thing: songs rhyme. That's a little trick invented several thousand years ago when nobody knew how to write. Make stuff rhyme and it's easier to remember. But my jokes didn't rhyme.

Also, I was terrified.

See, we happened to be in an election year and unemployment was a big issue. (Not like now.) So when the media found out there was going to be a contest for the Funniest Unemployed Comic, they pounced on it like a Congressman on an intern. The New York Times was there. The three major networks were there. CNN was there. The Goddamn BBC was there! There was a bank of TV cameras lined up against the wall and two or three tables full of journalists right down front. How's that for a little pressure your first time doing stand-up?

The house was packed. And some of the other comics were actually pretty damn good. A few of them were obviously pros. I may have been the only stand-up virgin in the bunch. I felt dizzy and sick and I was sweating like Nixon on acid. I couldn't remember my own name, much less my three-minute set. When we did a run-through I took the mike off the stand and prowled the stage Carlin-style. Not because I was trying to emulate my hero, but because my legs were shaking so much from unbridled fear that I literally could not stand still. But when it came time for the actual show, we were told we needed to stand directly in front of the mike so the TV cameras could keep us in frame. I was vibrating like a jackhammer. I could barely recall the words to my first joke. I somehow managed to croak it out.

And then a miracle happened. Everybody LAUGHED! It was a big, room-sized laugh too, not some polite ha-ha shit. I was transformed. I felt powerful and brilliant. I was still shaking uncontrollably, sweating buckets, reeling with nausea and straining to remember every single word. But I was loving it. What a rush. I scored with joke after joke. I killed. The TV cameras rolled. The journalists scribbled. Jaded cocktail waitresses smiled involuntarily. It was heaven.

I even got one of my jokes broadcast on CNN. It was about how hard it was to look for work and how I had finally given up trying to find a real job and decided to become a candidate for President. Trust me, at the time, with something like 19 Democrats in the race, the joke was replete with biting political satire. And it got me national exposure as a stand up comic. I even heard Jay Leno do a ripoff of the same joke a few nights later. I figured I was at the beginning of a new career. And it was so easy, you know, except for the queasiness, convulsions, dehydration and partial stroke.

I never did become a famous stand-up comic. Back in the nineties, apparently, every other misfit wannabe Seinfeld with approval issues decided to become stand-up too. The field became glutted. Jerry Seinfeld eventually became the new King of Comedy and soon every comic wanted his own sitcom. They even gave George Carlin a sitcom. But he wasn't suited to the format. Too confining.

At some point a bunch of morons started circulating emails featuring racist and right-wing type comments and attributing them to George. It pissed me off to think that most people who read them wouldn't know the difference. They didn't understand that George's humor had more to it than just making fun of annoying things or stupid people. George was out to enlighten us. Humor can be one of the most powerful mind-expanding tools around, when used by a master. And it doesn't have to be highbrow or "thinky" to do it.


There aren't many folks around who know how to use humor the way George did. He was like the John Lennon of comedy. I will always carry with me the lessons I learned while laughing at the things George said. I think comedy is one of the best things in life. And George made comedy even better.So, from one class clown to another: Thanks George. See you in detention.