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Oct 03 2011

Carlin on Profanity and Comedy

I’m finishing up Paul Provenza’s book Sataristas, which is a series of interviews with some of the best comedians in the world (and a few that don’t belong there at all, in my view). The last interview is with George Carlin and it took place only a week before he died. Carlin, for me and a lot of other people, is the absolute pinnacle of stand up comedy. No one in the history of stand up has produced more original and brilliant material than he did. As Provenza notes in his introduction to the interview, it’s almost absurd to talk about Carlin “in his prime” because his prime lasted 40 years — and got started after he had become one of the biggest stars in the business.

Provenza asked him about the commonly voiced opinion that a comedian that “has to” use profanity is somehow not clever enough to work without it. Carlin rightly scoffs at that:

Yeah, that “You don’t need to; you’re a funny man, you don’t need that stuff” thing. Well, my argument is that you don’t need paprika or oregano or a few other things to make a stew, technically, either — but you make a better stew. If you’re inclined to make a stew of that type, “seasoning” helps.

I know from Bill Cosby’s work, he clearly feels that way, and I’ve always felt that by taking that stand and developing a body of work that didn’t include it, Cosby can never now choose to use that language. I, however, can choose either.

I can do six minutes on The Tonight Show with none of that in it — I can use other parts of my tool kit that work for me; I’m good at them, too, and can do that no problem — but I can also be more of my street-corner self elsewhere, with language of the street if I want to do that, too.

Why should I deprive myself of a small but important part of language that my fellow humans have developed? Why not use all of what we’ve developed to communicate with?

Sometimes I overdo it intentionally, because it has an effect of its own. I think there are a lot of sentences where the adjective “fucking — I guess it’s a gerund, isn’t it? — sometimes just makes the joke work better. And not because they’re laughing at the word “fuck” but because including that word may make the language of a sentence more powerful, and it just gets in there better. It just gets in that channel you’ve got open with a harder punch, you know? That’s why people use it in life — because it makes something they’re trying to say stronger; it gives a particular effect.

I think the folks who choose to deny that part of our language have limited themselves. And that’s fine; that’s good. Good choice over there…but I’m just fine over here.

I think he nails it perfectly. Cosby chooses not to use profanity and that’s fine. He’s brilliant. He’s unquestionably on my Mt. Rushmore of comedy (I’d put Carlin, Cosby and Pryor on mine — feel free to add the fourth). But I’ve heard so many people say things like “Oh, a comedian having to swear just shows the limit of their vocabulary.” George Carlin is the definitive disproof of that claim. He is a master of language, the finest wordsmith we’ve ever seen in comedy.

The bottom line is this: you can be funny and work clean or you can be funny and be profane. And the only thing that matters is that you’re funny. Funny and profane is infinitely better than boring and clean (hello, Jay Leno), and funny and clean is infinitely better than unfunny and profane (yes, I’m looking at you, Andrew “Dice” Clay).

43 comments

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  1. 1
    Aquaria

    Well, there is a reason that cussing is considered “spicy”. George just took the idea and ran with it.

    Still nice to see his take on the issue.

    I miss that crazy bastard.

  2. 2
    MikeMa

    I saw Carlin in a theater round 25 or 30 years ago. I was in awe and hysterics for 2 hours.

    Mark Twain has a number of profanity quotes. This is one of my favs:

    My swearing doesn’t mean any more to me than your sermons do to you. – comment made to Rev. Joe Twichell, quoted in Mark Twain and Hawaii, by Walter Francis Frear

  3. 3
    anandine

    The fourth (I’d put him first) is Robin Williams.

  4. 4
    eric

    Yeah, so long as cursing is part of human society, it makes perfect sense for commentators on society – like comedians – to use it, talk about it, etc… Not using profanity is sort of like not doing political jokes. Yeah, you could choose not to. But you’re limiting your material by making that choice.

    feel free to add the fourth

    Do group acts (Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, etc.) count as one person?

  5. 5
    Michael Heath

    Ed writes:

    I’d put Carlin, Cosby and Pryor on mine — feel free to add the fourth.

    Jonathan Winters, Bob Newhart, and Eddie Murphy while removing Pryor and Cosby.

    I favor Eddie Murphy analogous to what Chuck Berry is to Keith Richards. I far prefer Richards while also conceding there is no Richards without Berry. For Pryor to stay on the list he’d have to be what Jimi Hendrix is to Stevie Ray Vaughn, which is both the originator and the equal or better. I wouldn’t argue my position is better, just that I happen to prefer Murphy’s less painful comedy to Pryor’s where I ached for the guy.

    While acknowledging the enormous societal contribution Cosby made where Murphy also followed in his footsteps along with Pryor’s, specifically humanizing black Americans to an audience who was raised to dehumanize blacks in both blatant and subversive ways, I just didn’t find Cosby all that funny.

  6. 6
    Eamon Knight

    I just finished Pinker’s The Stuff of Thought, which includes a whole chapter discussing cussin’, and it’s well worth the read. F’rinstance: swearing is handled largely on the opposite side of the brain (right, IIRC) than “normal” speech. It seems to straddle the fence between semantically meaningful speech and emotional ejaculations like “Ow!” and “Aagh!” With Carlin, Pinker takes the position that it isn’t the case that cussers do so because they lack vocabulary (or not necessarily, anyway); rather they are taking advantage of a uniquely powerful part of language.

    Of course, like anything, it can be overdone: part of the punch of a good profanity comes from the breaking of the social taboo, which depends on that taboo not becoming too weakened by habitual violation. I see I’ve previously quoted Flanders & Swann on the subject in this space.

  7. 7
    lynxreign

    I’m always surprised when you describe your “Mt. Rushmore of comedy” that you don’t include people like Gracie Allen, Goerge Burns, Jack Benny, Ed Wynn, Edger Bergen, Fred Allen, etc… Even just one of them. Your list is like saying what presidents you’d like to see on the actual Mt. Rushmore, but only including presidents from the 20th century. Even then I’m frequently surprised you don’t include Bob Newhart.

  8. 8
    Pieter B, FCD

    Cosby used profanity at least once; in the show Himself, he tells of asking a friend what is so great about cocaine. The friend responds “It intensifies your personality.”

    Cosby — after a perfect pause — says “Suppose you’re an asshole?”

    There is simply no other word that will work as well in that joke. None.

  9. 9
    Aquaria

    Cosby used profanity at least once

    He’s used it far more than that. In one sketch, he talked about how his father would always use “Jesus Christ!” when he’s frustrated or angry at one kid, and “Goddammit!” with another kid. The joke is that Dad uses “Goddammit” with the first kid, who says, “But, Dad, I’m Jesus Christ!”

  10. 10
    Aquaria

    I’d probably swap Cosby with Bill Hicks.

    I can’t stand Robin Williams. He can be funny, but he’s too much like a hyperactive child for me to find him enjoyable. After two minutes of watching him. I start constructing elaborate tortures that I would use to make him sit down and shut up.

  11. 11
    386sx

    I’d put Groucho Marx in there. Although IMO he’s a bit of a jerk. He said some jerky things about Margaret Dumont for example. He should get his due for being funny though. (Though a complete jerk.)

  12. 12
  13. 13
    Michael Heath

    386sx:

    I’d put Groucho Marx in there. Although IMO he’s a bit of a jerk. He said some jerky things about Margaret Dumont for example. He should get his due for being funny though. (Though a complete jerk.)

    That seems to be an impossible standard; especially since entry to most people’s funny bone requires you to be at least a bit of an asshole. Even the seemingly benign Jerry Seinfeld or Bob Newhart were occasional assholes.

    If you start expanding the genre beyond stand-up than my all-time faves are Mark Twain and Larry David. Mr. David is an exemplary asshole, a true dick in the finest sense of the word.

  14. 14
    Ed Brayton

    Michael Heath-

    I know this is all subjective and a matter of taste, but replacing Richard Pryor with Eddie Murphy? Wow. Not even close for me. I think Eddie Murphy was Richard Pryor without the substance. He got the cursing down but left out all the humanity. Going from Pryor to Murphy is a regression, not a progression (and it becomes even worse when you look at the comics that Eddie Murphy influenced, the Martin Lawrence generation — with Chris Rock being the big exception).

  15. 15
    Pieter B, FCD

    @Aquaria Point taken, but although technically cussing, “Jesus Christ!” and “Goddammmit!” are far more acceptable than “asshole,” which I don’t think is acceptable in the mythical family newspaper yet.

  16. 16
    Tim DeLaney

    Cosby was good, but not one of my top 4.

    George Carlin (For the greatest punchline ever)
    Henny Youngman (For brevity)
    Jack Benny (for his timing)
    Eddie Murphy (for his Mr. Rogers portrayal)

    The greatest punchline ever? I thought you’d never ask.

    “But he loves you.”

  17. 17
    Hercules Grytpype-Thynne

    Participle, actually.

  18. 18
    Bronze Dog

    I used to make a big deal about not cursing, but George Carlin played a big roll in my current attitude towards profanity.

    [/Most Interesting Man in the World]
    I don’t always curse, but when I do, I make it a Precision F-Strike.
    [/Interesting]

    Someone who constantly curses to the point of droning can be accused of poor vocabulary, but not people like George Carlin. It’s like any other potential element of comedy: A matter of timing and delivery. A well-timed curse word can help strip away our illusions and complacency to reveal the absurdities we live with.

  19. 19
    Lou Doench

    I think it’s reasonable to separate out stand-up comedians, performers mostly known for their stand up comedy, from more generically funny people when we are building a Mt Rushmore. That’s the primary reason I can’t put Robin Williams or Eddie Murphy up there. Both of them really made their mark in other venues.

    For just stand ups (full disclosure, I did stand-up comedy as a amateur for a lot of the 90′s, I’m a big stand up fan), my list goes
    Carlin, Pryor, Cosby (Cosby practically created the modern stand up album industry) and Bill Hicks.
    Honorable mentions to Rodney Dangerfield, Jerry Seinfeld, Lily Tomlin, and Dick Gregory.

    It’s hard to imagine nowadays, but back in the day Jay Leno was incredibly funny.

  20. 20
    ManOutOfTime

    Samuel Jackson makes profanity sound like Shakepseare – not a comic but still. Redd Foxx and Lenny Bruce were the yin and yang of blue comedy once upon a time, Redd’s philosophy summed up I think in the bit about shit and fuck being the most important things a person does: “You can’t shit? Fuck! You can’t fuck? Shiiiit!!”

    Shelley Berman is one I would list as a non-blue hero.

  21. 21
    ManOutOfTime

    Two filthy-mouthed favorites who also kill (or killed) with G-Rated personae: Buddy Hackett and Patton Oswald (sp?).

  22. 22
    LightningRose

    Lenny Bruce is the giant upon whose shoulders all modern comedians have stood.

  23. 23
    democommie

    For me, Bill Cosby stopped being funny around 1968. He’s a pompous, sanctimonious scold.

    Eddie Murphy’s first major cable concert (IIRC) where he did the bit about Ralph and Norton, Mr. T and others buttfucking was shocking and hilarious–shocking to my friends, hilarious to me.

    There are far too many truly wonderful comedians/comediennes out there, both stand-up and actors on stage and film, that it’s impossible for me to pick anyone as the best. I always like Carlin’s rants, but Lewis Black is nearly as good, at least for me. I know he doesn’t have the time in grade, but I really enjoy his mix of profanity, insanity and insight.

  24. 24
    Ed Brayton

    Lou Doensch has my exact list. I’d put Bill Hicks in the 4th spot.

    As for Robin Williams, I think he’s absolutely brilliant. The big reason I would keep him off Mt. Rushmore is because he is also a notorious material thief. And because, frankly, he never really had a perspective. I prefer comics who have more meaning behind their stand up, who do more than just say funny things. I know Cosby is really the exception to that, but I think the fact that he was so consistently funny and so universally accessible overcomes that.

    George Carlin would say that all he was trying to do was be funny, that he never tried to change anyone’s mind on anything. But he did so whether he wanted to or not because he had such an identifiable perspective on things and articulated it so well. I think the same is true of Richard Pryor, who told a story that most white people didn’t know and educated us about what was going on in places we didn’t visit. And the same is obviously true about Bill Hicks; he wasn’t just telling jokes, he was making an extended argument about the nature of reality. That is what the very best comedians always do.

  25. 25
    Improbable Joe, bearer of the Official SpokesGuitar

    ManOutOfTime, that’s Patton OswalT. And yeah, he is crazy sick funny.
    Count me in for Bill Hicks, and replace Cosby with either Redd Foxx or Lenny Bruce. No women on the side of the mountain… yet.

    I assume everyone here is listening to Marc Maron’s WTF podcast? If you’re a comedy fan, you’ve got to give it a listen. Twice a week, tons of comedians interviews plus recorded live shows where he brings around a half-dozen comics on stage and they all fling the funny at each other. The one with “comedy legend” Gallagher is probably the most screwed up thing I’ve heard since Gene Simmons propositioned Terry Gross on Fresh Air.

  26. 26
    David C Brayton

    I am still amazed by how similar we are. My list would have been exactly the same and for the same reasons. And my thoughts on Eddie Murphy, Bill Hicks, Chris Rock and Robin Williams are the same.

    Bill Hicks is great. But often his punch lines are simply the sad truth. So, I find it hard to laugh at some of his stuff.

    Robin Williams is hysterical when doing stand up. But there really isn’t much point to his comedy. His comedic movies just suck. But the guy can really act–Dead Poets Society and One Hour Photo were great performances.

  27. 27
    sbh

    I don’t think I could do a Mt. Rushmore of (American?) comedy, just because I can’t narrow it down to four only. Even excluding comedy teams (Burns and Allen, Bob and Ray), those who worked primarily in ensembles (Stan Freberg, Jack Benny, Firesign Theatre), and one-hit wonders (Andy Griffith, Johnny Standley),there are way too many of them. I’d probably include at least as candidates Jonathan Winters, Mort Sahl, Bob Newhart, George Carlin, Eddie Lawrence, Andy Kaufman, Richard Pryor, Steven Wright, Paula Poundstone…

    Out of curiosity I asked the guy who lives in the cell next to my office what his choices would be for the Mt. Rushmore of comedy, and without hesitation he came up with (1) Andy Kaufman (quintessential comic genius), (2) Jeff Foxworthy (the guy’s made millions telling the same joke for decades), (3) Penn and Teller (funniest guys around), and (4) Groucho Marx (the grandfather of comedy–leaving him out would be like leaving Washington off Mt. Rushmore).

  28. 28
    Crommunist

    I’d be inclined to put John Cleese, or perhaps Andy Kaufman up there (if we’re not limiting ourselves to traditional ‘standups’). They both put out a body of work that was revolutionary and introduced brand new elements to the field. I’d be inclined to think that the list should be distilled from who comedians cite as their influences, and nobody can claim that the kinds of ‘street comedy’ we’re seeing now isn’t directly influenced by those guys. I’ve got a tin ear for female comics, but maybe someone can chime in on their behalf too.

    And yeah, saying Eddie Murphy over Richard Pryor is nonsensical. Murphy picked up where Pryor left off – intentional imitation. Same with Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle. These are direct inheritors of a niche in comedy that was first created by Richard.

  29. 29
    steve oberski

    Stephen Fry on swearing:

    Swearing is a really important part of one’s life. It would be impossible to imagine going through life without swearing and without enjoying swearing… There used to be mad, silly, prissy people who used to say swearing was a sign of a poor vocabulary -such utter nonsense. The people I know who swear the most tend to have the widest vocabularies and the kind of person who says swearing is a sign of a poor vocabulary usually have a pretty poor vocabulary themselves… The sort of twee person who thinks swearing is in any way a sign of a lack of education or a lack of verbal interest or -is just a fucking lunatic… I haven’t met anybody who’s truly shocked at swearing, really, they’re only shocked on behalf of other people. Well, you know, that’s preposterous… or they say ‘it’s not necessary’. As if that should stop one doing it! It’s not necessary to have coloured socks, it’s not necessary for this cushion to be here, but is anyone going to write in and say ‘I was shocked to see that cushion there, it really wasn’t necessary’? No, things not being necessary is what makes life interesting -the little extras in life.

  30. 30
    Dave Regis

    In the immortal words of Billy Connolly, a man who may already be carved out of some sort of granite:

    People say that swearing shows a lack of vocabulary. So, tell me the English equivalent of ‘fuck off’ and I’ll gladly use it. But it certainly isn’t ‘go away’.

  31. 31
    sinned34

    I’m really out of my element when it comes to comedy. I just find so little stand-up worth watching. I guess I should educate myself with some of the recommendations here. I’ve heard of some of the names, but I was just a kid when most of them were in their primes, apparently.

    I’ve had a lot of fun watching Al Murray and Dara O’Briain recently, and my all-time favorite would have to be George Carlin. I can’t stand Eddie Murphy or Bill Cosby.

  32. 32
    386sx

    @Michael Heath That seems to be an impossible standard; especially since entry to most people’s funny bone requires you to be at least a bit of an asshole.

    What standard? I gave him a thumbs up! Obviously I have no standards!

  33. 33
    Marcus Ranum

    4th on the Rushmore of comedy would have to be Lenny Bruce.

    Not because he was the funniest but because he owns the spot. (I think Sam Kinison was crazy funny, too)

  34. 34
  35. 35
    jakegiddens

    No love for Eddie Izzard?

  36. 36
    cycleninja

    See, Ed, this is the dilemma in which I find myself about Bill Hicks: I find myself agreeing with a lot of what he said. But I rarely found myself laughing at it. I don’t disagree that he was enormously influential, but I find myself busting a gut at Patton Oswalt’s material far more often.

  37. 37
    WMDKitty -- Survivor

    If the fourth is Robin Williams, we need to add a fifth — Bill Hicks.

  38. 38
    sithrazer

    My top four, though perhaps not all Mt. Rushmore worthy, would go something like: George Carlin, Lewis Black, Christopher Titus…. I guess I’ll have to put some more thought into number 4.

  39. 39
    Michael Heath

    Crommunist:

    And yeah, saying Eddie Murphy over Richard Pryor is nonsensical. Murphy picked up where Pryor left off – intentional imitation. Same with Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle. These are direct inheritors of a niche in comedy that was first created by Richard.

    So no Beatles or Rolling Stones, we need to stick only to Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly? And even then you run into their predecessors who they imitated, and on and on. As I noted earlier, I get why so many people are enamored with Richard Pryor, I just happen to find Murphy more relevant to me and my type of humor while knowingly acknowledging whose footsteps he’s following. The same way I listen far more to the Stones than I ever did those they admittedly ripped-off.

  40. 40
    Artor

    While he didn’t do stand-up, I think Shel Silverstein Shares some similarities with Carlin. He definitely refutes the “Oh, a comedian having to swear just shows the limit of their vocabulary.” line handily. I think he must have enjoyed the irony that he was most famous for his kid’s poetry, after a long career writing for Playboy. Another master wordsmith.

  41. 41
    386sx

    Pat Boone for his masterful comedic performance in State Fair (1962).

  42. 42
    Michael Heath

    Artor:

    I think Shel Silverstein Shares some similarities with Carlin.

    I have a buddy who memorized large swaths of Silverstein’s epic poem, The Devil & Billy Markham. High-art when you’re a small-town 19 year-old; from our perspective Silverstein was right up there with Homer. He can still do a few bits some 30-plus years later.

    Back then we had no idea back then how the idea for that poem was the long-held legend about a cross roads where people bargained their soul to the devil, in spite of a few popular rock songs which covered the topic. That poem was instead our formal introduction to the concept.

  43. 43
    davem

    Bill Cosby? Seriously? Meh. Maybe it’s an American thing. I can watch him and not break a smile. Add Eddie Izzard. He can do it in French and German too.

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