I have a theory that a college education is not an asset to a comedian. The comedian– in today’s comedy– thrives on the “arrested thought” (my term).
If you make a joke that is subtle or complex, you risk a dud in front of a live audience which may not ever get it.
George Carlin, bless his soul, regularly does take this chance. But he is exceptional. And I am disturbed by the fact that he is now widely honored, even revered. I’ll bet he worries about it too. When the establishment falls over itself to hand you awards (Kennedy Centre honors), you have obviously become part of … the establishment.
For example, it’s funnier to mock abstract art if you don’t quite process the real thing. If you don’t get into the question of shape or color or visualization or composition, or how hard it is to actually create an abstract painting (try it, if you don’t believe me). If you process it that far, it’s not funny anymore. It’s plausible that there might be something to abstract art–and that the criteria for judging it might be different than, say, for a photograph– and that is the joke’s death. It’s funnier to describe a painting as a bunch of splatters and lines and say, “I’m supposed to be amazed by this?” The young high-school educated working class males in the audience respond enthusiastically because they don’t get it either and they hate feeling stupid.
Louis C. K., a comedian I like very much, recently appeared on David Letterman to mock the Common Core. I’m not sure about Common Core. I haven’t studied it carefully. It may well be a very significant, important, and effective reform. But Louis C. K., with his high school diploma gets to describe Common Core math as “Bill has three goldfish. He buys two more. How many dogs live in London.” London, of course. There is something, to the working-class male, foreign about this Common Core. Elitist. Fucking Common Core. Hilarious. Drink up.
Where is the joke? The joke is half of fourth graders in the U.S. can’t read a thermometer accurately. The joke is that American adults rank in the bottom 20% in math skills among 20 developed nations. The joke is that A&W’s 1/3 pound burger bombed in the U.S. because most customers thought it was smaller than the quarter-pounder at McDonald’s. The joke is that Americans are the worst at math in the entire world and Louis C. K. yuks it up because any attempt to improve math scores involves challenging, intellectually demanding effort, and you can’t seriously expect an American man to give a shit about anything other than beer, football, and large breasts. And if you think otherwise, it’s because you’re an elitist snob who thinks he’s better than us.
The joke should have been, Louis C. K. makes an appointment to see the teacher but can’t find the room for the meeting because it has more than two digits in the number.
Mitch Hedberg died on April Fools Day, 2005. That’s why it took so long for people to realize he was really dead. That’s no joke.
Bob Hope was actually pretty witty and funny and charming. I never liked him because for me, growing up in the 1960’s, he was the quintessential establishment comedian: he used writers and cue cards instead of creating and memorizing his own material; and he was white, safe, homogenized, and a classic Republican Chicken Hawk: a passionate supporter of the Viet Nam War who– of course!– never got within a hundred miles of actually serving in a war, though I’m sure he felt very brave doing comedy at a military base somewhere near the location of actual warfare.
Also like a classic Republican, Hope carried on several affairs while married, including a long-term one with actress Marilyn Maxwell. Why is this so inevitable?
When Hope was honoured by Queen Elizabeth with an honorary knighthood, he quipped, “I’m speechless. 70 years of ad lib material and I’m speechless”. Well, no. Seventy years of cue cards, Mr. Hope. But an interesting line. I’m quite sure he doesn’t mind most of fans believing that he writes his own quips or thinks of them on the fly.
Great comedy really is a mark of genius, and the best comedians around today like Louis C. K., Stephen Wright, Doug Stanhope and others might be among the smartest people in the entertainment business.