Uneducated Comedians

I have a theory that a college education is not an asset to a comedian.  Some comedians, including Woody Allen, ridicule pretty well all education.   Their teachers were stupid.  They were smarter than their teachers.  Schools suppressed their creativity and imagination.  Most of what they learned is irrelevant to their lives.

They are right that the education system needs to be improved but I wonder what they think would be a good alternative.  I suppose, better teachers.   Hollywood loves movies about inspirational teachers who are attacked and repressed by soul-less repressive authority figures.  If the movie is based on a true story, I guarantee you that the enemy of the inspirational teacher is fiction– audiences need a villain.

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 figurative art– 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.

That doesn’t make them the smartest people.  Just from that select group.  But the sad trend among comedians to ridicule education at every opportunity sounds to me like musicians dumping on music critics.  Did you forget why a lot of people started listening to your music and bought your albums?  Because they read a review somewhere.

Comedy of the Transgressive

One of the things that depressed Kurt Colbain was the realization that many if not most of the people in his audiences were very like the people he despised in his songs. Braying, angry, violent, and easily led. Here we are now: entertain us!

It was a realization that came to Dylan early on in his career as well and contributed to his evolution as an artist, and into songs about personal reflection, social hypocrisy, and absurdity that dominated his career in the mid 60’s. From a militant “The Times They are A’Changin'” to the ridiculous (and ridiculously brilliant) “Visions of Johanna”:

See the primitive wallflowers freeze
as the jelly-faced women all sneeze
see the one with the moustache say
‘geez, I can’t find my knees’.

How dark a moment is it when you realize that the essence of your persona as an artist is a paradox: to lead people to not trust leaders, to think for themselves, when all they want to do is worship you. When they call you prophetic for telling them about false prophets.

Or, you cater to them.

Doug Stanhope surely must find himself in Bob Dylan’s predicament often. While he ridicules drug treatment programs, pious commemorations, and, gently, affably, Mitch Hedberg’s family (for using donations to set up a drug treatment program which, considering Hedberg’s passion for drugs, is like holding a commemorative barbeque for a deceased vegetarian), he can’t not be aware of that large segment of the crowd that is rooting for him to use the word “fuck” and roars with delight every time he does. And when he seems to imply that only representational paintings qualify as art and should be rated by how much they duplicate the function of a photograph, and that modern art is a fraud, he’s got this crowd on his side.  They feel smart again.  He can’t be that stupid.  Modern art is stupid.

Doug Stanhope is a very good, astute stand-up comedian. Every comedian will sound uneven over an hour but Stanhope does better than most (“Before Turning the Gun on Himself”).

Good (or bad) stand-up comedians often provoke this response in me: if I criticize the part of his routine that makes fun of things I admire, am I being a hypocrite when I enjoy him making fun of things I hold in contempt, like the religious zealotry surrounding commemorations of 9/11 (when the attackers were themselves driven by similar values), or the drug war, or grief counselors?

He ridicules the idea of effecting social change through comedy or art, yet he insists the world would be better if we legalized drugs. Yet he hectors us with contempt for comedy that hectors us. That is a social change. That’s a policy, it’s politics. I get the feeling that– back to my high school/college paradox (left column: comedians are funnier if they don’t allow themselves to be too smart)– he embraced some social movements and then was deeply shocked and disappointed and personally wounded when he discovered it would take more than one or two rallies and a year of advocacy to make decisive change in the world.

The style of comedy itself is ripe for parody: imagine a stream of satirical elements mocking the way these comedians strive to continuously find something that will continue to shock after every other comedian has ratcheted up the standard. Stanhope talks at length and in detail about his lack of constipation, his use of porn sites and booze and drugs. He has to go further than anyone else to maintain that transgressive vibe, risking what eventually looks like a cheap laugh.


And Now, My Fee

It should be absolutely, irrevocably, unconditionally illegal for any agent, lawyer, manager, or service provider of any kind to deduct his or her fees directly from any property owned by the person for whom they are performing a service. And that goes triple for lawyers. And agents. And managers.

Lawyers, and bankers, you see, are not like you and me.

If you hire a lawyer to manage your purchase of a home, they do not do the work for you like a plumber, a dentist, a doctor, a mechanic, or a carpenter, and then, once you have agreed that the work has been performed in a satisfactory way, submit his or her bill for you to pay, with approval. (I grant that it would not be unreasonable for them to ask for a fair “up front” fee to begin the work). No. The lawyer decides how much to pay him or herself and then takes it right out of your bank account. If you, later on, realize that the lawyer made up imaginery services and imaginary expertise and charged you large sums of money for them, and you did not ever agree to pay these surprise fees and charges– good luck getting your money back. You will never see a penny. Unless you hire …. a lawyer.

Yes, this happened to me. A lawyer added close to $800 to my bill for certain services. I demanded to know what the charge was for and he could not tell me. He just muttered something about something that was “required” and how impertinent of you to question a lawyer about whether or not you need to pay him lots of money.

Other businesses would love to be in on this arrangement, which is why I am always a bit leery of providing my credit card data to places like my domain registrar, or the New York Times website.

Just imagine your plumber came in to do some work. Instead of giving you a quote and then doing the work and then showing you a bill and then accepting your payment– once you are sure he did the work he promised to do– suppose he just demanded your bank card and your pin number. And when he was done, he just went down to the bank and withdraw as much money as he thought he deserved.”

I fully expect that a lawyer reading this would say that I have no idea how many people would hire a lawyer, make use of his services, and then not pay for the services. It would be intolerable for a professional to have to put up with that kind of rip-off. In other words, it would be intolerable for lawyers to have to live in the same real world as plumbers and mechanics and carpenters.

I believe it should be enshrined in law: any professional who deducts his or her own fees from any transaction is committing theft– even if they say they were owed the fees. If they are really owed the fees and the customer refused to pay them, let them hire lawyers and try to obtain their money through the courts like everyone else.

It is absolutely epidemic in the world of entertainment and sports. Agents and managers receive the money, deduct their own fees and expenses, and the let the rest go into the athlete or performer’s bank account. And we hear, over and over and over again, how some incredibly successful star athlete or musician is now bankrupt because they didn’t pay attention and their managers bled them dry while charging every expense, no matter how minor, to the performers’ accounts.

Not good enough for you? Not easy enough? Not convenient? Suck it up: that’s why everyone else expects to have to do if there is a dispute over fees and services and you are not entitled to magical powers just because you say so.

The Appropriate Sentence for a Crime

Almost everybody loves to whine about criminals getting off easy. That’s all he got? Four years? Five years? Twenty years? It’s not enough. They should lock him up for life. No wonder there’s so much crime!

I don’t know of any divine tablet or sacred spreadsheet that tells us what a “light” sentence is or what is a sufficient punishment for, say, a burglary, or an assault, or a rape. People routinely act as if they know but they usually only say it should be more than what it was. Always more. If you asked someone out of the blue how many years in prison a man should serve for, say, rape, I doubt that most people have a clue as to how to arrive at a particular number.

How long should a man serve for conning people out of money? 144 years?

The most useful measure, in my opinion, is the relative seriousness of a crime. And the “seriousness” of a crime should be measured in harm.  And what is a harm?  If you have deprived someone of a material good, or health, life, or limb. There, we are on firmer ground, though not in the clear.

What types of crime are there?

There should never be any punishment for thought crimes. You would think that would be obvious– I would have thought it would be obvious– but in the so-called war on terror, the U.S. is now locking up young men for talking about jihad even if they cannot be shown to have taken a single actual step towards committing an act of terrorism. Talking about a crime is not really a crime unless you proceed to commit the crime. Talking about using drugs without using drugs is not illegal. Talking about having sex without having sex is not illegal. But talking about jihad without doing any jihad will get you 20 years, especially if an enthusiastic FBI informant offers to supply you with guns and bombs.

There are “victimless” crimes like possession of drugs for personal use, prostitution, possession of pornography (which, under the Canadian criminal code, used to include depictions of homosexual acts). When people try to justify prosecution for these crimes they frequently give, as reasons, consequences that are already illegal under other laws: driving while drunk, assault, exploitation of minors. But if a man (or a woman) uses threats of physical violence to force another person into acts of prostitution, I believe he or she should be prosecuted for a) exploitation (taking the money earned by someone else’s forced labour) or b) assault. But if two independent adults agree to have sex with each other in exchange for money, the government should stay out of it.

Drugs are more complicated: prescription drugs should be regulated to ensure quality and accuracy of dosages.   Alcohol should be regulated to prevent minors from having access but what if someone brews their own?  I think it is possible to prohibit giving alcohol to minors but if a person wants to consume home-brewed liquors in his own home, the government should stay out of it.  And the government has no business telling anyone they can’t grow a particular plant and then stick its leaves in their mouths and set them on fire. As long as they don’t get behind the wheel of a car after doing so.

But then, why should the tobacco industry be regulated?  You see– it does get complicated.  There is a difference: the shareholders and managers of tobacco companies profit by deceiving customers into believing their product is harmless (and, at one time, glamorous).  That invites legitimate government regulation.  Could we have a world where commercial sales of tobacco is banned entirely but if someone wants to grow some in his backyard and smoke it that is entirely up to the individual?

Should motorcycle owners be required to wear helmets?  And if they don’t, would society be okay with denying medical care to a motorcyclist who chose not to wear a helmet and got into an accident that caused a head injury?  Ayn Rand might say, sure.  Our society would find that hard to stomach.  In the end, the most rational choice may be to require helmets.

There are property crimes. I think there should be a big difference between the punishment for property crimes and the punishment for crimes of violence. And I think the punishment for property crimes should be focused on restitution, not on revenge.

Crimes of violence should be taken very seriously, and repeat offenders should receive escalating sentences. This is one area where I have some sympathy for victims’ rights organizations– with limitations. Quite often, we hear mythical tales of someone who committed numerous violent acts and kept getting released after light sentences. In many instances, the story is more complicated than that: our judges are not stupid.

Capital Punishment is absurd: if we really believe that life is sacred and the taking of a life is a horrible offense, the last message we want to send to society is that we will do it too. Besides, as DNA testing has shown, we are all too frequently wrong in determining who committed the crime and a capital sentence cannot be reversed.

Unfortunately, what has happened in the U.S. is a ratcheting up of criminal sentencing. And the word “ratcheting” is exactly what I mean. A ratchet, if you don’t know, is a box wrench on a handle that can be switched to allow the user to quickly turn the handle back and forth while applying force in one direction only. In the U.S., over the last forty years, there has been constant political pressure to lengthen sentences without the slightest movement backwards. It has become politically impossible–thanks to the “tough on crime” wing of the Republican party– to advocate for lighter sentences for anything (though there are signs the U.S. is coming to their senses on the issue). As a result, sentences for some crimes in the U.S. have moved beyond severe to ridiculous and then to the sadistic and finally absurd. Yes, there are people in federal prisons in the U.S. serving 20-25 years for possession of marijuana. If you’re a rational person, you probably don’t believe me.

The benchmark sentence for violent crime should be 25 years for murder and there should be a chance of parole after 15 years. Hey, I can be specific. And you can quibble all you like about the exact number, but I believe that 25 is a rational, reasonable guess as to how much is appropriate and constructive. I believe that even a murderer should have some hope of being released some day if only to provide him with an incentive to change his life while in prison. Prison guards will tell you that it is not helpful for a prisoner to know that he will never be released no matter what his behavior is like, in prison.  He or she has nothing to lose.

Scale that down to three months for a basic assault that does not include sufficient violence to inflict permanent injury to the victim for a person who is not a repeat offender. It seems rational to me to give suspended sentences to first-time offenders in this category, particularly if they take steps to turn their lives around, especially making personal, public apologies and restitution.

The rest I will leave alone– it would take years of work and analysis and practice to develop a useful, sensible scale of appropriate punishments for violent crimes that fall in between murder and assault. Hey, we have that: it’s called the criminal justice system. It needs to be fixed, within parameters like the ones I suggest above, but it’s possible, because we do still have the miracle of rule by law.

And we must stop adjusting criminal sentences by blandly pleading for “more”.

Justice vs. The Family Feud

There was a time when justice was simple: if someone wronged you, you wronged him back. If someone murdered your child or your father or your brother, you murdered him, and maybe some of his friends and family if they stood in the way. If someone took your girl, you took his life. If someone took your food, you beat him to a pulp. Brawls. Blood feuds. Civil wars.

The problem was that it often became quite murky as to where the center of gravity was in these sometimes long sequences of actions and responses. We humans are very good at rationalizing away our own culpabilities and investing our own actions with some kind of obscure virtue or wisdom that others may not apprehend. We seek revenge and won’t hesitate to extract more punishment than might be deserved, to satisfy a craving that is not about the health of a community or some kind of “balance” to human affairs: we want to see them suffer. We want to be seen as the wronged victim because nothing makes you seem more righteous or virtuous than being able to point at someone else who is very, very bad. You thereby entitled to do the crime he or she did, to them, or even more, because it is so outrageous that virtuous, innocent you, was wronged by them.

But years of experience taught people that these kind of blood-feuds only led to disaster, to wars, to destruction, to division and acrimony. Can anyone imagine these disputes ever ending with, “oh, all right, I guess now we’re even”? We’re never even: your revenge was always somehow excessive or unjustified or came at the wrong time.

It is one of the greatest miracles of civilization: rule of law. The idea that crimes should be addressed by the community, not by the wronged party, and that the appropriate punishment should be decided by neutral third parties, not by the relatives or friends of the victim. This was progress: the wiser heads in a community saw that allowing individuals to take revenge for crimes committed against them led to instability and factionalism and hatred and ended up destroying everyone. And the wiser heads prevailed, in the West, at least, in the Magna Carta, and democracy and law and the courts and impartial judges.

Where did it come from? Probably from the idea of God, of something greater than ourselves, who alone was entitled to judge and exact punishment. Try as you might to locate the idea in “natural law”, it’s hard to make the leap to transcendence. Especially once you realize that the oft-cited “eye for an eye” is, in fact, the opposite of Christ’s teachings.

But it’s hard to shake those old instincts. And it’s hard for a lot of people to look beyond their own grievances towards what is good for society in the long term. Over and over again, you hear people insist that a particular sentence given by a court is not enough. He got off lightly. We need tougher sentencing. We need to bring back capital punishment: murdering someone is so wrong, we ought to murder him.

And so we have the victims rights movement. I heard two representatives talking on the CBC this morning. They really feel it is just awful that we have this “rule of law” thing (though they would never put it that way) and that the victims of a crime don’t get to pick out the punishment. No, they would never put it that way: instead they insist that our criminal justice system doesn’t pay enough attention to the victims of crime– it’s always only about the offender, and they are right sick of it.

You might be excused for thinking for a moment that people don’t go to jail anymore and that victims rights advocates are doing nothing more than trying to see to it that wrongdoers are punished.

They will never, ever use the word “revenge”, except, to deny that that is what they really want.

They will say that what they want is a role in the criminal prosecution of the perpetrator. In other words, exactly what it is that our civilization decided long ago was a bad idea.

The primary virtue of rule of law is precisely the opposite of what they want: personal justice. Over the centuries, we have invested enormous resources into a system that is impersonal and objective and rational. It could do better at all of these things but whatever it’s faults it tries to take into consideration the long-term interests of the community, and a degree of compassion and reason and interest in rehabilitation are all in the long term interests of the community.

It is a fact that there will be many more mass shootings in the U.S. So whenever I see a new one that makes the news, I am tempted to feel rather sanguine about it. There is no element of surprise. They come and go like the rain and the wind even though, unlike the rain and the wind, it is possible to stop them.

Here’s the basic elements of the American equation:

  • guns are easily, readily available almost everywhere in the country
  • the government has not the slightest real curiosity about the purpose, mental condition, or emotional stability of the purchasers of these guns
  • these guns include assault rifles capable of firing off hundreds of rounds very, very quickly
  • a substantial percentage of the population is mentally ill or emotionally unstable or becoming emotionally unstable or about to get fired or dumped by a girlfriend
  • there is no way to detect a person who is about to be emotionally unstable and may choose to mark his first occasion with a few fireworks

Given these elements, mass shootings are not likely: they are inevitable. They are not merely inevitable: they are scheduled. We may not know the exact date and time of any particular mass shootings but we know with a good deal of certainty that they will occur on a regular basis over any fixed period of time and that no one will make any real attempt to prevent them from happening again. In fact, a lot of effort will be made– successfully– to ensure that they happen again.

Here’s another fact:

  • since no one can know when a person will begin shooting, having armed guards at various locations, like schools, will, at best, limit the damage.

And then, here’s the kicker:

  • some people will be killed by accident by some of the armed guards, or as a result of more guns being in circulation due to the the belief that arming as many people as possible will prevent future mass killings
  • the armed guards are very likely to miss their targets very often, thereby killing more bystanders

Even the police, with all their training, can rarely shoot straight in an actual confrontation with a man or men with guns.

In a high-noon scenario, a shoot-out, at the OK corral or wherever, each duelist knows that the other person is about to try to shoot him. Each person has a fair chance of beating the draw and shooting at the other person first. In reality, most of these shots will miss. In a mass shooting, the killer always has first draw.

Are we being brainwashed by TV in which killers always hold last conversations with their victims before shooting? We better hope the killers are brainwashed too– if not, the first shot at an armed guard will be a surprise every single time.

There is no high noon for a mass killer. Since no one really waits for someone to start shooting, and you can’t possibly always wait, the killer will draw his weapon first and stands a pretty good chance of killing a fair number of people before anyone anywhere nearby can respond. So go ahead and vote for that idiot politician who wants to add the cost of an armed police officer or private security guard to every elementary school in the country just so every potential killer doesn’t have to ever undergo a grueling background check before he takes possession of a new gun. Go ahead, and if you are unlucky enough to be a parent of the first child shot at the next school shooting and the security guard did not have ESP and did not manage to anticipate that the kid with the kit bag was a killer with a semi-automatic rifle and shoot him first, go ahead and sue, if you want. The Republicans have passed a law making everyone responsible for providing guns to mentally unstable people– and lots and lots of ammunition– immune to lawsuits.

Yes, Toyota can be sued for an imaginary accelerator problem, but no gun manufacturer or gun store owner can be sued for providing an efficient, deadly weapon to a deranged teenager.

Americans live in a country which has virtually scheduled for itself a mass shooting every few months. It has guaranteed it. You vote for these assholes over and over again– you have nothing to complain about. Spare me your shock and outrage when the next one happens, on schedule, soon. You refuse to do anything about it.

[Update 2019-03-27: a State Supreme Court in Hartford, Connecticut has just reinstated a lawsuit against Remington in spite of the legislation exempting gun-makers from liability.]