George Carlin Wasn’t Funny
Bill Hicks wasn’t funny. Lenny Bruce wasn’t funny.
Okay, some caveats up front:
In the absence of any meaningful objective measure of funny, what I mean is that I didn’t/don’t find Carlin funny myself. His stuff — and Hicks’s, and Bruce’s, etc. — doesn’t make me laugh.
Also, what I’m not saying is that Carlin wasn’t a talented and influential performer. There was a hypnotically compelling rhythm to his stage act. But funny? No, not really.
In fact, I can scarcely think of an American stand-up comedian I’d be interested in paying money to see, past or current. An obvious exception is Rich Hall, who on several occasions I deliberately saw a couple of times during a single run at the Edinburgh Fringe, the better to scope out the admirably seat-of-the-pants structure of his act, and the extent to which the conscious localisation of his material showed profound respect both for his audiences and his craft. But it’s perhaps relevant here that Hall has become Anglicised to the extent that a DVD I saw a while back in my local (US) Blockbuster, containing work by his Otis Lee Crenshaw character, did not consider it worthwhile to mention Hall by name.
What I’m angling for here is a claim that there are some fundamental differences between how stand-up works in Britain and the US, its goals and values — and that I very much align myself with the British approach. Not as a matter of choice; it just works for me.
Imagine a graph on which we might be able to plot stand-up styles. The x-axis of the graph represents the extent to which the comedy is about the world around us. To the extreme left, we might have surrealism and silliness, which aren’t really about anything. They curve inwards on themselves. They’re completely internal. In the middle might go the sort of whitebread observational humour that keeps most moderately competent stand-up comedians in business the world over, night after night. It’s about the world, but in a cosy, non-confrontational sort of way. To the extreme right, on the other hand, is comedy that’s completely external. It’s clearly and consciously about using comedy as either a way of opening eyes and consciences to something bad, or — and one suspects that this is the hope — of effecting some sort of change.
The y-axis of this same graph captures the extent to which the performance style is about projecting an image of cool. At the bottom is a gawky, clumsy style, which isn’t intended to create any sort of rapport or connection with the audience — in fact, such a style is most likely to work because of the disparity between how cool the performer’s self-image (typically the performer’s character’s self-image, of course) is perceived to be, and how uncool it actually is. In the middle is an unaffected, naturalistic style. At the top is a conscious swagger, intended either to project power or control, or to attempt to forge a bond with the audience. (The two axes are not quite so orthogonal, of course. A world-changing, external style rather presupposes a cool style. One isn’t likely to take advice from someone playing the part of an idiot.)
Now, take your favourite stand-up comedians and plot them. There will of course be an amorphous mass in the centre. Most comedians are unexceptional; their stage personae are more or less the real them, and their material is by necessity bland. (Jerry Seinfeld might well stand right on top of the origin.) Note, while you’re doing that, that neither axis is intended to represent objective funniness. There is, in theory, funny to be had in all directions. It’s simply a matter of style. It’s also the case that there’s significant overlap between British and US comedians in the centre, simply because normal distributions tend to overlap, and most members of any normal distribution inhabit the centre.
But the most interesting comedians to plot are the most influential, the most highly-regarded — one assumes in some sense the best examples that a culture believes it has produced. It seems uncontroversial to place Carlin way up at the top right. His targets were large, and real, his manner was confrontational, and his intentions were to open eyes and minds. After his radical reinvention in the ’60s, his style was consciously cool, anti-establishment, counter-culture. Carlin’s obituaries and tributes have been careful to namecheck his influences and peers, and to place him in the same pantheon: Lenny Bruce, Bill Hicks, Richard Pryor. They also belong up at the top right, and for the same reasons. The cultural references might not have been exactly the same, but the styles were congruent.
At this point the next step is to plot the best, the most influential, British comedians, for purposes of comparison, but there are two problems. The first problem is avoiding begging the question, by talking only about the British comedians who best make my point, rather than those — like Bruce, Carlin, Hicks, Pryor (to whom we can probably add Chris Rock, of the living) in the US — who seem to be raised by some sort of consensus to greatness. I’m honestly not sure what the equivalent consensus would be. The second problem is that if one looks for the same sort of British stand-up comedian, one won’t get very far. They really don’t exist, and never have.
But this in itself makes the point, I think. Those few British stand-up comedians who have achieved a measure of universal appeal — Billy Connolly and Eddie Izzard come to mind — don’t really inhabit quite the same territory. Connolly is probably the closest, but his approach is far more whimsical than that of Carlin et al. — his business is pointing out the absurdity of the world, rather than trying to rouse or antagonise; his style is amiable and inclusive, rather than confrontational. He’s not trying to change anything. Izzard is much more distant. He might stand on a stage to perform, but his material is pure silliness and surrealism, and therefore almost entirely internal — Reeves and Mortimer for the masses, albeit in black eyeliner.
I suspect it’s the case that most British ‘comedians’ who have acquired some consensus measure of greatness are really not comedians at all — or not, at any rate, ‘stand-up’ comedians of the conventional form. The transition from vaudeville gag merchant to angry preacher, which Lenny Bruce pioneered in the US, took a rather different path in Britain. Such as it was, the new comedy of the early ’60s was all about satire. Bruce might have been championed by David Frost and Peter Cook, but the transatlantic styles were coming from very different places. If Beyond the Fringe was angry, it hid it well behind silly voices. It was geeky and self-deprecating, rather than earnest and up-front. Significantly, it worked as an amalgam of sketch and character comedy, rather than front-and-centre stand-up. That Oxbridge approach to comedy projects all the way through Python, Fry and Laurie.
A second major branch of significant British ‘comedians’ are/were really comic actors: Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan, Tony Hancock, Benny Hill, Ronnie Barker; more recently, Steve Coogan. It’s perhaps tangentially relevant that their most famous characters apply effective leverage to that useful gap between their perceived competence and their actual competence — Inspector Clouseau and Alan Partridge leap out as the best examples — such that there is certainly no projection of cool. It’s also relevant simply that these performers did choose to express themselves through character, rather than as themselves. (Insofar as they did work as conventional stand-ups — notably Hancock and Coogan — they were significantly less successful.) That indirection more or less precludes the sort of cool, earnest preaching style honed by Carlin, Bruce and the others. Character comedy is also intrinsically far more internal than conventional stand-up. It can of course raise important issues, but to the extent that the character comedy works well, it is primarily a study of character, often to the obfuscation of any wider context — witness the not-uncommon phenomenon of viewers empathising with Alf Garnett, missing that his views were typically presented for ridicule.
The point here isn’t that character comedy is uniquely British — although stage-based character comedy, as opposed to film-based character comedy, is far more fertile there, to the extent that much of what one considers to be British stand-up these days is at the very least a blurring of the lines between stand-up and character comedy — Harry Hill‘s stage persona being a good example — and often explicitly the latter — Laura Solon, Catherine Tate, and much of Victoria Wood’s stage work. The point is that character comedy — which intrinsically does not project an image of cool, and which is intrinsically far more internal than external — is where much of the best of British comedy talent gravitates, rather than to naked stand-up.
A further branch of British stage comedy scarcely changed course from its music hall/variety roots, but just added an extra layer of knowing post-modernism. Gag merchants didn’t go away, they just took a step to one side, buying themselves some intellectual distance. The engine of Tim Vine‘s act isn’t his jokes; it’s that he knows his jokes are terrible, and that his audience knows they’re terrible. Yet, famously, much of his original material is often misattributed to the far more widely-lauded Tommy Cooper. Cooper’s own act relied heavily on a studied incompetence, the vent act sub-genre of which goes back to Sandy Powell, and forward through Eric Morecambe, to Harry Hill, and Steve Delaney’s astonishing Count Arthur Strong. Here’s a characteristic snatch of the Count:
What’s going on here is profoundly anti-Carlin. Stand-up is always a performance, of course, but Strong is an acting feat of dazzling skill, such that Delaney disappears completely. Similarly, nothing occurs in a vacuum of cultural reference, but Strong’s references, such as they are, are purely internal: the grammar and conventions of variety; the Strong character himself, his as-the-wind-blows obsequiousness and belligerence, his vocal trips and malapropisms, the chasm between perceived and actual competence. Nothing is intended to serve any function external to the character; there are no lessons, no morals, no sermonising. Lines are casually thrown away, rather than preachily hammered home. There is also nothing resembling cool here. As a character, Strong is egotistical, self-serving, delusional, and quite possibly lost to dementia. Nor is this the flavour of character comedy which works by recognition. We’re not supposed see Strong in ourselves, or our subculture; he’s just who he is.
So, I’d like to plot Delaney/Strong way down at the extreme bottom-left corner of my graph — the uncool internal — as some sort of destination of the journey south-west from Carlin — the cool external. This general region seems to me to be quite heavily populated by some of the very best British ‘comedians’: Harry Hill, Reeves and Mortimer, Noel Fielding and Julian Barratt, Steve Coogan, to grab just a few of the most obvious. As a bridge to an earlier generation, Spike Milligan also belongs there. Can we find American comedians alongside? Not many. Those that come to mind are prop comics such as Gallagher, Carrot Top, and The Amazing Jonathan. Notably, their performances share a one-note shoutathon style, rather than the subtle and layered characterisation of the Brits, or their fantastical creativity. Perhaps even more notably, they inhabit a disregarded underworld of the US circuit, their acts preserved in aspic and greasepaint, displayed in Vegas with all the cutting-edge relevance of a Tutankhamun exhibit. It’s clear where Bill Hicks’s mind was focused towards the end of his life:
It’s not entirely fair to take this line of Hicks’s out of the context of his routine, in which it has a degree of self-deprecation, but it nevertheless serves as a kind of motto for the Carlin/Bruce/Hicks quadrant – the cool external:
I had to have this weird thing about trying to illuminate the collective unconscious and help humanity.
This, I think, is the standard by which American comedians are judged — and by which Carlin, Bruce, Hicks, Pryor and the others are considered to be standard-bearers. It quite explicitly describes a form of preaching. I’m not going to try to account for why the preacher mode of comedy is so prevalent in the US, and so absent in the UK — nor why it is so highly-regarded in the US (whether that is a different question, or the same one in other words). Some ideas come to mind, though. Evangelical preaching is a mode of communication far more prevalent in the US generally. To some extent the US remains a country not quite hardened from its firing. As a consequence, it’s still trying to define itself, to decide what it wants to be, and the malleability creates an opportunity for people of passion and vision to try to mould it to their wishes. Britain, to the contrary, is a far more settled society, so there’s far less scope for moulding or remoulding. It might also be the case that comedy in the US at some point took it upon itself to fill a yawning gap for critical cultural evaluation and self-evaluation left behind by a soporific and pacifying mass media.
One of the problems with attempting to account for why my own preference is for the uncool internal quadrant – other than the head start of being British — is that internal qualities are generally quite hard to intellectualise. Like our responses to music, and to feelings of love, our responses to the internal qualities of comedy aren’t really accessible. We might explain what we find funny about something — or transporting about music, or lovable about a person — but that might not necessarily explain why we find it funny. (Aside: Pretty much the definition of a guilty pleasure is something whose internal qualities work for us, but whose external qualities don’t: that music which gets into our brain, but which is performed by that lame boy band.) Conversely, what I can do is to intellectualise some of the reasons why the cool external quadrant isn’t an appealing place for me. Earnestness generally strikes me as naive and simple-minded. The fearless teller of difficult truths is a tiresome, self-important figure. It’s a little hard not to feel patronised: religion is nonsense (oh, really, I hadn’t noticed); big business doesn’t necessarily have your best interests at heart (gosh, thanks for letting me know); politicians are full of shit (well blow me down).
These irritations aside, I don’t see that the importance of the subject matter necessarily reduces the funniness of comedy. But nor do I see that it necessarily enhances it, and I do think it often gets in the way. Tributes to Carlin seemed far more eager to stress his importance, his fearlessness, his influence, than how funny he was. I’m almost persuaded that there’s an underlying difference in semantics here. Rather than simply assigning different relative values to the funniness of comedy, and the importance of its subject matter, I wonder if we just have different cultural meanings for ‘funny’. Whoops of recognition, appreciative applause, and nods of agreement don’t strike me as signals of funniness — they’ve come through too many of the external, intellectualising filters. They’re much closer to the responses of a congregation, than an audience. Fortunately, a laugh — a giggle with a life of its own, or one of those big, uncontrollable belly-laughs that come from nowhere — is a dead giveaway.