Stand-up comedy often attempts to come at real-world issues from odd angles, making fun of the absurdity of life while trying to get past people’s assumptions and defenses, and getting across actual truths in a disarming way. But how often does it succeed? What comedy bits have particularly stuck with you as being insightful, revealing, or worth remembering for reasons other than just being a hoot?
I don’t fully agree with Denis Leary on No Cure For Cancer when he says happiness is a fleeting thing: “Nobody’s happy, okay? Happiness comes in small doses, folks. It’s a cigarette, or a chocolate-chip cookie, or a five-second orgasm. That’s it, okay? You come, you eat the cookie, you smoke the butt, you go to sleep, you get up in the morning and go to fucking work, okay? That is it, end of fucking list!” I do think happiness can be more profound and long-lasting—it has to do with being able to live in the moment and enjoying what’s around you instead of constantly wanting more and better, especially because someone else around you has more and better. But Leary’s happiness routine has stuck with me because he’s saying a similar thing, just in a bitterer and more aggressive way. And certainly the framework for that quote, where he tells off all the people whining about how they just aren’t happy right now, works fine for me. Again, “Life sucks, get a fucking helmet” is harsher than the way I’d put it, but I can sympathize with his lack of sympathy. Griping doesn’t do anybody any good, and neither does obsessing about happiness, and pouting if we aren’t there right this minute.
I am jumping on this right out of the gate, because I know everybody wants this one, but I was really impressed by Louis C.K.’s assertion that “everything is amazing, and nobody’s happy.” It’s something I often think to myself when I’m frustrated by, say, the way my iPad isn’t downloading something as quickly as I would like, or when I have to get on a plane and scrunch myself into a tiny space for a few hours, only to exit those few hours later in an entirely different time zone. There’s something to be said for being grateful for all the little stuff, and C.K. got at it as readily as anybody ever has.
I don’t know if anyone ever equated George Carlin to Bruce Springsteen, but here goes: While “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television” is Carlin’s equivalent of “Born To Run,” a career-defining signature piece, “Baseball And Football” is more like “Brilliant Disguise.” It talks about the human condition, but in a lighter, much more lyrical way. It was one of the few bits Carlin repeatedly rolled out in concert, even as his newer material got more caustic and angry, focusing more on why humankind is fucked than on the funny ways we deal with each other. “Baseball And Football” harks back to Carlin’s peak period of the early ’70s to the late ’80s, because it so deftly observed how silly we are just by what our sports jargon is. Everything about baseball is summery and airy, while everything about football is cold and militaristic. Listen to the end of the bit, where Carlin rattles off the goal of a football team using terms like “precision strikes” and “long bombs” as if he’s General Patton. When he finishes by saying in a playful voice “The object of baseball is to go home! I’m going home!” it completely nails why we loved Carlin: He made observations that no one else did, but they made complete sense once they came out of his mouth.
One of my favorite things in the comedy world—the whole world, really—is Richard Pryor’s imitation of white people. Not only is it hilarious and true, but the routines in which he skewered square Caucasians (including the simply titled classic “White And Black People”) frequently doubled as truly biting visions of what it was like to be black in the ’60s and ’70s. It was never militant or anti-white, but rather curious and unflinching about his own reality, both pre- and post-fame. White people know the cop as “Officer Timson,” who lives in the neighborhood; black people know the same guy as someone who ruins your week with a traffic stop. In perhaps one of Pryor’s greatest lines ever, he describes the overwhelming feeling when cops show up at his house after he shot his wife’s car (which he actually did). Even though he’s already famous, he gets worried: “I went into the house, ’cause they got Magnums, too. And they don’t kill cars—they kill nee-gars.”
I don’t know where most people nowadays pick up their first bits of precious information about the birds and the bees, whether it’s from their parents or on the streets or the Internet, but when I was growing up in Mississippi, we didn’t have cable or the Internet or even any streets, and my parents were more clueless than I was. Galloping to the rescue came Richard Pryor, an infinite source of clear-eyed wisdom and sound counsel about the sex wars, for all the meager good it did him in his own life. Everything he said on this subject, whether he was demonstrating a man’s absolute inability to hang onto his dignity when his lover is calmly preparing to leave him, or offering a blow-by-blow illustrative lesson on ministering to an unresponsive clitoris (or in Pryor-speak, a “dead pussy”), will at some point be of use to the eager young pupil. But none of it has broader wide-world implications than his suggestion for what to say when caught in flagrante delicto: “Who are you gonna believe, me or your lyin’ eyes?” The underlying idea, that if you just stick to your guns and are consistent in denying all the available scientific evidence, you might be able to brazen through anything, is the same as Hitler’s theory of the big lie, but it has the advantage of being funny, which makes it less depressing whenever I see it playing out, which happens a lot. The next time you see someone on a TV movie-review show playing a clip from Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close and talking about its sublime artistry, or a commercial for a new comedy showing Rob Schneider making worn-to-the-stump racial slurs to the accompaniment of a screaming laugh track, or Newt Gingrich on a debate stage talking about his record as a Washington outsider occupying the moral high ground—to raucous applause—don’t hang yourself; just shrug and say, “Hey, who are they supposed to believe, him or their lying eyes?” And then guffaw.
I know Bill Cosby isn’t considered as edgy as Carlin, Louis C.K., or any other number of comedians who’ll be listed here, but that doesn’t make him any less effective. As a kid, I listened to my dad’s vinyl copies of Himself; To Russell, My Brother Whom I Slept With; Revenge, and various greatest-hits collections. Cosby had such an amazing way of talking about family and growing up in Philadelphia, and he mined these experiences for laughs, taking his stories to hyperbolic heights, but still resonating as genuine and nostalgic. There are countless examples of this throughout Cosby’s discography, but one of my favorites is “Two Daughters,” in which Cosby describes the differences between his daughters’ behavior upon their births, daring to refer to his second daughter as “Beelzebub.” But anyone who’s ever had multiple children (full disclosure: I have none, but I’ve seen plenty, and heard plenty from my parents, who had their hands full with me and my sister) can identify with Cosby’s comic exasperation. It’s also an exasperation that masks a deep love of his family, which weaves through his entire act. Cosby proved comedians didn’t have to work blue to be funny, and that they could exaggerate to great lengths about family members without downright insulting them.
The passing of the Bush administration has dated a lot of David Cross’ stuff. But if he has anything that approaches timelessness, it’s the “tasteless, odorless gold… to eat!” bit from 2004’s It’s Not Funny. Besides this being a bit I always think about when I’m at a fancy restaurant or a yacht-club lunch or any place that’s too classy to wear sneakers to and thus makes me feel all self-conscious, like I’ve snuck in (“Look honey, the Make-A-Wish Foundation is flying a boy out…”), this riff says more about our cultural disparities and absurdity than even the bluntest Bush-bashing. Cross describes the experience of eating at Jean Georges, an extremely fancy New York restaurant, where his $500 dinner is capped off by a desert topped with a sheet of pure gold. Cross describes it as “the ultimate ‘fuck you’ to poor people,” then works through the scenario of a 60-year-old Uzbekistani miner who risks his life daily scraping out gold for a living, and the 8-year-old child laborers loading gold bars onto a ship, all so corpulent Americans can eat it. Just because. Besides being funny, it aptly describes a culture obsessed with luxury, and with consumption—a place where gold can be purchased just to be literally devoured and unthinkingly shit out.
I’ve never smoked pot, I’ve never dropped acid, I’ve never snorted coke, and I continue to live my life without ever having indulged in heroin, but if I’ve ever been tempted on any of these fronts, it wasn’t because of peer pressure, but rather because of Bill Hicks, who, while stalking the stage of Chicago’s Old Vic Theater during his HBO One Night Stand special, dared to go out on a limb and reveal, “I have taken drugs before, and… I had a real good time.” In fact, he offers a lot of profound pro-drug discussion during the course of this 30-minute special, including the reminder that your music collection wouldn’t be the same without drugs (“The Beatles were so high, they let Ringo sing a couple of tunes”) and the theory that pot is better than booze. (“If you’re at a ball game or a concert, and someone’s really violent and aggressive and obnoxious, are they drunk, or are they smoking pot?”) But it’s Hicks’ mock apology for his past pharmaceutical transgressions that almost sold me on indulging a bit myself, specifically when he lays it on the line about the things that didn’t happen when he was under the influence. As he dances around the stage, smoking all the way, he gleefully announces, “Didn’t murder anybody, didn’t rob anybody, didn’t rape anybody, didn’t beat anybody, didn’t lose one fucking job, laughed my ass off, and went about my day.” Then, after taking a long drag on his cigarette, he shrugs and says, “Sorry!” In conclusion, he looks straight into the audience and asks, “Now… where’s my commercial?” Fact: if Bill Hicks had actually made a proper pro-drug TV ad, I’d almost certainly be high right now.
Nothing works me into a lather quicker than when one human being harms another, only to justify it with religious dogma. This, coupled with hard-line critiques like George Carlin’s “There Is No God,” pushed me away from my Presbyterian upbringing when I was younger—but as I mature and mellow, it’s become apparent that religion, for all the wars it inspires and prejudices it stokes, is still a pretty crucial societal glue. Which is why I now align my views on the subject more closely to Patton Oswalt’s “Sky Cake,” a brilliant, evenhanded take on the origins and purposes of faith from Oswalt’s 2009 record/special My Weakness Is Strong. Buttressed by Oswalt’s killer turns of phrase and fascination with old-timey language, the routine lays out a brief history of world religions, predicated on the notion that stories about an afterlife filled with heavenly desserts (sky cake, sky cookies, sky pie, and sky baklava, to name a few) kept “a huge psychopath with a club going ‘I’m going to have rape for dinner’” from driving the development of human civilization. Oswalt goes on to acknowledge the terrible things people do for sky cake, but the takeaway is optimistic. “Sky Cake” says religious people aren’t bad—they’re just taking their chosen path to that endless dessert tray in the sky.
It wasn’t a piece of comedy per se, but in the documentary Piece Of Work, Joan Rivers delivers a defense of offensive comedy that was so spot-on and heartfelt that it single-handedly made me a fan. (Before, I had written her off as a salty, over-surgeried old broad who seemed like she’d do anything to stay in the spotlight.) In the scene, Joan Rivers delivers a Helen Keller-related joke during a show, and a man in the audience stands up and tells her it’s not funny. It turns out that he took the joke personally, as he has a deaf child. Rivers retorts that she too has a deaf relative, but more importantly, she declares that everything painful can and should be made fun of. I feel the same way about comedy: I don’t mind tasteless, as long as it’s done well. I love how impassioned Rivers’ retort is to her heckler, not to mention the fact that she describes, later, how terrified she was trying to get the audience back on her side. But maybe what completely brought me around to her was her ultimately sympathizing with the man. He wasn’t her enemy: He was merely in pain, something she knows a lot about.
David Cross has already been mentioned, but I’m going to point out the important role that his 9/11 commentary on Shut Up, You Fucking Baby! played in my ability to laugh at something that had gripped me with fear for the previous year. Even though I live 3,000 miles from Ground Zero, for the rest of 2001 and most of 2002, I felt a general sense of dread here in San Francisco that a) Armageddon was nigh, b) the West Coast had to be next, or c) Even if A or B didn’t happen, the world was a super-fucked-up place that I was terrified to be a part of. But the passing of time and Cross’ Grammy-nominated 2002 double album helped get me out of my funk, most notably with some great Manhattan anecdotes, including the story of a sanitation worker who two weeks after the attack is seen on Avenue A hitting on a woman on the street from inside his garbage truck, and Gabriel the defiant gay roller-blader on his way to the Chelsea Piers on Sept. 12. (“Fuck you, Mr. Osama bin Jerkhead, or whatever your name is.”) There’s also the part where he talks about the health advisory in the aftermath, and confirms that the buildings were, in fact, made of tires and skunks. Finally, Cross is spot-on when he observes “there was so much fucking bad theater and art and singing and bake sales and anything else you could ever want to see or do or experience done in the name of not letting the terrorists win” And there was—and still is—a whole lot of truth to his bit about the empty patriotic gestures of Americans flying flags made by Chinese prison labor.
Two of Groucho Marx’s best, most profound one-liners weren’t necessarily part of his stand-up, but have been passed down as legend through memoirs, TV appearances, and general Groucho-ism preservation. They’ve had a huge impact on me for years, because of their wit, wisdom and toughness. The first originated when Groucho resigned from the elite Friars Club shortly after joining, explaining famously in a letter, “I don’t want to belong to any club that would accept me as a member.” In the second anecdote, Groucho is offered acceptance into a country club that otherwise prohibited Jews, provided he doesn’t swim in its pool, to which he quipped, “My daughter’s only half-Jewish, can she wade in up to her knees?” I’ve come of age in a much more tolerant era than Groucho, though I’ve dealt with my share of explicit anti-Semitism and arbitrary prejudice. His simple refutation of cultish group-think and exclusive classism spoke for generations of resilient, independent Jews back then, but applies perfectly well today as a mandate for individual thought. As for upending some hateful club owner’s insulting, hurtful, and plain idiotic gesture, that’s just badass, brilliant, vintage Groucho.
I don’t know what it says about me that when I think of stand-up-comic profundity, my mind immediately goes to a signature bit on No Respect where Rodney Dangerfield—a lifelong depressive and heavy drug user—anthropomorphizes the crippling depression that had dogged him since he was a kid as “The Heaviness,” an intense, almost unbearable misery that waits patiently for him every morning with a persistent reminder that happiness is for other people, and never for him. In the bit, Dangerfield tries to make peace with the Heaviness; he even greets it in an incongruously chipper voice, beaming, “Hi, heaviness!” but to no avail. The Heaviness cannot be reasoned with. The Heaviness cannot be cheered up. The Heaviness will defeat everything. So The Heaviness answers Dangerfield’s chipper greeting with an ominous, “‘Today you’re gonna get it good. You’ll be drinking early today.” To me, Dangerfield’s Heaviness is the most eloquent and profound personification of depression in history, easily beating out Winston Churchill’s “Black Dog.” The routine is sad and profound and true, but most of all, it’s funny; it wouldn’t resonate nearly as strongly as it does if it wasn’t also wonderfully entertaining in a terribly depressing way.
Though I also adore George Carlin’s “Baseball And Football” for how it showcases Carlin’s love of intricate wordplay between America’s old pastoral pastime and its new, overly aggressive one, I was more affected by the very next track on An Evening With Wally Londo. “Good Sports” expands Carlin’s football observations to wider cultural implications. I grew up as a huge football fan, even though I mostly played soccer, and the ever-increasing entertainment popularity of football in the face of college-recruiting scandals and mounting head-injury data never ceases to fascinate me. Which is why “Good Sports” feels so prophetic. Right off the bat, Carlin is right to observe that American football mirrors the nation’s history in microcosm: “Eleven people line up, beat the shit out of the other guys, and take their land! It’s a ground-acquisition game, except we only take it 10 yards at a time.” The album was released in 1975, only 10 years after the Super Bowl era began, before the NFL took supreme dominance over baseball as the most financially lucrative professional-sports league, before the BCS and widely-publicized college football corruption, before we started caring about steroid scandals and scrutinizing every last detail in a 24-hour ESPN news cycle. Football in particular commands so much money and attention, from Pop Warner leagues up to the Super Bowl, but in the span of just a few minutes, Carlin’s 30-year-old bit still chips away at that pedestal, cutting rabid fandom for “the cardinal and the gold” down to size—it’s really just fucking red and yellow, man. I’m still waiting for a team to pick ultraviolet and flesh tone as their official colors.
Plenty of groundbreaking comedians could be quoted at length, and lots of excellent comics working today have changed the way “comedy” in the most general sense has been received. But AVQ&A is a vehicle for personal expression, and I was a fan of Mitch Hedberg long before I ever heard a single joke told by George Carlin or Richard Pryor. So as much as I’d love to laud the great works of Lenny Bruce or Socko The Famous Greek Tragedy Clown From Olden Times (or Louie), I don’t think I’ll ever hear anything as personally profound as the first Hedberg joke that stuck with me—the joke that taught me comedy is neuroses, explained. “The depressing thing about tennis is that no matter how good I get, I’ll never be as good as a wall. The wall is fuckin’ relentless.”
Maybe it’s just that I’ve ended up spending a lot of time thinking about words, the ways in which they combine, and what makes those combinations work, but I’ve often found myself reflecting on Bob Newhart’s “An Infinite Number Of Monkeys” routine. It’s short, and it finds Newhart assuming the perspective of someone charged with checking the progress of the proverbial infinite number of monkeys as they sit at an infinite number of typewriters theoretically reproducing all the world’s great works. “Harry, hold on, post 50 has something.” I won’t spoil the punchline, but suffice it to say that sometimes you write something immortal, and sometimes you end up with “gozoranplat.”