Carlin on Profanity and Comedy

Carlin on Profanity and Comedy October 3, 2011

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).

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