It’s been over six years since George Carlin died of heart failure at 71 in Santa Monica, CA.
George was widely regarded as one of the most important and influential stand-up comedians of all time. He’s listed in Comedy Central’s list of Top 100 Comics at number 2, just behind the great Richard Pryor, but just ahead of the trailblazing Lenny Bruce who paved the road for comedians all over the country to be able to speak freely and test the boundaries of obscenity.
But George Carlin’s fame is nearly unmatched as a comedian. Arguably, his bit “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” is one of his most memorable. It was funny on several levels. It challenged the status quo and pushed the boundaries of decency laws in the U.S. in 1972.
In comedy terms that bit would be described as “word-play,” “the witty exploitation of the meanings and ambiguities of words.”
But at the Summerfest in Milwaukee in 1972 that bit would be described as obscenity and would get Carlin thrown in jail. That bit not only got Carlin arrested but also got WBAI, an FM radio station in New York City, cited by the FCC for broadcasting “obscene” material.
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld that decision. Evidently, the nursery rhyme “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me,” doesn’t hold true in a court so powerful that calls itself “Supreme.”
So what are those words? “Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits. Those are the heavy seven. Those are the ones that’ll infect your soul, curve your spine and keep the country from winning the war.”
Those are the words that are so disgusting that a man got thrown in jail, radio station fined and the Supreme Court to issue a ruling that gave the FCC the broader right to decide what was “indecent,” and what can and can’t be broadcast on the public airwaves, words that are so profoundly offensive that those very same words are printed on the transcript of the court ruling and stored where? The Supreme Court.
Here’s Carlin with the Seven:
This piece is a classic and every student of comedy should know about it. But my point in this post isn’t just about “The Seven Words,” it about word-play and the power that word-play still has in comedy.
Some of the younger comedians, don’t believe in word-play they will give you some sciolistic nonsense about word-play being “hack.”
That couldn’t be farther from the truth! Word-play can result in puns, but not always. If you approach word-play the way George Carlin did, you can find the paradox in certain words: “You can prick your finger, but you can’t finger your prick,” is one of Carlin’s old standards.
Hack? Well I guess it depends on the listener’s point of view. But that joke has been around for more than 40 years. It’s memorable and it has a shelf-life.
It it used a lot in script writing too. Arrested Development was a super popular show for many years and the writers employed word-play as one of their primary tools for getting a laugh.
Let’s look at one of Carlin’s last HBO specials. He opens using a word-play bit and gets a rousing ovation. What a way to open!
Here’s a transcript from that performance:
George Carlin’s Modern Man
I’m a modern man, a man for the millennium. Digital and smoke free. A diversified multi-cultural, post-modern deconstruction that is anatomically and ecologically incorrect.
I’ve been up linked and downloaded, I’ve been inputted and outsourced, I know the upside of downsizing, I know the downside of upgrading. I’m a high-tech low-life. A cutting edge, state-of-the-art bi-coastal multi-tasker and I can give you a gigabyte in a nanosecond! I’m new wave, but I’m old school and my inner child is outward bound.
I’m a hot-wired, heat seeking, warm-hearted cool customer, voice activated and bio-degradable. I interface with my database, my database is in cyberspace, so I’m interactive, I’m hyperactive and from time to time I’m radioactive. Behind the eight ball, ahead of the curve, ridin the wave, dodgin the bullet and pushin the envelope. I’m on-point, on-task, on-message and off drugs.
I’ve got no need for coke and speed. I’ve got no urge to binge and purge. I’m in-the-moment, on-the-edge, over-the-top and under-the-radar. A high-concept, low-profile, medium-range ballistic missionary. A street-wise smart bomb. A top-gun bottom feeder. I wear power ties, I tell power lies, I take power naps and run victory laps. I’m a totally ongoing big-foot, slam-dunk, rainmaker with a pro-active outreach. A raging workaholic. A working rageaholic. Out of rehab and in denial!
I’ve got a personal trainer, a personal shopper, a personal assistant and a personal agenda. You can’t shut me up. You can’t dumb me down because I’m tireless and I’m wireless, I’m an alpha male on beta-blockers. I’m a non-believer and an over-achiever, laid-back but fashion-forward. Up-front, down-home, low-rent, high-maintenance. Super-sized, long-lasting, high-definition, fast-acting, oven-ready and built-to-last! I’m a hands-on, foot-loose, knee-jerk head case pretty maturely post-traumatic and I’ve got a love-child that sends me hate mail.
But, I’m feeling, I’m caring, I’m healing, I’m sharing– a supportive, bonding, nurturing primary care-giver. My output is down, but my income is up. I took a short position on the long bond and my revenue stream has its own cash-flow. I read junk mail, I eat junk food, I buy junk bonds and I watch trash sports! I’m gender specific, capital intensive, user-friendly and lactose intolerant. I like rough sex.
I like tough love. I use the “F” word in my emails and the software on my hard-drive is hardcore–no soft porn. I bought a microwave at a mini-mall; I bought a mini-van at a mega-store. I eat fast-food in the slow lane. I’m toll-free, bite-sized, ready-to-wear and I come in all sizes. A fully-equipped, factory-authorized, hospital-tested, clinically-proven, scientifically- formulated medical miracle.
I’ve been pre-wash, pre-cooked, pre-heated, pre-screened, pre-approved, pre-packaged, post-dated, freeze-dried, double-wrapped, vacuum-packed and, I have an unlimited broadband capacity. I’m a rude dude, but I’m the real deal. Lean and mean! Cocked, locked and ready-to-rock. Rough, tough and hard to bluff. I take it slow, I go with the flow, I ride with the tide. I’ve got glide in my stride. Drivin and movin, sailin and spinin, jiving and groovin, wailin and winnin. I don’t snooze, so I don’t lose. I keep the pedal to the metal and the rubber on the road. I party hearty and lunch time is crunch time. I’m hangin in, there ain’t no doubt and I’m hangin tough, over and out!”
I was at party recently and I had the privilege of meeting another veteran comedian, a comedian who had reached a certain notable level of success.
We were talking about comedy and I had mentioned that one of my students—Sascha Knopf—was a finalist in the ‘CA’s Funniest Female’ Comedy Competition this year, and another student of mine—Pauline Yasuda—won it in 2013.
This comedian looked me dead in the eye and said, “I don’t believe in competitions. This is my art.”
“You’re falling into that trap, are you?”
And although I know what she was trying to say and I respect it; it’s a common trap that ‘artists’ fall into and it’s utter nonsense.
This Is Not Art School
I didn’t engage in a discussion with this comedian about the topic, but it’s an important lesson to address and should be part of Art School 101 for everyone whether you’re an actor, dancer, writer, painter or comedian.
It’s an especially important lesson if you’re in one of those arts where there is little—if any—formal training; like stand-up comedy.
That lesson is:
This is Show Business, not Art School.
There is a difference. In art school we can do whatever we want. We can paint, or sculpt or write and be as creative as we want, flavoring our art to our own tastes, express ourselves purely without regard to the world’s judgment.
If they think it’s bland or too spicy, ‘screw them’ because it is my art and beauty is in the eye of the beholder and in art school the beholder is you and a handful of other artists, but mostly you, because at Art School, you write the checks (or if you’re lucky, you are the offspring of parents with money, then it’s their check).
When you get into Show Business—which is two distinct words—read that again and let it sink in: Show-Business is two words. Each word should have equal weight, but they don’t. They call it a business because it is just that. If you don’t put butts in the seats or sell your art, nobody gives a damn.
In show-business, who is the ‘beholder?’
Listeners (if it’s radio)
You are therefore beholden to those who make the decisions and write the checks. After all, comedy is not performed in a vacuum. You have to please those who are in charge and that includes the audience.
Don’t get me wrong, a strong developed point of view and character are essential to making you unique and brand-able, but you have to adjust when the ‘beholders’ demand it.
If you are such a powerful presence and your brand of art is generating ticket sales, filling arenas, generating a million followers on social media, the ‘beholders’ will acquiesce and will see the beauty in what you do, because they will see the revenue that you will generate.
But that’s only because they see that as good ‘business,’ because, really, most decision makers in this business don’t know what’s good or what’s funny.
Let me repeat that: Most decision makers in this business don’t know what’s good or what’s funny…
I mean c’mon! They released and distributed a remake of “The Three Stooges!”
Talk about being completely disconnected from the mass appeal of a comedy audience! (FYI Fox: Comedy Audiences have evolved beyond the hysteria from a ball-peen hammer to the head—if it was ever even hysterical in the first place).
That movie’s colossal failure underscores the concept that the audience is the final judge and they are a part of what makes up the essence of show business.
What’s that make us as comedians?
Comedians Are The Ultimate Panderers
Did that sting? Yeah, it hurt to write it too, but it’s true, so get over it.
Art? Yes, but not like in an painter who paints a picture and puts it out there. You either like it or you don’t.
In comedy we seek immediate gratification. That’s one reason we do this amazing art-form. But to get that gratification we have to adjust our subject matter and our jokes so we get laughs.
If we perform material and it doesn’t get laughs we immediately do two things:
Re-write the material, or…
Throw it away
We adjust to what the audience laughs at. You can be pure and and artist all you want, but you have to be aware of the audience and if they are laughing… and if they’re not, you make the adjustment.
Because if they are not laughing, you are not a comedian; you are a talker.
And in their comedy club or on their comedy show, a booker or a talent coordinator doesn’t want a talker.
Take a comedian like Bill Burr or throw back to Bill Hicks; you might think they just say (or said) anything they want, but that’s not true. They work their acts and edit and rewrite, keeping what works and throwing out what doesn’t.
Comedians adjust because we want laughs. Laughs get us noticed and laughs get us work. Because we’re not in it simply for the art. We’re in it because we not only love what we do but our goal is to make a living doing it.
It’s business and show-business is the game.
Comedy competitions are a part of the game.
There are few things, besides a personal reference from a legendary comic, that can help boost your notoriety faster than a strong finish at a notable comedy competition:
In short comedy competitions:
Are solid resume boosters
Get eyebrows raised
Demonstrate a level of credibility
Provide invaluable networking opportunities
Give an opportunity to put out a press release
Great ways to impress an agent or manager and snag representation
So, although being an artist is commendable and I work hard on my art, the end result is that this is show business and to ignore that fact and only focus on the art is, in my opinion, a naïve approach to the business.
If you’ve been following my blog, by now you know that writing one and two liners is key to really making your story-telling pop.
If you aren’t aware of this, I’ll remind you.
Stories are great. I do stories, but with the clubs and television expecting a laugh every 18-20 seconds, you must be sure you include laugh-points all along the arc of that story. The best way to do this is to get really good at your one and two-liners, giving your story an opportunity to create a laugh after almost every one to three sentences.
If you don’t have laugh points in your stories, then you’re not doing comedy.
Keep in mind, there are some exceptions to this rule, but overall, if we’re in a comedy club, we want to laugh.
So How Do You Get Good at This?
You have to start to recognize opportunities for comedy ‘plays’ along your story’s journey. There are a vast array of techniques and structures to help you hit your laugh points, and if you’ve read and worked through my eBook, “Breaking Comedy’s DNA,” you’d know almost every one of those.
It’s amazing when you have the knowledge to trigger laugh in your story almost at will. That’s right “at will!”
Every logical grouping of words can be turned into something funny.
That being said, one of the best way to develop and laser sharpen your ability to do this is by working your one and two-liners.
And the best way of doing that is through current event, trivia and factoid humor.
Why? Because the first part of the joke is already written for you!
That’s right. Think about it; when you read a headline, a factoid or a piece of trivia, the headline is already written. All you have to do is come up with an ending!
Then you re-tool, tinker and tighten, add some misdirection, surprise or incongruity and ‘BAM!’ you have a joke.
They are reopening the Washington Monument. The thing has been shut down for the last two years – just like Congress.
Some NFL players criticized Michael Sam for kissing his boyfriend after getting drafted. He has to learn that NFL players are not supposed to be in gay relationships until after they’re in prison!
Both of these jokes utilize the ‘listing technique;’ the most powerful technique used in comedy today. One definition of a joke is ‘the convergence of two dissimilar ideas.’
In the Washington monument joke, all I did is take the first part of the joke: “They are reopening the Washington monument, which has been shut down for the last two years…” and I listed everything about Washington in one column, then everything about the Washington monument in another column. When I found similarities between the two (even in my imagination, because comedy is heightened reality), I finessed a joke from that idea.
I did the same thing with the Michael Sam joke. Here we have more than two dissimilar ideas converging.
In this case I would list everything I could think of utilizing all four ideas. Notice how I also used ‘relationships,’ not just ‘gay relationships?’
When we open up the idea of ‘gay relationships’ to relationships, I now have a possible idea for a slam on the NFL and all the cases of sexual assault. So that joke could be something like:
Some NFL players criticized Michael Sam for kissing his boyfriend after getting drafted. See, Michael Sam doesn’t get it, in order to be accepted in the NFL you can’t do something gross like kiss another man, you gotta rape a chick.
Now you have an edgy joke. This joke might not be my voice. It certainly won’t fit on Late Night, but it could be suitable for ‘The Daily Show’ or Bill Maher. If not, I’m sure I could sell it to Chris Rock.
In essence, before I finish this blog post, I’ve already made 50 bucks!
How do you know it’s funny?
If you set a goal to write at least 10 of these jokes a day, then all you have to do is compare it against the Late Night shows jokes and see whose his funnier.
Sometimes it will be theirs. Sometimes Yours.
The more you do it, the better you get. Then you’ll more readily recognize the opportunities for these ‘plays’ in your stories and your stories will be funnier, more compelling and more worthy of the definition of comedy.
There is a movie out there called “A Knight’s Tale.” It stars the late Heath Ledger as William Thatcher, a peasant squire, who, after his master dies, changes “his stars” by changing his identity and becoming a knight.
It’s a fairy tale. Or is it?
About a month ago, a regular guy from Peoria, Illinois, who tweeted regular jokes as a way of venting from work and the grind of daily life, got picked up by the executives over at Late Night with Seth Meyers, to be a staff writer on the show after they took notice of his funny tweets.
The problem with condoms is by the time I get the darn things open the moment is ruined and I don’t feel like making balloon animals anymore
Jimmy Fallon’s “Tonight Show” is just finishing its first week and it has been an experience in engaging entertainment. Fallon has found that “something” that the show has been missing for the last 20 years; FUN!
Fallon’s ability to do impressions and his talent with music is the driving force of the show. Not to go without mention, the hipness and playfulness of his house band “The Roots,” makes Fallon’s “Tonight” totally entertaining and has turned the Tonight Show from that show than Mom and Dad watch before they go to bed, into a show that could entertain the tweens through the fifty-somethings at least.
I’m fifty (hard to admit it), and I find that show totally engaging.
How does that affect you as a comedian or a writer?
Simple. As a comedian or writer it is always good to reinvent yourself. Update, reboot, rewire, retrofit, restore rehab or renovate. Whatever you want to call it, keeping up to date and staying “now” is what drives engagement.
Now this should not be confused with age or birthdate.
Although Jimmy Fallon represents youth and will help NBC acquire the coveted 18-34 demographic in the late night slot, it doesn’t mean that in order to capture that demo, you must utilize only 18-34 talent.
The biggest draw on cable for a nightly show is still Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert. (Stewart turns 52 this year and Colbert 50).
The key to driving engagement, at least where Fallon is concerned is his ability to be recognizable with his entertainment. He engages the audience with stuff they recognize (Ie: Song parodies and impressions). Even in the sketch above with Justin Timberlake, he slips into a Snoop Dog impression, a Dr. Dre, Ton Loc and Beastie Boys.
Familiarity and recognition drive engagement. If we recognize something we react physically to the television with a point a gesture like, “I’ve seen that,” “I know that!” “I remember that!”
This keeps the viewer watching and the ratings high.
It doesn’t have to be impressions. In fact, I would warn against that, unless you really nail the voice.
But doing something that creates an “in the moment” and “now” dynamic like engaging with the audience, act-outs, interaction with the band, keeps it moving and keeps it now.
There’s an old theatre science theory that states: "The audience is in whatever state the performer is in." Watch Fallon and Timberlake below and see just how much fun they are having and ask yourself, Is the audience having fun too?