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Kathy Shaidle

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December 31, 2011 - 1:13 am

Yeah, I’m a heretic. I also fell asleep during Star Wars.

Bruce Springsteen? Pompous blowhard.

The Godfather? Long stretches of beige nothingness.

And The Who are better than The Beatles.

(Hell, I prefer The Monkees to The Beatles…)

But here’s the first “pop culture” contrarianism I’m a teensy bit afraid to confess in public:

George Carlin never made me laugh.

I started thinking about overrated liberal comedians this week, when news broke that a fawning, big budget Smothers Brothers biopic is in development. Great: we’re now facing months of witless hagiography about these two “daring, transgressive, brave” performers, and the rest of the progressive comedy pantheon of heroic martyrs.

Who weren’t funny.

OK, so you think they’re funny. Maybe you’ll be driven to call me lots of mostly unimaginative names in the comments below. But the people I’m about to discuss rarely, if ever, made me laugh. Personally. That’s my definition of “funny.”

Your mileage will vary.

5. LOUIS CK

Here’s the problem: we don’t get FX here in Canada, and your Comedy Central is a bit different than ours.

So my first impression of Louis CK was, unfortunately, his drunk tweets about Sarah Palin and Trig.

Which weren’t funny.

When Sarah Silverman says, “When I say ‘gay,’ I just mean it like ‘retarded,’” I laugh (and steal the line). Frank J mocked George W. Bush for eight years, and did it so brilliantly that some readers didn’t realize Frank J voted for the guy, twice.

But those drunk tweets of Louis CK were just turds.

Maybe I’m just being a contrarian (see above) in the face of desperate non-stop hipster boosterism – Louis CK has quickly become the Kevin Smith of non-obese beta males — or maybe I stubbornly can’t shake that first impression.

Look, I feel stupid even saying this: Louis CK’s effortlessly natural delivery really is a joy to behold. He has a laudable work ethic. He’s clearly highly intelligent. He employs people I like.

I got off seeing him making $200,000 in four days $750,000 last week $1-million in about 10 days [PS: is he wearing velour there...?] by taking a risk and trusting/rewarding his huge fan base. Nasty capitalist that I am, I teared up reading about how he did it, and no, I’m not being sarcastic.

Louis CK has said things I admire as artistry, like “their hands look like guns,” which has the same superconcentrated, “coal-into-diamond”-like quality as the four-line poem that launched the career of Margaret Atwood.

But… I just don’t care.

The “Mona Lisa” is supposedly the greatest painting ever, too. It makes me go “engh.”

Here’s what I’m talking about:

In this interview, Louis CK goes from offering a truly insightful explanation of the fallout from Tracy Morgan’s controversial “homophobic” joke, to ending the interview with (and this is the actual transcript):

I think the opportunity that was lost was for the gay community to ask Tracy, “why did you say that’ and ‘what was your dad like”and “what is being a man mean to you,” you know what I mean? It could have been a starting point of a conversation that might have actually made a difference in how people feel about homophobia.

And right there, Louis CK sounds like the kind of person a comedian (like Louis CK) is supposed to be making fun of.

Yes, I agree — this is neat:

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But it’s also half wrong. As Mark Steyn points out:

I was at a college graduation in Vermont a few weeks ago, and the big shot speaker who had flown in from New York told these 21-year-olds, “You are living in such a fast-moving world.” I thought this was ridiculous. In the book I used the example of an HG Wells type time traveler, if you put him on the old time travel machine in 1890 and propelled him forward to 1950, he would be astonished, and he would be in his 1890 kitchen, 60 years later everything would be different.

He’d be amazed by the refrigerator, he’d be amazed by the full sound of an orchestra coming from a little box on the countertop. He’d be amazed by the station wagon pulling into the drive. Man conquered night with the electric light bulb, conquered distance with the invention of the internal combustion engine. He would be amazed by the telephone, he would be amazed that you could book an aeroplane flight to Los Angeles or to London or to Sydney.

We propel him on another 60 years to our time, from 1950 to our time, and actually the kitchen looks pretty much the same. The fridge is a little less bulky and it may have an ice water thing in it, but there’s really no difference, the phone has got buttons instead of a dial, again, basically not really different. Long distance travel takes actually longer in many ways than it did back in the 1950s, and we are supposed to be impressed because Steve Jobs at Apple has invented a slightly smaller gizmo on which you can download Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber.

I don’t think that’s enough, yet people do, people say it’s fantastic, have you seen the new iBox7, it used to be an inch and a quarter for downloading Justin Bieber on, but now it’s an inch and an eighth. Big deal, I don’t think that’s enough.

Be honest: if you’re looking for genius or something like it, isn’t Steyn’s take patently superior?

But Mark Steyn votes the wrong way, so no GQ “Man of the Year” virtual tongue-baths for him.

4. THE SMOTHERS BROTHERS

Some day all the old hippies will be dead…. Some day…

I chant that to myself sometimes.

It doesn’t help.

You gotta give ‘em credit:

Baby Boomer-run Hollywood takes the tiniest tragedies, most mediocre accomplishments, and most tedious historical events and constructs multi-generational, award-winning, and highly lucrative mythologies around them.

Can our supposedly fragile Planet Earth sustain yet another “brave” new movie about “McCarthyism” or the “assassination” of some semi-famous individual who wasn’t actually “assassinated,” or some other “disgraceful” “crime” from a previous century? We’re going to find out.

George Clooney is producing a movie about the “controversial” Smothers Brothers, whose “controversial” comedy-variety show in the late-sixties was totally “controversial” and got cancelled by their evil corporate television bosses, probably on the say-so of PRESIDENT RICHARD NIXON HIMSELF!!!

Here’s the author of the Smothers Brothers hagiography that got optioned by Clooney:

First, I’m thrilled on behalf of Tom and Dick, whose story deserves to be told and retold, and whose efforts to inject topicality into scripted TV comedy in the 1960s led very directly to the sort of thing Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert and Bill Maher are doing today.

Yay.

Gee, I wonder if the movie will talk about this, too?

For decades, I believed, as I think almost everyone who followed the issue did, that the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour was yanked by CBS because of CBS’s objection to the Smothers Brothers’ edgy commentary about social issues. Various “public” television stations, in their December fund-raising, are showing a documentary special that pushes that view. WGBH in Boston, for example, will show it on December 11. The documentary is entitled Smothered: The Censorship Struggles of the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour.

It is true that CBS had a lot of difficulty with the Smothers Brothers’ edgy looks at politics and religion. But that’s only part of what got the show yanked. The other part was a humorous bit done by guest Dan Rowan. Rowan gave the “fickle-finger-of-fate” award (i.e., the finger) to John O. Pastore, a U.S. Senator from Rhode Island. Why did Rowan single out Pastore? Pastore was the chairman of United States Senate Subcommittee on Communications. In that role, he had a great deal of power over the Federal Communications Commission, the federal agency that censors radio and television. In other words, Rowan “fingered” a man who had a great deal of power over television content.

That man was not even mentioned in the documentary. Why not? Here’s my “public choice” speculation. Pastore is also known for pushing hard for subsidies to public broadcasting. Indeed he did so only about a month after CBS yanked the Smothers Brothers show. He became a hero to those who believe in tax-financed subsidies to public television. So the stations have probably never wanted to look at the truth because it would mean admitting that their hero was a nasty censor who, like most politicians, couldn’t stand being made fun of. Ironically, while the various public broadcasting stations try to come across as open-minded people who want the truth to come out, by trumpeting this movie and not mentioning one important thing left out, they are not trying to broadcast the whole truth at all.

Speaking truth to power! (But only as long as that power isn’t liberal, taxpayer-supported public television.)

Tommy Smothers is such an obnoxious, small-minded, ill-informed ideological bully that even Penn Jillette was struck (temporarily) speechless. [Language warning.]

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Penn Jillette is a smart guy who believes a lot of stupid things. At least he was candid enough to struggle publicly with the awful realization that his lifelong anti-censorship comedy idol could be just as mean to him as he’d been to his on-air targets decades earlier.

The Smothers Brothers did one clever thing: before they gave in and started wearing Nehru jackets, they disguised themselves as “squares,” all the better to trick middle Americans into inviting them into their living rooms. I quite prefer that sort of mercenary phoniness to the other kind: when comedians try to look “relevant” by sporting weird beards, red bandanas, and long grey ponytails…

3. CHEECH & CHONG

Like many recovering alcoholics, I’m a shameless snob about other people’s drugs of choice.

Cocaine? That’s yuppie stuff.

Heroin? Eww.

Weed is the worst. I’ve never met a chronic pothead who wasn’t a lazy, paranoid, petulant, overweight mess, spouting cliched observations they mistakenly believe are profound:

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So this is all I have to say about Cheech & Chong…

Here are two stoners at work:

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And here are two alcoholics:

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Any questions?

2. LENNY BRUCE

Stuff that happens to kids in the dark can mess with their minds forever….

Back in the early 1970s, the exchange rate was so upside down that if you were a Canadian who lived close enough and wanted to save a ton of money, you drove across the border to Buffalo to go shopping.

My grandmother dragged me along on some of these jaunts, where she’d stock up on weird tasting off-brand toothpaste because it was 42 cents, while my grandfather drank beer in extremely dark bars with “ladies’ entrances.”

Once she bought a ring from a guy on the street and tested to see if it was a real diamond by raking it across a department store window.

Another day, it rained. Really hard. To get out of the downpour, we ducked into a movie theater.

Doing the math, I must have been 10 or 11 years old, and why they let me in, I don’t know.

Because the movie was Lenny.

I had no business watching an “R” rated movie, especially one that ends with (admittedly unerotic) male full frontal nudity.

I loved how this kind of cute Lenny Bruce guy kept getting into so much trouble, and you better believe I absorbed the message of Lenny: the troublemaker was the good guy, the cool guy, the guy who people made a movie about after he died.

I didn’t laugh at the jokes in Lenny and for a long time figured that was because I was ten. Then I got older and read books by and about Lenny Bruce, and later, heard and saw him thanks to the miracle of the internet.

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And I was forced to admit that Lenny Bruce wasn’t really that funny. (Except for “Poor Vaughn Meader” – a cosmic once-in-a-death-time opportunity.)

But only to myself. Until – again, internet, miracle, etc. – I found out I wasn’t alone.

It’s become acceptable now to explain that of course Lenny Bruce wasn’t funny but he was “important” and “courageous” and so on:

In theory, what director John Magnuson shot at the Basin Street West in San Francisco was an hour of Bruce doing stand-up. In reality, Bruce delivered something closer to a long-form conceptual art piece about a zonked-out free-speech lawyer: one part legal rebuttal, one part self-reflexive critique. In lieu of telling any actual jokes, Bruce read descriptions of the jokes that got him convicted of obscenity in 1964. As Bruce wanders the stage, his mind wanders through the trial transcript; by the time he’s chaotically and haphazardly reading the part of the suit that describes his act as “chaotic and haphazard,” he has achieved new heights of meta.

Ah, “meta” —  art “that has a nice personality…”

Here’s the thing:

The received wisdom from on high when I was a punk was: “Well, the Sex Pistols can’t play their instruments, but they’re important because they’re pushing boundaries and shocking the bourgeoisie.”

Trouble is: the Sex Pistols (except for Sid Vicious) actually could play their instruments. Steve Jones turned out to be a hell of a guitarist, and few frontmen have equaled John Lydon, before or since. Their only album is one of the great debuts in rock history, and remains – yes – listenable today, over — God help me — almost 35 years later.

Lenny Bruce? Not that:

Part of the reason is that Bruce’s targets — organized religion, politicians, sexual hypocrisy, racism — long ago lost whatever widespread, uncritical support they once might have enjoyed. (To be sure, Bruce himself contributed to this.) Part of the reason is that Bruce’s insistence on his didactic function — “I’m a surgeon with a scalpel for false values,” he used to say — transformed him into an adults-only version of the tedious magazine Highlights for Children, whose subtitle threatens to deliver “Fun With a Purpose.”

For the most part, the name of Lenny Bruce is never to be taken in vain, however, and is tossed about as a talisman, almost as freely as the curse words he helped make acceptable. Talk radio fanatic Camille Paglia has gamely tried to convince her fellow Democrats that Rush “Limbaugh, like our own liberal culture hero Lenny Bruce, is a professional commentator who can be as rude and crude as he wants.”

I’d add that Rush is funnier.

(Also? Liberal hero Jon Stewart employs a stable of writers to help him do a hour of taped comedy five days a week. Limbaugh? Live, three hours a day, five days a week, 20-plus years – all by himself.)

And yeah, again with the Nehru jacket.

The good news is that Lenny Bruce died before he could get any less funny. Or grow a long grey ponytail…

1. GEORGE CARLIN

Catholic school ruined George Carlin for me.

By the time I was 16 years old, listening to my first boyfriend’s Carlin albums and trying to keep my fake smile in place, I’d already heard, or made, most of  Carlin’s religion “jokes”:

“Trillions of prayers — new car, success etc. Usually on Sunday—His day off! Why are these people praying when God has a divine plan? How arrogant of them. Do they expect God to change His plan because of their prayers…and what if prayers were not answered?…”

I had those thoughts when I was nine. This guy was getting paid for them?

Sometimes I even had an answer to them. (Seriously, dude: the only people who EVER think of God as “a bearded man in the sky” are… angry atheists like you.)

I ignored Carlin most of the time, but like so many old hippies, he just wouldn’t go away. And he never got funnier.

Researching this piece, these are things his fans posted as examples of his genius:

[H]is 1991 HBO special made a lot of his audience nervous and/or confused when he dismissed the Gulf War as one more case of us bombing brown people because they’re brown — which he distinguished from WWII, the last time we bombed white people, which because they were muscling in on our game.

I’ll go with “confused” on that one.

A lot of stuff George Carlin came out with sounds like it belongs on a slightly “edgy” line of greeting cards:

“TGi Friday” should be called HSIOW: “Holy Sh*t, Its Only Wednesday”

PETA really liked these:

“And I think people have a lot of nerve locking up a tiger and charging four dollars to let a few thousand worthless humans shuffle past him every day. What a shi**y thing to do. Humans must easily be the meanest species on Earth. Probably the only reason there are any tigers left is because they don’t taste good.” (…)

Eating meat is one thing, but this whole beef-rancher-manure-cattle-hamburger side show is a different skillet of sh** altogether. Each year, Americans eat 38 billion hamburgers. It takes 2,500 gallons of water to produce one pound of red meat. Cattle consume one half of all the fresh water consumed on Earth. If Americans reduced their meat intake by just 10%…”

These are the jokes, people? “I’ll be here all week — DON’T try the veal”?

Also while researching this, though, I discovered something kind of neat:

I may be a heretic, but it turns out I’m not alone.

Googling “George Carlin overrated” produced a surprising number of hits — all from people who thought they were alone:

George Carlin was one of the most overrated comics in the history of comedy. He’s like Dane Cook for grown-ups. There I said it.

Interesting how an anti-authoritarian iconoclast like Carlin managed to inspire so much idol-worshipping group think in his fans, which filtered down into the general population.

Reason magazine allows that Carlin, especially post-menopause, was more of a weary, misanthropic crank than a wit. They praise him as a “cunning linguist” (ha ha) which is a nice way of saying he was a grammar bore, something he no doubt picked up from the nuns he hated for being his teachers.

So let’s apply the “Lenny Bruce Standard” to Carlin: “Funny, no; courageous, yes.”

No.

The “dirty” secret is: there never was an official  list of “the seven words you can’t say on television.” Carlin made that up, “borrowing” the list Lenny Bruce was arrested for saying on stage.

(And if Carlin was so brave, why didn’t he rail against two other words you REALLY can’t say on the radio and [most of] TV: “n*****” and “f****t”? Because fighting for the right to say them would shock his liberal fans, not the looming right-wing Christian prudes of his own imagination.)

Carlin’s enduring reputation rests almost entirely on his lengthy legal battle with the FCC, which went all the way to the Supreme Court (who ruled in Carlin’s/Pacifica Broadcasting’s favor.)

So basically, brave, noble George Carlin helped make the world safe for, not democracy, but for “m*****f****r.”

Damn.

(KATHY SHAIDLE is a blogging pioneer who runs FiveFeetOfFury, now in its 14th year. She's been called "one of the great virtuoso polemicists of our time," by MARK STEYN. Her NEW book is Confessions of A Failed Slut (Thought Catalog, 2014).
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