Punch Line

Beyond my face-to-face life, few people have impacted my development more than comedian George Carlin. Along with Richard Pryor (and indirectly, Lenny Bruce), Carlin entered my consciousness while I was a teenager in the 1970s, a redneck mired in the racist provincialism of rural upstate South Carolina.

Of course, teachers and writers—along with a wide array of artists, thinkers, etc.—shaped my Self and my mind, but Carlin and Pryor were essential doorways into critical thought. Notably, Carlin and Pryor taught me the importance of language and its relationship to power, foundational concepts that would in many ways lead to Paulo Freire as well as my careers as a teacher and writer.

So when Carlin was trending recently—a video clip of him talking on Larry King with many people connecting Carlin’s comments about comedian Andrew Dice Clay to the current controversies around Dave Chappelle—I felt I had to explore the Tweets and how people were navigating Carlin today:

First, I believe it is important to stress that Carlin clearly begins these comments by supporting Andrew Dice Clay’s right to be the sort of comedian who people found to be deeply offensive, offensive in ways that were not funny (homophobia and misogyny, specifically). Carlin is weighing in but distinguishing between “can” and “should.”

As well, Carlin checked King about “we” laughing at Clay, suggesting that Carlin did not find Clay funny even as he supported something like free speech for comedians.

In many ways, Carlin was way ahead of his time and this on-air discussion fits well into the larger “cancel culture” debate among comedians (see the Jerry Seinfeld/Bobcat Goldthwait situation, for example); but of course, Carlin’s tempered comments also match perfectly the Chappelle controversy.

The world of the comedian is filled with violent-adjacent language—”punch line” and the common claim that comedians “kill” when jokes or sets work really well. (Carlin has brilliant, early jokes from the 1970s about replacing “kill” with “fuck” in movie dialogue, highlighting the essential violent nature of American culture.)

But Carlin makes a case for the importance that comedians punch up, using comedy to challenge power, and that Clay tended to punch down, specifically at the expense of marginalized groups such as homosexuals and women.

I think, as many on Twitter claimed, that Carlin’s comments are relevant to Chappelle even as some try to justify Chappelle’s trans-phobic rants as attacks on outsized influence by what Chappelle and his supporters see as misguided trans-rights activists. Chappelle apologists, then, seem to believe Chappelle is punching up.

That argument is nonsense, missing a bigger point, one also made by Carlin but somewhat glossed over.

At its core, the problem with Clay and Chappelle is less with them, and more with their audience. One common justification expressed for Chappelle’s recent comedy special is that his garbled perspective on trans people is embraced by his audience and that those he criticizes (trans-rights activists) are the ones out of the mainstream.

Chappelle apologists argue that the court of public opinion supports Chappelle, and thus Chappelle is justified, if not right.

As Carlin notes, Clay had an audience, many white males who, as Carlin notes, were deeply insecure and prone to a wide array of bigotry (that likely would have included anti-semitism, Carlin adds since Clay is Jewish).

If we set aside whether or not Clay and Chappelle crafted funny jokes, if we set aside whether or not Chappelle is punching down or up, we cannot set aside that Chappelle is speaking into and directly fueling environments of hate and exclusivity.

Trans people live delicate lives and their margins are frail, thin, and Chappelle is being cavalier and calloused, placing his right to free speech (in wrong-headed ways) above the lives and rights of marginalized and oppressed people.

Chappelle is certainly aware that there was a fairly recent world where white comedians made their livelihoods on racist jokes and the most aggressive and offensive use of racial slurs; maybe they had the right to that language, and yes, they certainly had audiences who agreed.

But mainstream acceptance of racist jokes and racial slurs were contributing to environments of hate that directly impacted Black people in negative and horrible ways.

Clay and Chappelle should be bright and perceptive enough not to need these comparisons to their own potential frailties, but these points do highlight that comedy is not in some sort of joke vacuum; there are consequences for jokes told and the laughter that often occurs about the Others used in the pursuit of those jokes.

Chappelle’s doubling down on trans-phobia isn’t funny and it isn’t inconsequential.

Finally, while I do support Carlin’s video clip going viral, and I do agree Carlin’s perceptive analysis of punching up and the audience for comedy is directly applicable to the Chappelle debate as well as the current discourse around “cancel culture” (where I side with Goldthwait, not Seinfeld), I have a huge caveat for the added belief that we need Carlin alive today since he would be a solid and powerful voice in this situations.

As much as it pains me to write this, I am certain that given time and space, Carlin would, in fact, disappoint us now. There is a bittersweet advantage to having the ability to cherry pick from Carlin’s brilliance (a real thing, in my opinion) and to ignore that as he grew older, Carlin lived up to his standard less and less.

The Carlin of my teen years, the 1970s, is a sort of peak Carlin, one I tend to idealize; the Carlin of the King interview is the mostly sober and mature Carlin of 1990 (Carlin was being interviewed, not on stage performing).

Carlin tended to devolve into the angry old man, and his comedy content and targets became sloppier and sloppier even as his delivery and craft remained impressive.

I think Carlin alive now would slip and fall on his face right before us—similar to the recent crumbling of the ways some of us have idealized Margaret Atwood.

Carlin’s comments on Clay are worth highlighting, and his analysis speaks to how we can and should navigate Chappelle and cancel culture.

But this is also a lesson in the dangers of idealizing and idolizing.

In my own way, I love Carlin and am eternally grateful for his contribution to my mind.

Carlin was, ultimately, a man, a human, frail and flawed. He occasionally said some really stupid shit.

We don’t need him alive now to recognize that he is right about the direction of punch lines. And we would all be better off if we simply used his words from 1990 to recognize the importance of everyone’s humanity.

There is no punch line more valuable than our collective humanity—and about that, even if he would fail us today, I feel certain Carlin would agree if he were still alive.

See Also

Comedy Is Not Pretty: In Black and White

Canceled?: The Day Comedy Died

“I’m Just an Old Fart, Leave Me Alone”: On Kurt Vonnegut and George Carlin