Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Abstract and brief chronicles

Hey, what's the deal with comedians? I mean these guys who make us think by making us laugh. Why do so many of them seem to end sadly? Jonathan Swift lost his mind, and Mark Twain got hung up denouncing Christian Science and eventually all religion, which never plays well in America. Ambrose Bierce just disappeared one day, which might be the best exit of all.

In the microphone era after World War II, performance comedy grew up. Its practitioners were called satirists by those who appreciated them, and "sick" by those who didn't. Lenny Bruce, born a decade too early, got tired of being arrested for talking in public the way everyone talks in private; he died in the bathroom like Elvis, but of different drugs. (There's a book to be written about those two parallel lives.) Mort Sahl was a brilliant diamond, but as the times grew darker he lost his sparkle. He failed to notice that people don't go to nightclubs to hear a deconstruction of the Warren Report, and ended crankily supporting Alexander Haig for president. (His blurred copy, Dennis Miller, skidded to the right even faster.) Jean Shepherd turned his back on radio, where he was an undisputed genius, and sought success as a writer and filmmaker. When it didn't come, or at least didn't bring the "wheelbarrow of money" he expected, he denounced his listeners as idiots who couldn't tell his stories were fiction -- what higher praise could a storyteller ask? -- and went off to Florida to die. Richard Pryor survived heart attack, drug abuse, self-immolation and being a black man in America, only to die, inch by defiant inch, of multiple sclerosis. Bill Hicks went faster, from cancer.

The death of George Carlin last Sunday caught me by surprise, not because he hadn't had his own problems with drugs and coronary disease but because he seemed immortal, still angry and funny at 71. His notorious "Seven Words You Can't Say On Television" brought him to the attention of the public and ultimately the Supreme Court of the United States, but that was only part of an enormous body of work. He was funny because he was grounded in a New York City childhood in the 1950s, growing up in "White Harlem," listening to Yankee games on Spanish radio and learning why "the least free people are the most free" in their culture, their language and their lives. You didn't need to be a recovering Catholic to appreciate his reports from Catholic adolescence, figuring out that a light penance was available if you went to confession to a non-Irish priest ("Three Hail Marys and you're back on the street with Father Rivera!"). Those who only heard the "dirty words" (including, apparently, most of the obituary writers) failed to notice that Carlin was a real pro whose command of timing, vocal inflection and facial expression left Robin Williams at the starting gate. He used his instrument like Charlie Parker; by comparison, his closest heir, Lewis Black, rarely modulates from C minor. It was Carlin's professionalism, honed on countless Tonight show appearances, that made him accessible to people who never "got" Andy Kaufman or Sam Kinison, wild men from the forest. Agree or disagree with the specifics, you always knew Carlin would make you laugh immoderately sooner or later. I miss him, but I'm glad he didn't have a slow, miserable decline -- he went to the hospital with chest pains and died a few hours later. I have the impression of a reasonably happy life -- long marriage to his first wife, close relationship with their daughter, no financial or legal worries. I hope I'm right. He was our finest "foole".

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Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Not better late than never

I'm thoroughly tired of people who aid and abet evil and then do penance, usually by writing a best-selling book. I'm not just talking about Satan's coatholders like David Brock and Scott McClellan. The world would be an infinitely better place had J. Robert Oppenheimer and Andrei Sakharov developed consciences before doing their "great" scientific work instead of afterward. I think they knew that vaporizing people by the millions is wrong, but their male egos got in the way. Listen, boys, you don't have to become a martyr for peace if you don't build the big, bad toys in the first place.

Brock and McClellan will be linked in future footnotes (if digital books even have notes). It was Brock's smear job on Prof. Anita Hill that helped a desperately unqualified nominee be confirmed to the Supreme Court, where he joined in the conspiracy that overturned the 2000 election and appointed McClellan's master so Scotty-boy could help sell a pointless and unwinnable war. Brock's mea culpa (Blinded By the Right: The Conscience of an Ex-Conservative) came out five years ago, and McClellan has added a new chorus to the same old song: It's not my fault I lied for a liar, it's your fault you believed me/us. In other words, fool you once, shame on me; fool you every day for months by impugning your patriotism and your sanity, shame on you. And that's about it, really, except for speculating on their common destination. After all, I'm not Dante.