And he honed that blade like a samurai sword, polished and practiced his craft until it did, indeed, become sullen art, painting tragedy in comic colors to disguise the deep truths of our collective plight. He became adept at that most difficult of venues — the live performance telecast — reaching, thereby, millions of people all of whom were forced to think at least once or twice during any given performance. Perhaps George was, as so many of his professional contemporaries insist, the epitome of the one-man rant format. But there is more to the story than that.
Carlin was not the first, and indeed may be only the latest, in a line of comics who told truth so powerfully that it had to be called humor or somebody lost their head. Jesters at curt in medieval times were famous for mocking court figures and events, hopefully to the amusement of the king and his more powerful noble allies. Lack of laughter meant one should roll up your fool’s cap and get thee out of town. The “Canterbury Tales” and their later sequels were particularly pointed lampoons of Georgian times in the flatulent empire. Mark Twain so skewered the America of his times that most of his writings were torn from the bookshelves of respectable libraries following his published dissections of U.S. policy and our war against the Philippines. Will Rogers, Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce all worked the dark side of the humor street, and their times were better for their efforts.
Gerald Heard, a contemporary of Alexander Huxley during the café society intellectual drug experiments of the early 20th century, studied laughter and concluded that it is an involuntary physical response to surprise and understanding — an uncontrollable reaction to sudden enlightenment, as in Zen, where laughing is often a signal of spiritual epiphany. Heard called this “high humor” and considered it a factor in mankind’s progress towards a still unrealized civil social order, and therefore “positive.”
Like all positives, however, there is a negative: lower comedy. This is the nervous laughter from the listener that translates into embarrassment and gratitude that you are not the butt of the joke, or worse yet, telling it. Often cruel and demeaning of others, low humor is easy. Insulting caricatures, sexual double entendres and fart jokes (which my friends in the comedy industrial complex assure me never fail to get a laugh) are low humor at its highest.
The problem is, the more high humor you experience, the less laughs you get from low humor, and if you live long enough even the high humor ain’t funny any more.
“Travus T. Hipp” is a 40-year veteran radio commentator with six stations in California carrying his daily version of the news and opinions. “The Poor Hippy’s Paul Harvey,” Travus is a member of the Nevada Broadcasters Hall of Fame, but unemployable in the Silver State due to his eclectic political views.