Why Comedy is Important

by Jeffrey Cohen

My thanks to all at Murderati for allowing me to visit my blogging alma mater, as I moved out and took up residence at Hey, There’s A Dead Guy In The Living Room about a year and a half ago. But I still check in here, and I’m still awed by all that happens in this space. It’s very special.

22hBy now, you might be sick and tired of hearing about George Carlin, who died suddenly last week and was subsequently eulogized by everyone except members of the FCC, who were probably annoyed that everyone started remembering The Seven Words You Can’t Say On Television again.

You might be so tired of Carlin at this point that you’re glad he’s dead. Well, too bad for you.

Add my voice to those who thought George Carlin was brilliant and brave. Well, until he got so angry the past few years that he came out and told the audience that it would be better if we all died and let the planet regenerate itself. He might have been right, but I’m not willing to test the theory.

Carlin’s death was a shock to those of us who follow comedy seriously. He was 71 years old, not exactly ancient but not at an age where he’ll be classified as "Gone too soon" in ads featuring T-shirts with pictures of Elvis, Marilyn, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and others who didn’t wait for Death to come along and find them, but helped the process along a good deal. His was merely a matter of bad health; Carlin had already suffered more than one heart attack, dating back decades.

But it’s relevant to note that like another great comedian, Groucho Marx, Carlin thought of himself more as a writer than a performer. He adored words, played with them, found the hypocrisies in the way we use them, and pointed them out. Carlin wrote three books (the third is scheduled for publication).

His riffs on the concept of "jumbo shrimp" and "military intelligence" just skimmed the surface. In his later years, he could go on long, perfectly precise tears that explored every aspect of a word or added words to thoughts where they’d never belonged before. And as in all forms of genius, he made you think that his idea was a perfectly sensible one that you’d never considered before.

Why is comedy important? Because it is the escape hatch, the steam valve of life. We are attracted to great comedy because it includes not only the obvious, but also the truthful that we never considered before. When Groucho Marx turns to his brother in Horse Feathers and admonishes him that "you can’t burn the candle at both ends." Harpo merely reaches into that voluminous trench coat of his and pulls out a candle burning at both ends. And we say to ourselves, "You know, I guess you can, after all."

Knifecover_150 People make the mistake of thinking that because comedy is performed quickly and casually, that it is effortless. It’s anything but. I appreciated it when Publishers Weekly used the word ("effortless") in a review of my last book, SOME LIKE IT HOT-BUTTERED (the new one, IT HAPPENED ONE KNIFE, comes out tomorrow), because that meant I’d done my job right, and the jokes seemed like they flowed naturally. They didn’t — in some cases, I was pacing the floor in my office for hours trying to come up with the right comeback for Elliot Freed to use the second after someone insulted him.

I began worshipping comedy at a very young age, probably starting with Bugs Bunny (before I got all the jokes, and thought these were serious fims about a man trying to shoot a rabbit) and Rocky and Bullwinkle (see previous comment, but substitute "moose and squirrel" for "rabbit.") But I quickly graduated to Bill Cosby, Get Smart (the beginning of a lifelong affection for Mel Brooks), then Woody Allen, the Marx Brothers (especially the Marx Brothers!), W.C. Fields, Larry Gelbart, Dick Van Dyke (which led to Carl Reiner), Robert Klein, David Brenner, John Belushi, Dan Ayckroyd, and . . . well, suffice it to say I could go on.

It gets us through the tough times. The problem is that now, there’s no George Carlin to get us through the death of George Carlin. But there is Jon Stewart, and there is Craig Ferguson, and Lewis Black, and Stephen Wright, and Tina Fey and many, many others.

In my own writing, I’m going for the laugh first. I’ll admit that. I feel like I write comedies that have a mystery in them, and not the other way around. If you send me an email that says, "You know, the plot really doesn’t hold water, but I laughed all the way through." I’m a happy man. Comedy is essential to our collective sanity, and that commodity appears to be in short supply htese days.

Respect those who provide it.

Rest in peace, George. Or better, rest cranky. Your work here is far from done, but it was advanced enormously because of your tireless work. We will miss you a good deal more than you’ll miss us.

Jeffrey Cohen is the author of IT HAPPENED ONE KNIFE: A DOUBLE FEATURE MYSTERY, which you might have heard will be published tomorrow. He is also the author of the Aaron Tucker series, unproduced screenplays, newspaper and magazine articles, nonfiction books about raising a child with autism-spectrum disorder, and a grocery list that is attracting a good deal of attention in Hollywood. 

(Thanks, Jeff, for visiting today. We’re glad to have you.

13 thoughts on “Why Comedy is Important

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    So great to have you back, Jeff! Wonderful tribute and post, thank you.

    I was privileged to meet Carlin several times in Berkeley. Just as brilliant and funny in person.

    “Death is easy – comedy is hard.”

  2. Pari Noskin Taichert

    Great to have you here, Jeff. Congrats on the new book!

    Did anyone catch SNL last week? They ran the very first episode. Alot of the humor held up and it was such a bittersweet experience to laugh and know that so many of these comedic giants were all dead now.

    Laughter through the tears . . .

  3. JT Ellison

    Jeff, wonderful to see your byline here again! Congrats on the new book!

    I’m a big fan of LAST COMIC STANDING, the show that helps new comics break into the very difficult world of stand-up. They dedicated last week’s show to Carlin. Such a shame to lose him — he was brilliant.

    And Craig Ferguson is one of the funniest men alive. He’s also an author — I think the ones who play with words are the best.

  4. Dana King

    I DVR’d all the HBO specials last week when they ran them as tribute; it’s great to see the act evolve and grow as his skills and comfort level improved. Carlin had to be the most intelligent comic working. The thought that went into each of those bits, espceically as he got more into wordplay, is breathtaking. The amount of work that went into those routines is proven–to a writer, at least–by how easy he made it look.

  5. Allison Brennan

    I saw Carlin when I was a senior in hs at the old Circle Star Theater in San Carlos. He was brilliant and I had a bunch of his tapes in my car. I appreciate good comedy (Toni!!!) and often read funny books (light or dark comedy) to get away from the dark and depressing stuff I write. I know my limitations, and comedy is beyond my talent. Even my agent said I’m not funny. (She denies it to this day, but it’s true.)

    Yeah! Another Bugs Bunny fan! I bought a collection for my kids–my boys love them. Particularly the Tasmanian Devil and Road Runner. And the one where Bugs is drawing Daffy into a bunch of different scenes, they crack up every time.

    My husband is a die hard Marx Bros fan. I’ll admit, I’ve never seen one . . . though he has most of the tapes.

  6. Rosemary Harris

    Hey, Jeff -I’m laughing my way through Some Like It Hot-Buttered right now, so glad to hear IHOK is coming out soon. My fave George Carlin routine is the one about “Stuff.” I just watched it again on Youtube and it’s still hysterical. And I feel that way once a week…”what is all this stuff?”

  7. simon

    My wife is a big Carlin fan, so she’s recorded everything off the TV in the last week including SNL. He’s a big loss. So many comics owe their careers to his fearlessness.

    JT, I’m with you. Craig Ferguson is a great comic. I wish he’d do more stand-up.

  8. Jake Nantz

    I always thought Carlin was a funny guy. I can laugh at myself, but he still managed to make it difficult. The reasons? Well, I’m a Christian and I’m a lacrosse player, two of Carlin’s MANY favorite targets.


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