Stand-Up! America’s Dissenting Tradition Part 2

Transformers George Carlin & Richard Pryor

by Iain Ellis

10 May 2012

George Carlin 

Pain and Pleasure

Pryor’s means of dissent was not through protest, but dramatization. By crafting a series of characters based on the kinds of people he had grown up around in the ghetto districts of Peoria, Illinois, he found ways to humanize black and educate white America. For example, Mudbone, his street corner sage, was a caricature made real by Pryor’s evocative use of tone, accent, and language (both verbal and body). He and other “types” were imaginatively dramatized within sketches that highlighted such inner-city issues as poverty, addictions, and police harassment. 

Although never a mouth-piece for the Black Panther party or the black power movement, Pryor echoed their tone and topics of concern, just as James Brown, Sly and the Family Stone, and Gil Scott-Heron were doing within the music world. And for white audiences unwilling (or too fearful) to attend a Richard Pryor concert, albums like That Nigger’s Crazy (1974) captured his subaltern world on wax in all its profanity-laced and (em)pathetic glory. Yet, as “black” as this comedy was, white audiences were also drawn into his world, thanks to the transcendent humanity and universal hilarity he infused within it. 

Many marveled at the naturalism Pryor brought to his cast of pimps, hookers, and pushers; but these were the very people he grew up with. With his mother a prostitute, his father a part-time pimp, and his grandmother a Madam in a number of neighborhood brothels, Pryor’s was hardly the conventional upbringing and the comic often shared its pains, underscoring the cliché that great comedy is often born(e) of hardship. As Laurie Stone opines, “The most stirring comedy mixes pain with pleasure, its pleasures in part deriving from its pain” (Laurie Stone. Laughing in the Dark: A Decade of Subversive Comedy. Hopewell, NJ: Ecco Press, 1997. p.xv). 

Pain and pleasure would prove to be themes Pryor would oscillate between throughout his career, as he developed into the premiere confessional comic of his generation. And no hurt was off-limits, be it from his tough childhood or from the even more bizarre adulthood he was living out and simultaneously sharing on stage. Seven marriages (to both white and black women), an out-of-control cocaine addiction, and a self-immolation suicide attempt (while high) were all grist for the mill as Pryor ground the pains of his real life into the pleasures of bare—though far from castrated—comedy.

Richard Pryor

Richard Pryor

Whereas Pryor used autobiography as the basis to launch his comedy of social dissent, the other spokes-comedian of the day, George Carlin, aimed his critical lens outwards to reflect upon a world of hypocrisy, greed, phoniness, and self-delusion. Carlin’s interests were two-fold: to zoom in on the minutia of the culture (the micro-world that has been Jerry Seinfeld’s stock-in-trade), but also to pan outwards, surveying big issues and eternal verities like religion, war, the environment, social hierarchy, and human nature.  Mixing observational humor with straight-talk philosophy, Carlin side-stepped the political and topical concerns of the day (which inevitably have a short shelf-life) to tackle larger trends and developments in his culture and beyond. Although the personal was not absent from his material, unlike Pryor it rarely served as the basis for his bits.

In his big picture comedy, too, Carlin was less drawn than Pryor to geographical or ethnic specificity. Instead, using dumbed-down voices to parody the exploiters and the exploited, he examined how social institutions like the media infect the entire nation with their ideology of greed and consumption.

Like the semiotic scholars of post-structuralism, Carlin sought to understand the world through language, examining its usage and misuses, its “common” sense and its nonsense, its power and its potential effects.  Sometimes his linguistic wit came in short jabs with an oxymoron like “military intelligence”; sometimes it was playfully shocking with hooks like “you can prick your finger, but don’t finger your prick” (qtd. in Make ‘Em Laugh. p.355).  Other times, though, as revealed in his infamous“Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television” bit, he cornered us, pressuring us to recognize the social weight of language, and, more significantly, the ever-present watch-dog of censorship. 


Released on his 1972 album, Class Clown, Carlin informs us that “shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits” are words the FCC deems—though never states—are off-limits to TV. When the sketch was aired in 1972 on a New York radio show, only one listener complained; yet, this led to sanctions on the station and a subsequent trial that ultimately reached the Supreme Court. There, vague terms like “obscenity”, “indecency”, “average person”, and “community values” were batted around by the judges with indeterminacy in a courtroom melodrama worthy of a Lenny Bruce satirical sketch. Today, it might be noted, “shit”, “piss”, and “tits” have graduated from the pack and are now commonly accepted across the public airwaves. 

Unlike Pryor, whose career faded in the ‘80s due to illness and his self-destructive lifestyle, Carlin’s candle burned long and, some would argue, increasingly brighter. One sees a raging against the dying of the light as his material grows darker and his voice more militant from the ‘80s to his death in 2008. Part of this was practical, keeping up with the increasingly voluminous styles of newcomers like Bill Hicks, Sam Kinison, and Chris Rock. But there was a sense of a man on a mission in his final decades, too, as he committed himself with greater intensity not only to his craft but also to assaulting the very baby boomer constituency he had once aligned himself to. It was they, he felt, not he, who had changed.

There are few dissenting stand-up comics operating today that have not been influenced by either Pryor or Carlin. Seeing someone like Dave Chappelle inhabiting his pimp, hustler, and junkie characters immediately evokes the memory of Pryor, and anytime one sees a comic deconstructing language in the name of cultural critique one is reminded of Carlin (as well as his mentor, Lenny Bruce). Sometimes successors have adopted the more stylistic features of these comics while missing the larger points, merely reveling in the easy shock humor of raw vernacular or offensive postures but applying them without purpose, empathy, or real dissent. 

What Pryor and Carlin brought to the stand-up form was a new diligence of craft. They used language, gesture, and social critique in ways that spoke to their times, in ways that inspired and educated, and always in honest voices for and of the people. Since the fools and court jesters of old, such has been the ultimate calling of a comedy of dissent.

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//Mixed media