Last night I had the great good fortune to see Eddie Izzard, currently in the midst of his 27-country Force Majeure tour.
Izzard, to my mind fits in that special category I reserve for the five or six greatest practicing comedians. Watching him I was struck by his similarity to the late Robin Williams, both in terms of his manic improvisational skills and his actual delivery (though – and I say this after a great deal of soul searching – Izzard’s comic mind may be even faster than Williams’s was). He told jokes within jokes within jokes; characters seemed to stream out of him at a mile a minute; by the end he created one long riff full of references that had been absolutely buried in his stream of consciousness an hour and a half earlier. At one point during a bit about moles – a silly piece of nonsense that really went nowhere – he tossed in a reference to Steve McQueen in The Great Escape that took me at least thirty seconds to sort out (Izzard, of course, had moved through at least three more riffs by the time I got it). (I certainly don’t want to give any spoilers, but as context for those of you who might not be familiar with his work, I offer up one of his best routines, now almost fifteen years old, a cult favorite about life on the Death Star…)
I suppose comedy can serve a variety of purposes, but I’ve never really gotten beyond something one of my undergraduate professors said in 1991: “Stand-up comedy is where most of the really important social commentary takes place today.” In fact, comedy may always have served this purpose better than any other medium (not only Bob Newhart and Don Rickles, Lenny Bruce, and Richard Pryor, but Shakespeare, and Swift, and Twain). Certainly in the twenty-five years since he said it I’ve never had occasion to disagree.
Whether my professor knew it or not, his comment echoed the sentiments of Robin Williams’s Adrian Cronaur from 1987’s Good Morning Vietnam. Cronaur arrives in Saigon in 1965 as a DJ for the Armed Forces Radio Service. His brand of lightning-quick comedy, a bit of George Carlin’s political ire covered by a veneer of Williams himself is tailor-made for the 1960s. Of course, he quickly finds himself in trouble with the station’s CO because of his eagerness to take on pressing political issues, including the war itself, in his broadcast routines. Lt. Steven Hauk, played by the wonderful Bruno Kirby, takes Cronaur sternly to task, and ultimately takes his place in the sound booth with tired one-liners stolen straight from the heyday of the Catskills. Hauk’s jokes, of course, fail miserably (his staff begs him not to go on air). Hauk’s awful delivery accounts for a great deal of this failure. However, the much larger problem is that his humor is too far removed from reality to be funny, and that’s because it’s too far removed from reality to be urgent.
The best comedy pushes social and political buttons, and the very highest levels of stand-up push those buttons hardest and most urgently. There’s a reason why so few conservative comics succeed (I can think of none – past or present – whose work might be considered “genius”). It’s right there in the ideological terminology: what does “progressive” mean if not to push the boundaries? Shakespeare, Swift, Dryden, Twain, Thurber, Silverman, Fey: not a conservative among them. And Dennis Miller was far funnier as a critic of the Reagan administration than he’s ever been as an apologist.
Izzard’s humor is more layered than anyone I can think of, and so it’s not always easy to ferret out the ways in which he pushes social buttons. There’s his iconic status as a cross-dresser, of course, and I would be remiss if I didn’t credit him for bringing a show like his to a rural town like Rapid City (we sit in the shadow of Mt. Rushmore, after all, a kind of magnet for right-wing American patriotism). He is particularly adept at making his lifestyle so matter-of-fact that it simply ceases to merit comment.
But to label him a socially conscious comic because he happens to be a transvestite would be grossly dismissive. The true aim of his show, as he began to note more and more as he neared the end of it, is to discover small enclaves of what he termed “wise” people. He points out we used to be able to identify those people because they smoked pipes; what he doesn’t say, but which comes across clearly, is that these days, attending one of his concerts serves much the same purpose as owning the pipe once did. As an audience, you must work to follow him – through Steve McQueen references, but also through hysterical pieces built out of no less an academic subject than “invasive languages.” Izzard pushes you to keep up intellectually, he demands it. He knows we are wise, and he honors that wisdom.
All of which put me in mind of another of those “greatest living comics,” Louis C.K., a comedian who pushes us in other ways (Entertainment Weekly’s cover in June 2012 declared him “the greatest living comedian”). Louis hosted the season finale of Saturday Night Live this past weekend and generated a good deal of controversy with bits on racism and pedophilia (“How do you think I feel?” he noted as the crowd laughed, “this is my last show probably”).
But anyone who pays attention to Louis, who follows his stand-up or watches his FX TV show, knows that he made an important decision midway through his career, to push comedy to the very limits of social commentary. His routines treat subjects no normal person would consider bringing up in conversation – incest, pedophilia, child abuse, racism, misogyny (A typical line from one of his stand-up specials: “The other kid we have, she’s four, and she’s also a fucking asshole”). His willingness to do so opens him up to criticism from both the left and the right.
But he accomplishes so much for us, does so much of the psychological work we are unwilling to do ourselves. He says what’s in our minds. Maybe his thoughts are extreme versions of our own (maybe not), and few of us might ever be willing to admit to having them, but there they are all the same. What he dredges up is ugly. Ugly in the way Twain’s repeated use of the word “nigger” in Huck Finn is ugly. Many well-meaning teachers like to defend Twain’s work by arguing the time period in which he wrote excuses his use of this term, but I prefer to believe Twain knew exactly what he was doing. Twain, like Louis (and Bruce, and Pryor, and Carlin, and Silverman, and Izzard) seems to understand that if we don’t look at the ugliness directly, if we refuse to acknowledge it exists, even within ourselves, the wound will only ever heal badly.
Louis C.K. Honors George Carlin
MK Adkins has a Ph.D in English that he occasionally uses to think about literature, but more often uses to think about television, music and film. Adkins is the author of two popular culture books as well as numerous articles and reviews. Until recently, he worked as a college professor but made the decision to devote himself full-time to writing and podcasting in January 2019.
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