On Comedy, It’s Not For The Thin-Skinned

A Geezer’s Notebook, By Jim Foster

When he got loaded, the human cannonball knew there were not many men of his calibre.

I just finished reading Napalm & Silly Putty a New York Times Bestseller written by one of the greatest comedians ever, George Carlin. The line above is just about the only comment in the whole book I would be able to put in this online newspaper without John chopping the hell out of it.

I loved Carlin’s stand-up routines, and yes, I know he pushed the envelope pretty far when it came to humour and even the Christian religion, George didn’t pull any punches. He said what he thought and those thoughts were not appreciated by everyone – especially prudish people and who cares about them? I am sure George ticked off hundreds, if not thousands of people over his long career, but hundreds of thousands paid big bucks just to see and hear him. I guess the ‘it takes all kinds to make a world’ line really is true. I watch comedians on Netflix all the time and some (not many mind you, but some) offend even me, but Carlin never did.

What I do find difficult to understand is how much audiences have changed. I remember very vividly the reaction of an elderly lady (probably ten years younger than I am right now) sitting beside me when Catherine McKinnon said the dreaded F-word in Same Time, Next Year  at the Gryphon Theatre in Barrie thirty or so years ago. I thought I would have to dial 911. Today the old dear wouldn’t even have noticed it and if she did she would have texted the line to the girls in the bridge club before the act ended.

What most people find funny now is not what we found funny thirty or forty years ago. The audiences of today have moved on. Whether they moved in the right direction or not is a matter of opinion of course. What people expect in 2022 may not be what we paid to see in live theatre or on the old Ed Sullivan back in the olden days, but it is what they are paying for now, and paying big bucks too. We may think today’s comedians and playwrights are going too far, but it doesn’t seem all that long ago that Rhett Butler shocked the world with, “Frankly Scarlett, I don’t give a damn.” How shocking!

The world is changing and no doubt it will get worse, or better depending how you look at it, but if you don’t want to you don’t have to change with it. You don’t have to like it. Nobody is asking you to buy tickets to something that offends you. You simply don’t go.

Three or four years ago, I watched a show from New York. The star was Russell Peters, a Canadian lad from Brampton or some other godforsaken place. Russell’s comedy is quite explicit and that night he said something that was, shall we say, rude, and there was an eleven- year-old boy in the front row. He talked to the boy and his father from the stage. I can’t remember if it was before or after. In an interview later when confronted with why he said it knowing the kid was there he said, “What was I supposed to do? There were 5,000 people there who paid a lot of money to see me. The problem wasn’t what I said; it was the fact that some guy was so stupid he brought his eleven-year-old kid to my show.”

I haven’t done much public speaking for a while, COVID restrictions I guess, (or my audiences have gone to their reward or are in nursing homes) but when I did it was always a bit of a problem with what I found funny and what I thought I could get away with. I secretly think most people enjoy being shocked a little – not horrified, but shocked just a little. I may be wrong on that; I probably upset a few people over the years, but not many.

I am probably typical for my age group (the few of us who are left) probably a little looser when it comes to sexual humour than most but relatively normal in what I find funny. In spite of what I just said about today’s humour and how much I like most of it, I miss the old radio shows from long ago, George and Gracie, Jack Benny, Red Skelton, Edgar Bergen, Fred Allen and so many others. Odd though, as I think back, I don’t remember the F-word popping up in any of them. It was never in any of my stuff either.

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