The Magazine

He Who Laughs

Are comedians funny, or harbingers of social change?

Jun 2, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 36 • By ZACK MUNSON
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Of George Carlin's send-up of self-contradictory terms such as "jumbo shrimp" or "mobile homes," Zoglin insists that "as a social satirist, he was more penetrating than ever." Andy Kaufman's obnoxious lounge singer/alter ego Tony Clifton was a "corrosive satire of the sadomasochistic underbelly of show business." Carlin's bit on Roman Catholic sin is "a masterpiece of autobiographical vaudeville" (plausible) "and theological criticism" (what?) while Robin Williams's comedy "(intentionally or not) showed how [our media-saturated] culture was turning into mindless cacophony, making us crazy."

Intentionally or not? Maybe Williams was just trying to be funny. The fact is that the rapid transformation in American social mores during this period had a much greater effect on what was considered acceptable than Lenny Bruce's outlandishness. And it was far more responsible for opening the doors for Carlin, Pryor, and the comics who followed. The countercultural upswing began in the 1950s, in which Bruce played just a minor role, and blossomed in the 1960s, shaping what the new comics had to say as well as creating audiences who wanted to hear it. This is the point that Zoglin doesn't seem to grasp: Comedians don't tell us where we should be and why; they show us where we are, and why it's such a funny place to be. The great stand-ups of the last four decades have excelled at this.

Comedy at the Edge is full of messy people retelling their messy lives, with memories obscured by age, drugs, alcohol, ego, envy, regret, and (sometimes) success. These characters are not easy to categorize. Zoglin manages to string them together with some coherence, but his fixation on social criticism is forced, ill-placed, and ultimately unpersuasive. Imputing social, moral, or political significance to comic talent suggests that comedy has to have a point. To which anyone who has ever laughed at anything can only respond: Some people are just funny; isn't that enough?

Zack Munson is a comedian and writer in Washington.