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Last Laughs

By Nancy Oakley


It’s no joke: In recent years comedians have been bemoaning the slow death of comedy, owing to the trend of public shaming or outright cancellation of material deemed offensive. Excuse us (or perhaps not), but comedy is meant to offend. Which is why, to borrow a phrase from standup comic Rodney Dangerfield, it don’t get no respect — and never has, since Aristophanes’ day. Comedy is inherently subversive, holding up a mirror to the human condition, so rife with foibles. It’s pathos in disguise, really, but when artfully done makes us double over with laughter.

There are far too many masters of the medium to illustrate our point, but since we trade in words, we’ll pick a comedic legend whose signature was a facility with language. More than any persnickety editor, the inimitable George Carlin examined the uses, abuses and idiosyncrasies of 20th-century American English, notoriously breaking ground with his 1972 monologue, “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” A radio broadcast of the routine ultimately led to a Supreme Court decision, FCC v. Pacifica Foundation, addressing the extent to which the federal government could regulate speech on radio and TV.

But Carlin didn’t stop with vulgarities. He also targeted “advertising b.s,” mundane expressions and sayings, such as “have a nice day,” and what he called “soft language,” euphemisms that disguise direct, honest speech that also shield us from life’s realities. Combining his razor-sharp wit with slapstick and the exaggerated facial expressions of a clown, while moderating the tone of is voice, Carlin gleefully savages the banality of modern verbiage, noting how “toilet paper” has become “bath tissue;” how “shell shock,” has evolved into the eight syllable, “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” and how anyone who’s been fired, is simply the result of how “management wanted to curtail redundancies in the human resources area.” None of them laughing matters in and of themselves, but in Carlin’s deft hands? Hilarious.

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