Richard Pryor George Carlin jokes

Some of these are just jokes, folks

Classic controversial comedy and timely insight.

George Carlin, “A Place for My Stuff,” A Place for My Stuff, Atlantic Records (1981)

I take comedy very seriously. Comedy is not just for laughs. It’s a science. It’s an artform. It’s a religion. Jerry Seinfeld says that comedy is the closest thing to justice in this world, and I agree. At best, comedy isn’t just truth; it’s righteousness beyond reproach.

Doing comedy, then, is the most dangerous kind of performance. If you get up on stage and play a bad “Stairway to Heaven” cover on an out-of-tune acoustic guitar, someone might just beat you to death with it. But if you get up in front of an audience and try to make them laugh and fail, you’re not just unfunny, you’re unjust. And only the audience at that moment gets to decide. They are your judge, jury and executioner all rolled into one terrifying mass of drunken punters. No wonder comics are more cancellable than Kleenex is disposable. 

Donald Trump can say he grabs women by the pussy and become the U.S. president, but whatever you do, don’t be Al Franken and pretend to grab a woman’s boobs.

Steve Martin, “One Way to Leave Your Lover,” Let’s Get Small, Warner Bros. Records (1977)

A girlfriend joke: My last girlfriend wanted to have a ménage-a-trois with two men, so I asked her, “You really want me to go find you another man for sex?” And she said, “no, two men.”

Woody Allen, “Bullet in My Breast Pocket,” Standup Comic, United Artists Records (1978)

Mothers fuck us up. Fathers’ abuse usually manifests in violence, but mothers can be undermining on a whole ‘nother level. I could never be perfect enough for my mother. Think of Tony Soprano’s mother. David Chase had to wait for his crazy bitch mother to die before he felt safe enough channelling her through Livia Soprano. But me, I can’t wait for my mother to die. 

A neurotic mother joke: my own mother has been a nurse for 50 years, and I think that has made her a very panicky woman when it comes to her health. Every time she hears about a new Coronavirus variant, she sends all her masks out to be reupholstered.

Richard Pryor, “[N-word(s)] vs. the Police,” That [N-word’s] Crazy, Reprise Records (1974)

I was in bed recently with a girl who loves comedy — because why else would a girl be in bed with me? We weren’t sleeping, and we were not yet doing that other thing beds are known for. So, in search of some laughs, we settled on Richard Pryor’s Live and Smokin’ performance, filmed in San Francisco in 1971. 

They say that laughter is the best medicine. And it’s a known aphrodisiac, which is why guys have been taking girls to comedy clubs and plying them with watered down booze since before Moses quit speech therapy. This is a cautionary tale, however, because Richard Pryor’s Live and Smokin’ performance, filmed in San Francisco in 1971, is by any means no aphrodisiac. If you ever want to make a girl cry for the wrong reason…

At the close of an awkward and brilliant freeform ramble that, among other taboo topics, touches on the possibility that Pryor himself was pimped out to white men as a child, he closes with a 20-minute bit in the prototypic voice of Mudbone, Pryor’s iconic street wino character. 

This wino tries to aid a sick junkie, also voiced by Pryor: “I likes you, boy,” Pryor slurs, miming an arm around his nonexistent companion, “You gots potential.” This is not comedy. This is a cultural manifesto disguised as performance art, and anyone would either have to be high or crazy to try pull it off, even in 1971. But never now. 

There is no way that Richard Pryor would be the comic he became if he started out today — of course not. Not only would the comedy establishment disallow this sort of material before it ever saw the stage, but today’s comedy audiences would cancel Pryor so fast, he wouldn’t know who to run from first: the police or the pitchforks. The handheld video Richard Pryor would have been known for, if he were known for any video, would not have been funny. 

Pryor beat women. He smoked freebase. He liberally used the N-word, before renouncing it altogether. And he gave the English-speaking world an accurate account of being a Black man in America at that time. Not much has changed. 

They clearly aren’t aphrodisiac, but Pryor’s words were more melancholy medicine than what passes for race representation today. Yeah, I said it.

Roseanne Barr, “Arsenio Hall,” I Enjoy Being a Girl, Hollywood Records (1990)

There’s been a lot of spilt ink lately in this particular province, in this very publication, about the N-word. There is never an appropriate way to whip out that word in its intended context. And hiding behind its surrounding “discourse” is a highly suspect way to just get away with saying it. But let me float an idea here: maybe it’s not the N-word itself, but its definition, that needs changing. Let’s face it: from its ubiquity in music, comedy and pop culture, it’s not going away.

The noun according to my 1989 copy of The Oxford English Dictionary is defined as “derogatory, Negro; dark-skinned person.” Its association with race seems indelible, but is it? What if we used it instead as a colourblind verb, meaning to “utterly demolish someone in the public sphere; to degrade them to such a degree as to make them feel lower than a slave”?

If we deploy this updated definition, then one might be compelled to exclaim about Roseanne’s astonishing tirade: “Damn, that fat bitch just [N-word]-ed the shit out of that Black American talk show host!” ■

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