Sunday, June 12, 2011


Tracy and I listen to comedy albums when we drive, which means that recently we've been listening to a lot of comedy albums -- or, more accurately, a handful of them, but quite often. I know both of Mike Birbiglia's comedy albums back to front, at this point. We use him often because he is an amiable but still genuinely funny guy. It's not important to us that he's generally seen as a "clean comic," but it doesn't hurt -- I prefer a gentler sort of humor when I'm in hour 5 of a cross-country drive.

Sometimes I do wonder about the "clean comic" label, not because I consider Birbiglia anything else in particular but because so few who bear the title really seem, on close examination, all that pure. In his album My Secret Public Journal, he makes reference to sex, pornography, rape, cancer, poop, frog piss, colonoscopies, a class clown who used to whip people with his dick, Hell, child molestation, blindness, alcoholism, the Iraq war, sectarian conflict, assassination, and probably other potentially upsetting or offensive things I am forgetting. These things do not make me angry or upset me, but they seem to be at least potentially very upsetting. It's not really news that comedy generally requires the discussion of delicate subjects, even if you're trying to be basically nice about it, which Birbiglia certainly is.

What confuses me every time I listen to it is the bleeping. When Birbiglia describes the class clown hitting people with his dick, he prefaces it by saying "Not to be crude," and perhaps this is part of why his editors choose not to bleep out the word. However, in the climactic joke, he reports Dennis Eckersley saying the words "Fuck him." He repeats this again later. Both times, the editors elect to bleep the word, or rather to mute the middle letter. "F*ck him." But of course the actual effect is even less than that: you can hear the beginning of the u in the f and you can hear its end in the ck. So it's more like, "fu-uck him." There is, in other words, no question of what he said, which is good, because if there were it would f*ck up the joke. But that makes the decision to bleep it rather mysterious, doesn't it?

There's a sense in which the institution of his label is protecting his image, and there's a sense in which that's impossible because as a major label they are presumably responsible for all manner of filth. We could say that they're protecting Birbiglia's image as a clean comic, but bleeping him actually has the opposite effect for me: swearing never seems so sordid as when someone draws my attention to it by pretending to hide it. And it's especially strange as a strategy because Birbiglia isn't even really responsible for the obscenity -- he's only reporting what Eckersley said, and Eckersley doesn't come out of the story smelling of roses.

The way we hide obscenity in plain sight has always fascinated me. On the radio, where I guess the FCC is less aggressive, you can bleep by cutting out a very small part of the vowel sound. (It's always the vowel that goes -- who knows why that part is considered especially shameful.) On live or "live" television the context is included such that you can tell what was said, but more of the sound itself is generally removed, and sometimes you really can't be sure. Comics, even those that traditionally work quite blue, are coached on how to clean up their jokes for television.

In TV dramas, meanwhile, the limits of language are so extreme that it places the characters in a sort of alternate universe. If they can't say f*ck, then it's nearly impossible to imagine them f*cking. That's not how they live. And yet it is how we live. And we want to see f*cking, and stories that revolve around f*cking. So you end up with shows like CSI, where on the one hand you have these depraved criminals who love nothing more than f*cking, and then on the other side of the law these even crazier-seeming detectives who, judging from their revolted responses to the f*cking, have never so much as f*ngered somebody. They wouldn't even think of it, because to do so would require thinking a dirty word, which they can't possibly allow themselves to do. Even when they're ostensibly having sex, I can never believe it, and I can really never accept that they're enjoying themselves, that they're doing anything healthy or fun.

Movies are allowed sex, but perversely this leads to their focusing on violence, as sex screws up your ratings faster, and seems a smaller issue when you're actually allowed it. As a result, the only worlds that look and feel remotely real are often HBO shows, where essentially anything goes, and so the limits become what we are willing to see, or what we want, or what we need.

I never swore as a teenager, and I still try not to in the company of my elders or my family, or in most professional contexts. But I learned fairly quickly, when I was young, that to write good prose without access to obscenity would be basically impossible -- especially novels. You can't do it. You can't write a great novel unless you're at least willing to consider including sex, violence, filth, grotesquery, misery, joy, etc. It can't be done. I accepted this, and I started learning to swear. Now I'm really quite f*cking casual about it.

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