What Louis CK learned from George Carlin: Throw it all away

“What do dogs do on their day off? They can’t lay around…that’s their job already.”
-George Carlin

I was struck by a video peaking on reddit earlier today of Louis CK honoring George Carlin in March 2010. It’s a fascinating monologue giving insight into how Louis eventually became a great comedian, after languishing for fifteen years:

I spent 15 years as a comedian, going in a circle that went nowhere. I hated my act, I had been doing the same hour of comedy for 15 years…and it was shit, I promise you. [...]

I was sitting in my car after the show [in a Chinese restaurant] , just feeling like this was all a big mistake: I’m just not good enough; I felt like my jokes were a trap.

In the car I listened to a CD of George Carlin talking about comedy, talking about it seriously.

The thing that blew me away about this fellow was that he kept putting out specials. Every year there would be a new George Carlin special, a new George Carlin album. How did he do it? It made me literally cry, that I could never do that. I did the same jokes for 15 years.

On the CD they ask him, how do you write all this material? And he says, each year I decide I’d be working on that year’s special, then I’d do that special, then I would throw away that material and start again with nothing. And I thought, that’s crazy, how do you throw away? It took me fifteen years to build this shitty hour, and if I throw it away, I got nothing.

But he gave me the courage to try it — and also I was desperate, what else would I do?

This idea that you throw everything away and you start over again. After you are done telling jokes about airplanes and dogs, you throw them away. What do you have left? You can only dig deeper. You start talking about your feelings and who you are. And then you do those jokes until they’re gone.You gotta dig deeper. So then you start thinking about your fears andyour nightmares and doing jokes about that. And then they’re gone. And then you start going into just weird shit.

It’s a process that I watched him do my whole life. And I started to try and do it.

For Louis CK, focusing on perfecting one set of jokes led only to fifteen years of comedic stagnation; he didn’t even enjoy his own act. It was only when he was able to let go the idea of these perfect jokes and explore comedy in a fuller sense, to push the boundaries in comedic space, that he became successful. And his role model, George Carlin, followed a similar process of throwing stuff away and trying to push as far away into new zones of joke-space.

In another part of his talk, Louis CK mentions he recognizes and actively seeks strange and controversial new jokes:

I was having a hard time being a father, and I wanted to say it on stage. So I thought, forget all the old jokes, start again. And I said the first thing I thought of: “I can’t have sex with my wife, because we have a baby, and our baby is a f**king a**hole.” It was how I was feeling, and I just said it. And the audience went Whoa! And I thought…oh, I’m somewhere new now.

And I said, “I never got babies in the dumpster before…but now I get it.” [audience gasps] And they did that! And I thought, I’d rather have that, then the shit tepid laughter from my fifteen-year old jokes. So I started going down this road. And he (George Carlin) was the beacon for me, always. He always gave me the courage.

For me, the larger implication of all of this is that success or prolific creativity is often not the result of directly trying to write great jokes or even of endless practice of a craft (although that often helps, e.g. John Mayer reminds us of the importance of writing terrible songs).

It may instead be more important to actively challenge yourself to do something fundamentally different from what yourself or others have done in the past. In doing so, you’re engraining more, and deeper, knowledge of what jokes are, internalizing joke-ness through your intellectual questioning.

Perhaps our metrics for weekend hacks and start-up ideas shouldn’t be judged on profitability or technical virtuosity. Perhaps we should just ask ourselves — does this make the audience go “Whoa!”? Does this project force me in new directions and is it exploring along the fringes of what is possible but not yet realized?

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