Saturday, October 03, 2009

Drugs and Comedy

My Fellow Comedists,

I've been thinking about the way comics' whose on-stage personas were tied to supposed drug use have changed with time. The originals were those whose acts hinged on their being drunks. Foster Brooks made a career of it, but many comics had it as part of their repertoire: Red Skelton and, of course, Dudley Moore were greats. The drunk was the male version of the dizzy blonde, someone whose wits were slow and who saw things not quite right.

Once the 60s hit, of course, we saw the rise of Cheech and Chong who tweeked the drunk bit, taking it a bit farther out. The cleverness of their writing could easily get lost in the clueless stoner schtick.

The 80s brought two divergent comics. With the rising use of cocaine, we see Bobcat Goldthwait whose mix of manic delivery, paranoia, and high-pitched cracking voice was entirely unique. Perhaps because it was a white-collar drug, you start to see with him some overt cleverness. He is less of a clown and just someone who is out of control, a feeling common to the middle class. That line was then followed in the 90s by Bill Hicks who had the fire of Goldthwait, but instead of someone hopped up on speed, his delivery was the angry ranting of someone who just gave up smoking. Hicks was aggressively smart. His drug discussions were always wrapped in social commentary concerning how dissatisfying life in a corporate culture is, how alienating and soul-crushing it is, and ways to seek alternative modes of being.

Then there was the other direction. Taxi gave us Reverend Jim who was a post-60s Gracie Allen. But a new slant was put on it by Steven Wright who strips it entirely of its ditsiness, replacing it with overtly intelligent surrealism. The stoner is the fool in King Lear, the only one who sees things clearly as they actually are, who points them out to us who are stuck in the old way of seeing. The line was pushed by Mitch Hedberg who played with it in a fascinating way, restoring some of the innocence, but coming through with the same "you never thought of it like that, did you?" punch.

It is interesting how we see the complete inversion from stupid drunk we laugh at because they don't see the world right to enlightened one who has seen reality beneath the veil of ignorance. A legacy of the psychedelic 60s? A sense that there is something askew in our buttondown perspective?

Let's leave you with some Steven Wright and Mitch Hedberg:

Live, laugh, and love,

Irreverend Steve