George Carlin still stands up

I seldom cover after-dinner speeches on this blog, nor do I often cover stand-up comedy. My speciality is public speaking. After-dinner speaking and stand-up are quite different from that. In terms of pacing they are actually even different from each other.

Nevertheless I’m always prepared to make exceptions.

On May 13, 1999, The National Press Club in Washington D.C. invited the late George Carlin to deliver an after-dinner speech. (In fact it was after-lunch, but who’s counting?) Carlin died in 2008, so there’s a whole generation who never knew him and his work.

Carlin is introduced by the Club President, Larry Lipman. As tends to be the case with all club meetings a certain amount of time is taken, before anything else, with club housekeeping business. If you are less than fascinated by the housekeeping of 21 years ago, you can skip to the actual introduction at 2:50. Carlin begins speaking at 5:25, ends at 35:23 and the rest is Q&A.

His comedy routine here falls into the category of what I call The Cavalry School. It’s a rare process these days, consisting of galloping along, gags flying out all the time, audience constantly tittering, but almost afraid to laugh in case they miss any, and so on. (On my side of the pond, Ken Dodd was possibly the most prominent cavalry charger – though very different in actual style.)

Each charge, though, has to conclude sometime; and at the conclusion he hits them with a punchline, stopping in a welter of pent-up laughter before gearing up the next charge. That punchline pause is almost unknown today. For one thing it requires the speaker to be one hundred percent confident of the punchline. The confidence comes from having practised and tested his punchline technique to destruction. The testing would have taken place in a long series of differing comedy venues, a testing ground barely available any more. That is why today’s comics almost never pause on a punchline, forging on till the audience’s reaction forces them to pause. Some of us are old enough to remember when they always paused (like George Burns cueing us to laugh by taking a puff of his cigar).

When he made this speech Carlin had recently published a book called Brain Droppings, a volume in which, among other things, he explored some of the vagaries of the English language. His various cavalry charges here likewise study words, and he’s tailored them to his audience. His audience consists of journalists, and he’s speaking in Washington D.C. No prizes for guessing therefore that he charges while brandishing some of the political double speak that we still hear.

For that reason this speech stands up remarkably well today twenty-one years after delivery. Yes a sad student of speech like me may spot technical variations from today’s norm, but it is still funny.

There remains one further observation I think worth making. If we assume, as I think we may, that he was given a half-hour slot then he ended two seconds before the end of it. That’s professional.

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