George Carlin released his first comedy album in 1967. For forty years he has addressed topics that on their surface do not seem funny: obscenity, war, murder, religion, pollution, and natural disasters to name a few. Carlin made it a point to cross boundaries that other comedians (and the public at large) are afraid to cross.
If crime fighters fight crime and firefighters fight fire, what do freedom fighters fight?
While his career was not always smooth, he had little trouble filling venues with people anxious to hear him speak. I watched several of his live concerts on television and saw him in person twice. Frequently, I have been uncomfortable watching his shows, but I have always been entertained. Poets could learn a few things from George Carlin. Here are four of those things:
Play with people’s expectations
One of the most basic elements of comedy is the manipulation of expectations. Consider the George Carlin quote above. He leads the audience down a specific path in which people fight against something. This preconditions the audience to think in a specific way. He then manipulates that expectation by throwing in an opposite example. If he had instead continued with a list of other items that were exactly the same, there would be no punch line. In order to make the joke work, he changes the path of expectations.
Most people work just hard enough not to get fired and get paid just enough money not to quit.
The lesson to be learned by poets is that predictability isn’t as interesting as turnabout. Listing the wonderful qualities of the person you love is a nice sentiment, but it rarely makes for an interesting poem. If their qualities aren’t the qualities that people would expect, however, that takes your readers in a new direction. Playing with expectations doesn’t just apply to the whole poem. Be prepared to play with expectations even on a line-by-line basis. There’s nothing worse than reading a poem for the first time and still being able to predict exactly what the next line will be. Every time you take your reader someplace new, you have the opportunity to increase their interest.
Can you go too far with manipulating expectations? Of course, you can. Any technique can wear thin if overused. You don’t want to surprise a reader just to surprise them. You want to do it for a good reason.
Important observations are often hidden in humor
Going back to George Carlin’s line about freedom fighters, it is pretty clear that his point lies deeper than just showing people showing how language can fool people and definitions can be strange. Carlin is making a judgment about war and politics. Much of Carlin’s career has been spent showing how groups of people (governments, doctors, activists, businesses, etc.) use language to manipulate people for a variety of reasons. Carlin has very definite social, political, and religious beliefs and he expresses them in his act. People listen to him and remember what he says because he makes them laugh while he expresses his views.
Think of how stupid the average person is, and realize half of them are stupider than that.
You don’t have to be a humorist to write good poetry, but you do need to be a bit of an entertainer. It isn’t enough to just state your point in poetry; you have to do it in an interesting way. Humor is one of many tools that can be used to get your point across while keeping your reader involved.
Develop a relationship with your audience
Your audience doesn’t have to love you, but they should have an opinion about you. There are many approaches to involving an audience in your work. Carlin doesn’t go out on stage looking to make new friends. He probably doesn’t mind if he does, but his goal is to engage his audience. He isn’t afraid to make them angry or uncomfortable. At some points, he even stops trying to make them laugh. He talks to the audience almost as if he is debating with them. While this approach may turn some people off, it connects with enough of an audience to keep him working. I have seen many comedians (and poets) whose work appears to exist in a vacuum. They fail to form a relationship with their audience, either friendly or adversarial. You know nothing more about them at the end than when you started.
Fighting for peace is like screwing for virginity.
For poets, developing a relationship with your audience means several things. It means taking the time to open up about personal issues, taking stances, and expressing opinions. Learn to perform. If you have an opportunity to do a reading, take it. When you do read, try to observe and remember the audiences’ reactions. If possible, make video recordings of your performances and have whoever is making the recording spend as much time filming the audience as they do filming you. Find out what makes audiences react to you. Look for ways to improve upon their reactions.
Keep working on your skills as long as it takes
One of the advantages George Carlin has over an up-and-coming performer is that he has forty years of material and experience to draw from. This kind of advantage can only be gained from work, experience, and time. The more you write and learn and explore your poetry, the better you will get at it. Carlin managed to find some measure of fame fairly early in his career, but he has had plenty of low points that would have ended the careers of many other comedians. His act continues to grow stronger and more distinctive as the years pass because he keeps working to make it better. That persistence has rewarded him with a long successful career. He continues to fill theaters and concert halls long after most of the people who started with him have retired, given up, or just faded away. Keep working, improving, and writing.
More people write poetry than read it.
George Carlin links
- A poem by George Carlin
- George Carlin Quotes About Writing
- George Carlin talks about “stuff’
- Six Tips For Writing Poetry About Difficult Subjects
- Write poetry as often as you can