You have your own barometer. You can tell the audience is, for the most part, getting it. But, you have no way of knowing how anybody is going to receive anything.
When you were starting out as a comedian, was there more of an impulse to try to control how the audience received what you were saying?
Yeah. Because that’s the whole thing...with enough experience, you realize the scale of what we’re talking about. In the beginning, you do try to manage it, and you want everybody to like you. All of those things.
I had an experience very early on that informed the rest of my life. Very early on in my career. This was in the 70s. There was a big court case in Philadelphia, where I was going to college [at the University of Pennsylvania]. There was a guy named JoJo Giorgianni. He was released from prison after raping, like, a 12-year old girl, because his lawyer successfully argued that because JoJo Giorgianni weighed, like, 400 pounds, putting him in a normal jail cell constituted cruel and unusual punishment. So, he ended up getting his client released based on that constitutional principle against cruel and unusual punishment. And, I was doing a joke at the time, “Well, this is interesting. So, the guy rapes a 12-year-old girl, and all of a sudden we’re worried about him being in a tight place.”
So, now, the values of that joke are all really clear. It’s obvious that I’m saying that it’s crazy that this guy was let out. But, for some reason, I guess “raping a 12-year-old girl” in the context of comedy, maybe my demeanor or whatever, people would shut down before they could even get to the point of the joke. It didn’t matter that the point of the joke was all of the values that they would openly celebrate and champion. They turned off to me before they could even process it. That happened very early on, and I was baffled by it.
To me, it couldn’t be clearer what the values of that joke were, and who the victim was, and where I stood on it, and how this was certainly not mocking a rape victim. I was completely frustrated by how this could be misunderstood. I was screaming about the absurdity of this guy being let go. So, very early on, it became clear to me that it was really easy to get misconstrued. And, it became something that pushed me to do more confusing stuff, I guess.
Now that you’ve got all these years of experience, is that a joke you could do more successfully today?
I’ll tell you what. I think I would probably get the exact same response that I got thirty-some odd years ago, but I would enjoy that response now. I would work with that response. That response would be part of what that joke is about now.