Ross Brockley, Louis C.K., and the Greatest Nigger Joke Ever Told

I’ve been waiting to post this video for a week. This is my eccentric post-industrial farmer buddy Ross Brockley doing stand-up comedy at the Rococo Theater in Lincoln, NE last week. Ross was opening for Louis C.K., Ross’ old friend from his NYC days turned Greatest Stand Up Comedian on the Planet. I know, I know, stand up comedy is supposedly a science of self-deprecation, where obvious effort, let alone naked ambition, is anathema to the artists and their audiences alike. (I mean, that’s why everybody hates Dane Cook, right?) Nevertheless, Louis C.K. openly strives to be The Greatest.

C.K. has written some of Chris Rock’s best material and directed a couple of his worst movies (although Pootie Tang,; is pretty okay if you’ve smoked enough weed). And his series for HBO, Lucky Louie; was canceled last year after its first season. But as a stand up, he’s the heavyweight champion of the world. When I first met him in 2004 at the Aspen Comedy Festival, he was training–literally training, with a boxing guru in Santa Monica–for what he aspired to make the greatest HBO comedy hour of all time. But he was really focusing on his timing for a (doomed) pilot for network TV, Saint Louie. Then, last time I saw him, at Acme here in Minneapolis, he was preparing for another HBO special–he told me he was watching old tapes of Pryor and Carlin and “Carlin really wasn’t that funny.” But he was clearly preoccupied with Lucky Louie, his (doomed) old-fashioned 4-camera sit com for HBO. But meeting him this time, in Lincoln, he was preparing a bona fide title defense.

This time, he’s following his genius HBO hour special Shameless. He’s taking the Balboa approach again: he spent the summer in some boxing dungeon in Montreal, before the Just For Laughs comedy festival, preparing to put this new hour together. His Mickey this time, a fortysomething retired middleweight, dropped that old pugilist cliche on him: Winning the championship the first time is easy; defending the title is the hard part.

He plans to film the new special early in 2008 (and hopefully again with HBO), and based on his set in Lincoln, I think he’s going to kick Liston’s ass again. At the Rococo, he opened with a virtuoso 20-minute set piece on the words “faggot,” “cunt,” and “nigger.” His angle is brutally straightforward and, yes, ambitious: these are the three most offensive, inflammatory words in the modern American idiom, our most forbidden words, not just by the FCC but by the public itself, and he wants to examine why that is. 30 years ago, George Carlin’s famous seven dirty words bit exposed the ridiculousness of a government protecting its citizens from the bogeyman of indecency. I think C.K.’s material here is even more dangerous in the stifling p.c. environment we all live in. Most importantly, it’s funnier than Carlin’s shitpissfuckcuntcocksuckermotherfuckertits shit. Freud pointed out that, like dreams, jokes are mechanisms to help us deal with painful truths that are difficult to confront. C.K.’s set tears down the ways we protect ourselves from pain itself. He talks about how white people in the media use the term “n-word” instead of the word nigger in order to defer responsibility from the speaker to the audience. It’s like when a comic book writer subs in @#$@ for fuck. “Don’t make me say it,” C.K. said, jabbing at his skull, “you say it.” Eventually, he says, he wants to see talking heads like Nancy Grace on CNN take responsibility for their own language. You don’t need a blogger to tell you that the implications for this demand go beyond dirty words.

Of course, even if his examination of taboo is surgical in nature, you could argue that C.K. is simply trading in “shock humor.” But examining why and how things become taboo is the reason why he’s on stage–he’s performing a vital function: he exercising our id so we don’t have to. In that way, sometimes saying the inappropriate is noble. Sometimes, shocking everybody is healthy. Anyway, it’s definitely not the easiest route to the laugh. An offended audience distracts from the objective–the release of pain–C.K. knows that. Standing up there sweating under the hot lights waiting for laughter that never comes sucks. My traveling buddy on the trip, Mr. Chip, is a nerdy PhD student who was reading one of Saint Augustine’s papers on semiotics the entire drive down. C.K.’s “n-word” and “nigger” bit fit into what the Archbishop of Hippo was writing about all those centuries ago. But afterwards, when Chip asked C.K. if he was approaching things like a post-grad, CK admitted that he didn’t even know what the word “semiotic” means. He knew that he was dealing with nitroglycerin though, and he told us that for a couple of months, the audience wasn’t responding in the way that it did initially, right after the Montreal shows in July. It wasn’t until some kid posted a show that he did in Chicago on the internet that he figured it out. “Yeah, I caught some kid bootlegging my show,” he said, “and when my lawyers got him to take it down, he sent me the only existing copy so I could destroy it.” It contained the segment on white people using the “n-word” to avoid using the real deal. He reincorporated that part into the set, and his audiences started laughing again.

The one thing that Ross and C.K. really have in common is that writerly attention to detail. Ross will run a joke by you and ask your opinion on a single word and you’ll realize that many times, your laugh hinges on that one word choice. I’m not a comic, but being around careful writers like Ross and C.K. is just as important as reading writers I love like George Saunders or James Joyce.

Okay, okay. Nothing like an essay on the semiotics of comedy to set the mood of the room. I’m the worst MC ever.

Give it up for Ross Brockley. Enjoy the set.

5 Responses

  1. Dude there is NO Louis CK in that video. I sat through your friend’s bad comedy for this? Zero “best nigger jokes of all time” Stephen. Zero.

  2. Is this the same guy from those hilarious Holiday Inn commercials?

  3. [...] Marsh offers an exclusive Q&A with Ross Brockley before this Friday’s Rolling Blackout Revue at Nick and [...]

  4. That sounded like somebodies second time on stage.

  5. Besr cure for depression….. bullet. Take a hint.

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