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.

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BEVO

Just returned from Austin, Texas. Spent most of the weekend in room 147 in the Austin Motel. What an amazing place. Forget the rest of the city. Sure, there are some could-be-nice college bars in these beautiful 19th century brick buildings downtown, but every single one of ’em is ruined by the top 40 music they turn up to 11. “SO WHERE ARE YOU FROM? YEAH?? EXCUSE ME, WHAT??” And those Texas girls are healthy, but they’re the most earnest things you ever a’gonna see.

But the Austin Motel, right across the street from the Continental Club, and down the street from the best margaritas in the world at Guero’s, is absolutely the only place I’d ever want to hang out in Texas. They say Austin is “The Island,” a sandbar of progressives and weirdos right in the middle of the angriest, most fear-fueled, mah-mamma-dint-much-care-’bout-me population on earth. Well, The Austin Motel is an island on the island. It’s got this 1950 southwestern motorlodge vibe and it’s right on South Congress, so your dealer will know where to find you–hell, he can drive right up to your door.

It didn’t hurt that we were driving around in a ’68 Camaro the entire weekend. Or that Emo’s paid Ross and ACW their guarantee for the show (Night of 100 Laughs) even though only 47 people paid to get in. Or that the hipsters atJo’s Coffee next door were throwing their X-mas chilli cook off on Saturday afternoon. Or that we met Bevo, the Texas Longhorn, when we were driving around campus (I’m a Big 10 guy, but Ross and Barb bow to The Corn–they’re Big 12 for life–so Bevo’s kind of a big deal in Lincoln).

And I made myself laugh every time I got to DJ in our motel room. It never took more than a couple minutes for those Texans to figure out that The Clipse ain’t Merle or Willie. I would sneak over to the stereo, slide in “Hell Hath No Fury” and eventually the conversation would slow to a murmur, and then complete silence. Then one of ’em would wonder, “I caint believe that you ainctually lahk thaht.”

Sexy Times

I went down to Nebraska to see my friend Ross this last weekend. We spent Saturday on his farm/compound on the outskirts of Lincoln. Ross has been running some uncontrolled experiments with his chickens, llamas, and goats–he consumes psilocybic chocolate and hangs around his animals. He swears psilocybin will help us survive the inevitable biological attack (together with miso, and black strap molasses). We spent an hour in a psycho-fungal haze, ignoring the cold drizzle, observing the end of a love affair between Lloyd the llama and Wilson the sheep.

Ross has three sheep and three llamas, and this summer, after Lloyd and Wilson impregnated their respective significant others, they consummated a cross-specie homosexual relationship. According to Ross, things cooled off this fall, with Lloyd tiring of Wilson’s Whitmanesque appetites. Evidently, Wilson has a hard time taking a hint, because Saturday found him in an amorous mood, repeatedly sidling up to a clearly indifferent Lloyd. I don’t mean to anthropomorphize too much, but the entire mise-en-scene reminded me of a Joe Orton play. Here was Lloyd, the patriarch of a nuclear llama family, with a young wife, Louise, and an adolescent daughter, Lucy. And here was Lloyd’s young, virile, irresponsible ram of a lover, Wilson, who has two sheep bitches that he bullies and chases around with a seemingly unfocused masculine cruelty. As Wilson kept trying to seduce Lloyd, Lloyd’s daughter, Lucy, looked on, transfixed, but not-quite-comprehending the full subtext of her father’s relationship with this low-slung, arrogant interloper. While Lucy’s regal mother–Louise reminds me of the posh, reserved English actress Helen Mirren–stood 30 feet away, looking out into the garden, willfully ignoring the woolly scandal.

But in fact, on the farm, nothing could be more natural. When we returned to the house, Ross told me he had a video that would finally “explain everything.” The video he screened for me, of former desperate military housewife kay griggs, (parts one and two), where she explains, in detail, the perverse sexual mind-control programs at the highest levels of our government, proved to be exponentially more shocking than a goat fucking a llama.

The Egg Mobile

I’ve written about my friend Ross Brockley before. He’s a very important thinker. Ross is much braver than I am–he actually tuned in, turned on, and dropped out before the reptiles could force him into taking erection pills and buying a new flat screen television every other year. (It’s only a matter of time for me.) He bought a llama farm in Nebraska. (Well, actually, he bought the farm to shoot an awful independent film there, and now, as he says, he’s “stuck on the set.”) He is always coming up with new and inventive ways to subvert the corn-spiracy. (You know that corn is an alien plant, engineered to drain the water table and spread disease and pestilence. It has almost zero nutritional value, well other than sucrose, a known mind control agent. You knew all that, didn’t you?) Anyways, here are a couple youtube videos in which our man on the ground in Lincoln spreads the good guerrilla farming word.

Egg Mobile

The Pond

Corn Palace

Sorry, it’s been awhile.

Last week, I was nearly out of commission after “Night of 100 Laughs” at the 400 Bar. It was an amazing show. My pal Ross Brockley guaranteed 100 laughs or your money back, and he had to fudge the count a little (only 69 actual laughs), but he gave the audience some great information about corn as an alien plant, an alternative view of Christianity (“I mean, at the end of the day, isn’t it about being tortured and humiliated in front of your friends”), and tips on how to survive an attack from either nuclear (eat miso soup) or biological (magic mushrooms) weapons. So 69 spoonfulls of sugar to help the medicine go down.

This weekend, I was in South Dakota for the Tapes n Tapes wedding. We showed up late for the ceremony because we stopped in Worthington for The Great Gobbler Gallop. Evidently this turkey race between the local bird, Paycheck (“nothing goes faster than a paycheck”), and a Texan Turkey, Ruby Begonia. The race has been going on for 33 years, and Paycheck has won 19 times. I laid heavy action on the hometown hero only to see Paycheck got completely smoked (is that in poor taste?) by a full minute. On the radio afterwards, they broke the race down and speculated as to what went wrong. Evidently, there’s a re-match in a month in Texas. Anyway, the wedding was beautiful the bride was fun…yada, yada, yada, but the most interesting thing about South Dakota happened yesterday, on Sunday afternoon. We stopped in a local Pub & Grille (what if the “e” was attached to “Pub” too? Then it would be Pube & Grille, right?) to watch the Vikings game.

South Dakota doesn’t have any professional sports teams, so the pube had the NFL ticket going. With all the different jerseys, the place had a lawless, ragtag, Wild West thing going. There was a Giants fan sitting with his San Fran 49ers-jersey wearing father, across a table from an Eagles fan; they were all watching the NY-Philly game. And a San Diego fan was watching the Chargers game. There were some Vikings fans at the bar, watching Minnesota-Carolina (a couple of them were locals wearing “Greenway” purple jersesy. Evidently Chad Greenway, the University of Iowa rookie linebacker that tore his ACL in the first pre-season game grew up in Mt. Vernon, S.D., a few miles away). And a bunch of Cheeseheads were dominating the big screen in the back. Towards the end of the Vikings game, a latino man wearing a Raiders jersey came in with a white woman wearing a Broncos jersey. That kind of interracial dating would never happen in a real NFL city.

Jerry Seinfeld famously said we’re all “just rooting for laundry” when it comes to sports anyway, but there was something disconcerting about sitting in the middle of all those different colored jerseys, watching satellite feeds from around the country. Something rootless and new world order about it all. These people are loyal to nobody really. Unconnected to any community. Dangerous.