Reflecting on George Carlin and Comedy in the Classroom

I seem to find myself writing a lot of posts and then deleting them lately before anyone sees.

I'd wanted to write something about George Carlin passing, but I just couldn't get it right. I was trying to remember when I first heard Carlin, and I think it was probably sixth grade or so. Most of us boys had been captivated with Eddy Murphy at the time, having caught him on an HBO special or two. We'd sneak watching them when someone's parents weren't home. And one friend, whose parents didn't pay much attention, managed to get his parents to buy him one of Eddy's albums.

Whenever it was, Carlin was something different, though. He loved words and poking sticks at things, and I loved that, even then. I do remember some airman at the military library I went to then recommending a couple of Carlin albums to me. He probably thought I'd get in trouble - either at the circulation desk or when my parents heard. But it was a great recommendation, and I didn't get in trouble, so it was a win/win, really. Carlin, as you may have read, made it in comedy for roughly fifty years. So you know he'll be missed.

One of the best experiences I ever had was doing Improv in college. I was never the funniest guy on stage - once I was referred to by a member of the audience as "the guy in the middle" - but it may have been the best preparation for teaching I ever had. I'd always wanted to be funny, and often was, but having to try and be entertaining while making sense to a large group of people took some effort. The first lecture of a course still feels like stepping on stage for me. Eventually the nerves go a bit, but for those first few minutes, everything races a bit. I can't quite imagine how it would work if I hadn't done Improv.

The two things most important things I learned from Improv (at least in terms of teaching - there's a lesson about what to do when paid in free drinks that is probably a bit less relevant here) were this:
  • listen closely
  • work with what you're given
One of the key rules in Improv was that you couldn't deny what happened on stage beforehand - or what someone else set you up with. And you have to take what the audience gives you. That's often the case in class, too: you've got to start where your students are, and run from there. One of the faculty I worked with as a grad student went out of his way to listen to what students told him; students always come in with an idea of what things are about and how they work. Why wouldn't you want to start there? Often times it's a ridiculous place to start, but it can take you to surprising places.

For Carlin, there were a lot of contradictions in the world, and that's often what I think teaching is about: getting people to recognize those contradictions in order to better navigate them. Yeah, he was funny, but he was also trying to teach us a little bit about ourselves. And that's really why he'll be missed.


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