US Comedy Arts Festival — tributes to George Carlin, Smothers Brothers, Dick Gregory, Bill Maher

Friday, March 1, 2002

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“Speaking Freely” show recorded March 1, 2002, in Aspen, Colo.

Ken Paulson: I’m Ken Paulson. Welcome to a special edition of “Speaking Freely.” Today we’re gonna take a look at comedy and free speech. You know, a lot of Americans have the sense that the First Amendment protects the free press, newspapers, and broadcasters; protects freedom of religion and petition and assembly; and, of course, they picture free speech as those guys on soapboxes. But the truth is, American history is filled with humor and satire, all of which was protected by the First Amendment.

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Voice Over: “’Speaking Freely’ joined with the US Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen in a tribute to free speech. We honored George Carlin, Tom and Dick Smothers, Dick Gregory, and Bill Maher. In this special edition of ‘Speaking Freely,’ we bring you highlights from that tribute program from the historic Wheeler Opera House in Aspen.”

Paulson: Today we’ll take a look at five remarkable men, all of whom used their First Amendment rights to make a difference and to make a difference through humor. First up is a man who took his seven dirty words all the way to the US Supreme Court. Here with his take on political correctness, George Carlin.

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George Carlin: “Censorship from the right is to be expected. Censorship from the left took me by surprise. And I’m talking, of course, about what originated as campus speech codes at eastern universities and has come to be called politically correct language. The impulse behind political correctness is a good one, but like most things America falls in love with, it has become grotesquely distorted beyond its usefulness. And I want to take race as an example. Personally, I say black. I say black because I find that most black people say black. I don’t say people of color. People of color sounds like something you might see after some mushrooms. OK? [Audience laughing] And, and it sounds dishonest to me, because it means precisely the same thing as colored people. If you’re not willing to say colored people, you shouldn’t be willing to say people of color. Besides, the whole idea of color is sort of a bullshit idea. What shall we call white people — people of no color? Isn’t pink a color? In fact, white people are not really white at all. They’re different shades of pink and olive and beige. In other words, they’re colored. And black people are rarely black. I see mostly different shades of brown and tan. In fact, some light-skinned black people are lighter than the darkest white people. Look how dark the people in India are. They’re dark brown, but they’re considered white people. May I see the color chart, please? People of color is an awkward phrase that obscures meaning rather than enhancing it. Shall we call fat people, people of size? Personally, personally, I call fat people those persons who are bigger than they need to be. And it seems fair. I also don’t say African-American. I, I simply find it illogical and confusing. Which part of Africa are we talking about — Egypt? Egypt is in Africa. Egyptians aren’t black. They’re like the people in India; they’re dark brown white people. But they’re Africans. So why wouldn’t an Egyptian who becomes an American citizen be an African-American? And the same goes for the Republic of South Africa. Suppose a white racist from South Africa becomes an American citizen. Couldn’t he also be called an African-American? In fact, maybe he might come here and become a citizen just to piss off black people. And what about a black person, a black person born in South Africa who becomes an American citizen? What is he — an African South African-American? Or a South African African-American. So let’s look at this trendy Native American phrase. ‘Cause as far as calling them Americans is concerned, do I even have to point out what an insult this is? We steal their hemisphere, kill 20 million or so, destroy 500 separate cultures, round up the survivors and put them on the worst land we can find, and then we want to name them after ourselves. Haven’t we done enough? Huh? Do we have to degrade them further? [Cheers and applause] And as far as these campus liberals – many of them well-meaning, I assume – who insist on saying Native American are concerned, here’s something they should be told: it’s not up to you to be naming people and telling them what they ought to be called. If you’d leave the campus once in a while, you’d learn that most Americans — most Indians, I’m sorry — are insulted by the term Native American. The American Indian movement will tell you that if you ask them. I did. They told me. You know what the Indians would like to be called? By their real names: Tuscarora, Sioux, Kiowa, Chiricahua, Mescalero, Cherokee, Cheyenne, Mohawk, Seminole, Choctaw, Chickahominy, Comanche, Shoshone, and so on and so on. There were 500 nations, not just one. You’d think it would have been a fairly simple thing for us to come over here to this continent, eliminate the forests, dam up the rivers, build our malls and massage parlors, sell our blenders and whoopee cushions, poison ourselves with chemicals, commit genocide, and let it go at that. But no, no. We have to compound the insult—‘Native Americans.’ I’m glad they have their gambling casinos now. It pleases me that white people are losing their rent money to the Indians. Maybe, maybe, [Cheers and applause] maybe the Indians will get lucky and win their country back. Actually, they wouldn’t want it. Look what we did to it. Thank you very much. I appreciate it.” [Cheers and applause]

Paulson: Next we’ll hear from two brothers who invented a new kind of television. Yes, they had skits, they had musical acts, and they also had thought-provoking ideas, all of which came together in a remarkable way to make us laugh and make us think. Here now, the Smothers Brothers.

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Tom Smothers: “Uh, to be on, uh, this — to get an award like this with Dick Gregory and George Carlin and, um, Bill Maher. I mean, that’s really, that’s really neat. And I’d just like to say we thank you very much for this honor. Of course, many of you recognize the fact that we are not the original Smothers Brothers. [Audience laughing] I’m sure they would have loved to have been here to receive this award. But the original Smothers Brothers passed away in 1969. We’re very happy here to accept the award for them. So the First Amendment of free speech here in this country – one of our grandest ideas – and everybody’s exercising it on a, a horizontal level. What I’m saying that — the words are getting raunchier. We get to get little naughty nods. And we can do fart jokes and all these kind of stuff. As if it’s pretty exciting, huh? Look at our freedom of speech. And I keep saying — there was a quote here I just saw, and I just was — I don’t even know who this guy was. But it was, it was so good because it was by Hans Duckett. Ring a bell? He says, ‘What this country needs is more free speech worth listening to.’ [Laughter and applause] And here we are in America, the freest place, and no one — it seems like the biggest censorship problem is happening right on top of us as Americans. We have a tendency now to censor ourselves. And we’ll be afraid to express ourselves because of disapproval. It’s a dangerous thing. When Dickie and I were doing the show, I didn’t even know what we were doing was important until they shut us up. So frequently, if there’s no rules, it keeps going. And don’t tell a comic not to do something, because when they said, ‘Don’t do another sermonette,’ of course we’d have to do another sermonette. You tell a comic before he goes on, he says, ‘A different crowd, don’t use the “f” word.’ And you can tell that the comic says, ‘Yes, sure.’ And he goes out, and that’s the first thing he’ll say. So anyway, I just wanna say thank you for this award, and —

Dick Smothers: Yes, and listening to Tommy talk, I think, you know, he’s hitting the point. It’s really important. The freedom to say things — it doesn’t have to be worthwhile. There’s a lot of things on television that are not worthwhile. Like in sitcoms, they, they don’t be married. There’s same-sex things. There’s all that kind of stuff. It’s like our parent giving us the permission to be naughty. And that’s not the point. That’s not what we exercise. I don’t think we even understood the term freedom of speech, the right to say what we were saying on the television show. We just started with the idea that we wanted our show to be relevant. There was so much irrelevant things on television. And they’re fun too. It’s fun to go home or go to a theater and leave the outside world behind and relax, have a beer, whatever, and see something, but it’s also good to able to say things that are thought-provoking, and they don’t have to make sense, or they don’t have to be popular. Yet we find it’s easy to shoot arrows at institutions, but sometimes that censorship comes in our own neighborhood and our own friends and our own church, or whatever. It’s — there’s a scary thing to say what’s on your mind. We protect people and gender. We protect sexual preference and religion, color, all of that. But the most fragile thing is the right to say things that we want to say, that’s on our mind. And that’s the danger. And I think that’s the direction that we all have to guard. That it doesn’t keep going that way. And I think that’s what Tommy’s trying to say too. Thank you. [Cheers and applause]

T. Smothers Thank you.

D. Smothers (Inaudible)

T. Smothers Oh, one more thing. Uh, just before we leave, I’d like to just clarify.

D. Smothers It’s funny after all these years.

T. Smothers After all these years, 43 years we’ve been performing. And I’m Tom Smothers. And this is Dick Smothers. And frequently, ’cause it’s darn near a genetic — uh, the Smothers Brothers —

D. Smothers Generic.

T. Smothers Generic, uh, a generic, genetic thing.

D. Smothers It’s genetic, too.

T. Smothers Genetic. And so a lot of times people get our names mixed up. When we were in the airport, the Aspen airport, when we were there.

D. Smothers And it happened again right after we did the midnight show.

T. Smothers Midnight show after the show, the guy walks up, the guy walked right up to me after he’d gone to the thing, ‘Which brother’s which?’ He walked right up and called me Dick. After I’d been through this whole thing about which brother’s which.

D. Smothers No, that’s, that’s not what he said.

T. Smothers Yes, he did.

D. Smothers No he didn’t.

T. Smothers You weren’t there.

D. Smothers No, I was there; I remember it.

T. Smothers That’s what —

D. Smothers No, no, no — he called you a dick. [Laughter and applause] He did.

T. Smothers Well, that’s the whole point. I’m the tom; he’s the dick.

D. Smothers All right, that’s enough.

Both: Thank you.”

Paulson: Our next guest is a man who helped develop a new kind of stand-up comedy — looking at the world around him and making jokes about what he saw. And then he used his fame to make a real difference in the fight for civil rights and human dignity, Mr. Dick Gregory.

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Dick Gregory: “I was holding that award. You know, as a father of ten black children, it sure is nice to take something home for a change that don’t eat. [Audience laughing] But they would, they would do strange things. Now, the one thing I did benefit from this government tapping my phone: I never had to pay a bill. Someone said, ‘How you know the government’s tapping your phone?’ In 1963, I’d say, ‘Anytime a Negro can owe Bell telephone $75,000, and they don’t cut the phone off, it’s tapped.’ [Laughter and applause] The phone company would call me, ‘Mr. Gregory, y’all care to pay anything on the bill this year?’ But, you know, we, we must not just think about the freedom of speech, but just the freedom of thought, the freedom of being able to think, the freedom to be able to read. This country will not survive another three years just gripped with fear. Fear is a gift from God. It’s supposed to last a second. You hear something; you’re frightened; you run through a plate glass window; you don’t get cut. But it’s not supposed to last long. A woman see the car fall on the baby. She picks up the car and takes the baby out. Fear — that’s the biggest problem I had when I got married to my wife 43 years ago. Somebody said, ‘43 years — love.’ Ain’t got —love ain’t got nothing to do with it. She said, ‘If you ever leave me, I’ll hurt you.’ Hurt will keep you home a long time. And there’s another word that keep you home – Michael Jordan just found out about – called half. [Audience laughs] But that was the biggest problem I had when I first got married: my wife couldn’t handle fear. She couldn’t handle it. ‘When we gonna pay Sears and Roebuck?’ ‘You act like we got some money. We don’t have no money. And when I get some money, Sears and Roebuck is not my first priority. They knew I wasn’t gonna pay for that stuff when I got it. On the back of the application they say, “Who’s gonna pay for this?” I said, “Your mama.”’ Two weeks later, I thought she was having a nervous breakdown. ‘They did it. Here it is, the letter from Sears — final notice.’ I looked at it, ‘Final notice. Thank God we won’t be hearing from them no more.’ So you just throw fear out the window. Brother called me scared, ‘They about to repossess my car. What must I do?’ ‘Don’t park in front of the house.’ And so I, I just say, ‘Thank you.’ I say, ‘Thanks’ to America, who’s been willing to stand out here and say, ‘We don’t care if it’s gonna cost our lives.’ I’m talking about black folks, white folks. When I hit that civil rights movement and went to Mississippi, freedom of speech went out the window. I was scared, but I went anyway. And I saw this white nun get swept past me in Alabama from the pressure of the hose, and then this, this, this white priest and then this four-year-old black child and then this old black minister, and then I looked around, and the folks were still marching, still exercising their right to peacefully protest. And all at once, I realized that we who really exercise that right and ask questions and ask questions, I mean, we all sit in this Christian society and cry over the crucifixion of Christ but won’t get rid of capital punishment. I mean, are you not aware that the state killed Christ? I mean, Christ didn’t die from being mugged to death or run down by some drunken chariot driver. Jesus Christ was killed by the state, which means if Jesus Christ come back to America today and bugged the wrong people, they’d give Jesus the electric chair. And all of us Christians be walking around with big chairs around our neck. ‘Were you there?’ I mean, how do you make the sign of the chair? Huh? And so with, with freedom of speech comes freedom of thought. And with freedom of thought, you ask questions. I was the first black — shamefully — to be permitted to work white nightclubs. Now, let me, let me just tell you so we have understanding with this. Victor Lownes and Hugh Hefner brought me in. At that time, the mob, the gangsters, the thug, hoodlum, Mafioso controlled most of the nightclubs. And everybody think they bad. Hugh Hefner and Victor Lownes is bad. They did something that the mob was scared to do, was bring in a Negro comic in a white nightclub. And I’m here now, and when I went in, they didn’t dictate no theories to me. They didn’t say, ‘Well, behave yourself; do this here.’ They looked at me like I was another human being. And ever since that night, I’ve always had a certain dignity.”

Paulson: The battle over free speech and comedy is not limited to ancient history, the ’60s and ’70s. Even today, there are spirited debates about what should be said and when. At the heart of one of those debates is a man who, who had a nightly television show on which he brought people from the left and people from the right, found humor and insight somewhere in the middle, Mr. Bill Maher.

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Bill Maher: “And if something is true on September 10th, it’s true, it’s true on September 12th. Truth is truth. The Smothers Brothers’ belief that got them into such hot water, that the Vietnam War was a horrible waste, is now the conventional wisdom. And, by the way, I don’t agree with it. I think — and not just because all conventional wisdom needs to be examined — but it does need to be examined. I am suspicious of anything that a lot of people believe. Because a lot of people are fuckin’ stupid. [Audience laughing] And it’s human nature to be sheep. Socrates was the Smothers Brothers of his day. He was the gadfly in Athens who said, ‘Don’t go to war with the Spartans; I hear they’re Spartan in a war that could be bad for us.’ And then when his prediction was true and he was right, did he get a pat on the back? No, he got a nice, cold hemlock on the rocks. I will treasure this award, but, I tell ya, life is probably less bumpy if you’re not in line for one. The good news in all this, of course, is that these gentlemen up here, and myself included, are incredibly fortunate to live in a country where speaking out, yes, has to be fought for, but, you know, look at — this is how we fight for things in Hollywood: we get awards. Not, not that this is Hollywood. No, no. Today I overheard someone telling the air it looked thinner. Uh, it’s, it is a little Hollywood here. Um, but we are really lucky that, you know, yes, you have to fight for it, but generally, it doesn’t get you killed. You know, we’ve all lived to a pretty good age already. And that is a luxury that half the loudmouths in the world, even after the fall of communism, still don’t have. And when I get a patriotic rush – and I do; I do love my country very much – that’s what does it for me. That’s my spike; that’s what I’m talking about. And that, as much as the crypto-royalists in America hate it, we still do protect thinking freely. And, yes, the forces of censorship win some battles. Censorship can be very sneaky, and it can come in forms that people don’t recognize. And they can mistakenly think other things might be more important. But it’s not gonna win the war. It’s not gonna win my war. You know, the, the light that has been shined on the countries of the Muslim world since September 11th should be serving to teach us that what happens in societies where people cannot and do not speak out, that’s what happens. Change can’t occur; progress stops. It doesn’t happen without people being able to think out loud, to think anything. Salmon Rushdie wrote a book, just a book, The Satanic Verses. It got mixed reviews. The New York Times called it ‘a triumph of the imagination.’ Ayatollah Khomeini called it ‘a duty for every Muslim to kill the author.’ That is a mixed review. It is a clash of civilizations when we think that differently. No book should ever be cause to kill an author, with the exception of The Bridges of Madison County, of course. We are very, very lucky, all of us here — especially all of us — to live in this nation at a time in its history when these principles of free speech, religious tolerance, political democracy, though they have their problems — but they are our sacred traditions. That’s our religion, which we fanatically defend, as we should. It’s good that when the press spokesman for the president of the United States speaks, speaks wrongly, when he misspeaks and says something like, ‘Americans need to watch what they say,’ it sounds wrong to us. It’s a bad note. [Applause] He, yeah, he said that about me.”

Paulson: Our thanks to George Carlin, Bill Maher, Dick and Tom Smothers, and Dick Gregory for sharing their talents at the US Comedy Arts Festival. And we thank you for joining us on this special edition of “Speaking Freely.”