Those of you who know me, know that I love stand-up comedy; I can’t get enough of it. I could watch it all day long, day after day.
It’s not just the jokes that appeal to me, because good stand-up comedians are more than just humourists – they are also amateur sociologists, philosophers, therapists and even missionaries. They not only make insightful observations about society and human behaviour, but (unlike many university professors) they also keep the audience entertained and amused throughout their monologue.
A few weeks ago I saw a YouTube video called The Big Electron, and I found it quite intriguing. The author took some stand-up material from two comedians, Bill Hicks and George Carlin, spliced them together with a lot of jump-cut editing, and then constructed a rudimentary song from their monologues using AutoTune. Personally, I despise AutoTune when it’s used to help marginally-talented pop singers stay in tune, but I don’t mind it when it’s used to convert speech to singing. This video, despite its robotic-sounding singing, is really well-done. In it, Hicks and Carlin reveal a few snippets of their original spiritual musings. This is challenging material, and not only because it doesn’t contain any jokes.
I admire the bravery of stand-up comedians because some of them stand boldly on the vanguard of religious thought. I say this somewhat ironically because in this case, Hicks and Carlin have managed to break free from their ecclisiastical manacles, forge their own spiritual path in life, and are now inviting us to share their personal vision of the world. That takes a lot of courage, and few of us are brave enough to do the same thing, even in this relatively enlightened 21st century.
Let me explain why I think Hicks and Carlin are so courageous.
I’ve always found it ironic that the two attributes that arguably do the most to define us as people are foisted upon us at birth: our name, and our religious affiliation. We didn’t choose our name; our parents chose it for us, yet it helps to define our sense of self. The Johnny Cash song A Boy Named Sue illustrates how an unusual moniker became a replacement for an absent father. How would your view of the world be different if you had another first name? If you were born to new-age or hippie parents who decided to name you Summer Sky, people would treat you differently than they would if your name was Cornelius, or Cletus, or Rocco.
While we are always free to change our name, very few of us do, other than shortening our names (e.g. Robert → Bob; Antonio → Tony, William → Bill). Some celebrities change their names, but only to make themselves more marketable, or (in previous generations) less ethnic-sounding. Snoop Dogg (formerly Snoop Doggy Dogg) now calls himself Snoop Lion because of a shift in his belief system, but he is an exception.
Our religion is also decided for us by our parents, and I find this baffling. Our religion defines our spiritual belief system – and to some extent, how we view the world – yet these beliefs are chosen for us. What I also find illogical (and decidedly lazy) is that our parents didn’t evaluate a number of different religions first before deciding on one for us – they took the easy way out: your belief system is their belief system.
Once we have a religion assigned to us, we seem to fall into one of three categories:
- The vast majority of us will accept our given religion without ever questioning it. We will live out our entire lives subscribing to these beliefs and performing any required rituals.
- Some of us will question our church’s doctrine and do one of three things:
- Opt for a cafeteria-style belief system (i.e. I’ll follow most of my church’s rules, but not the ones that I don’t agree with).
- Abandon their religion entirely and lead a secular existence.
- Explore other religions to see if they can find a more compatible belief system.
- They will reject all formalized belief systems and decide to forge their own spiritual path in life.
These “Type 3” people are the ones whom I admire because they are the most adventurous people of all. They don’t feel compelled to adopt anyone’s set of beliefs. Instead, they formulate their own ideas and use them to try to make sense of the world and the universe. This refusal to be bound to any religion’s dogma makes them, in my opinion, some of the greatest thinkers of our time because they question everything and will not be told what to think.
This is what makes stand-up comedy so compelling to me. Standing among these comedic entertainers are the courageous ones: the free thinkers; the ones who are brave enough not only to question the status quo, but also to reject it, decide for themselves what makes the most sense and then express these thoughts. To be fair, I’m not suggesting that Bill Hicks and George Carlin are spiritual leaders or that they have invented their own religion – their observations in this video are quite simplistic. Hicks states that “the world is just a ride” and Carlin calls the creator of his universe “The Big Electron”. However, doing even that much required standing apart from the crowd and charting, unhesitatingly, their own path.
Sadly, both of these voices are now silenced, but their courage endures. Don’t always accept what is foisted upon you at birth. Question everything; explore other belief systems; and if you’re as adventurous as Bill Hicks and George Carlin, then forge your own path – spiritual or otherwise. This is what I admire in people.