When Kevin Bartini first proposed renaming a stretch of 121st Street in New York for the late George Carlin (who grew up on the block), he went to a hearing and fielded complaints from "30 elderly church ladies and a 200-year-old priest." They were opposed to the idea, says Bartini, a comedian who warms up the Daily Show audience, because they wanted to shield the neighborhood's children from its notoriously irreverent native son.
The Catholic church protecting children? "Finally!" Bartini said last night onstage at New York's Gotham Comedy Club, where he hosted Reverence for the Irreverent, a benefit for the renaming project that featured Lewis Black, Todd Barry, Nick DiPaolo, Dave Attell, emcee Judah Friedlander and more.
As Barry said when he feigned disinterest in the reason for the benefit, "George would have loved that joke." The comic scholar Carlin, who died in 2008 at age 71, was a role model for subsequent generations of stand-up comedians, demonstrating that the discipline is not just an apprenticeship for a sitcom role but a genuine art form with a unique role to play in the cultural dialogue.
"You're gonna get offended," warned Friedlander at the outset, "and that's pretty much the whole fuckin' point." The event, he said later, wasn't just about one of the all-time comedy greats, but free speech "and stuff."
The ever-indignant Lewis Black, who was greeted with the biggest cheers of the night, commanded the audience to turn it down a notch as he took the stage. They'd created too much expectation before his set before he even began, he groused: "Fuck you!"
After spluttering about the Trayvon Martin case and how political leaders should be forbidden to speak to the public during the dog days of summer (unless they have a new marinade idea for barbecue), Black made the Carlinesque observation that "we're going nowhere as a country. And if we are, I wanna know why we can't get there faster?"
The very funny Lizz Winstead, co-creator of The Daily Show, echoed Carlin too when she addressed the birth control debate. When a pro-lifer declares they wouldn't pay "one penny for your birth control," she said, her response is, "That's funny – I'd pay any amount for yours."
It was Daily Show executive producer Rory Albanese who first suggested that Bartini commit himself to his offhand idea to rename the block after Carlin. Not especially well-known for his stand-up, Albanese nevertheless stood out, joking about the mysterious "New York drip" of summertime – how can it be from an air conditioner if you're in the middle of the street? – and riffing on the colossal ignorance of online comment sections.
"Have you tried the Internet?" he asked the audience, noting the frothing hatred for the "libtards" and the "Jew-run media" from anonymous commenters: "Hey, I'm just trying to buy boots!"
The riotous, sex-obsessed Dave Attell offered a relentless barrage of material Carlin would surely have appreciated, from identity politics ("A woman can do anything better than a man – except carry a coffin") to deft misdirections ("Anal Bleaching, what do you think . . . as a baby name?"). When some of his more off-color humor drew uneasy laughter, he teased, "What is this, a benefit for George Carlin or George Gobel?" (That's the late, mild-mannered, crewcut Hollywood Squares regular – look him up, kids.)
But it was Eddie Brill, the longtime warmup comic for David Letterman, who nailed why Carlin deserves a street named after him. He once asked the master how to go about writing jokes about the sensitive topic of religion, he said. Carlin replied, "Just fuckin' say it."