We recorded Bob backstage at a comedy club just before he left for his set. The director, Paul Provenza, and I had told Bob that we compared comedy improvisation to jazz improvisation. We hear musicians improvising solos on the same chord changes, and we wanted to see actors improvising on the same joke. We were shooting with home equipment and we didn’t know if the film would ever be released for the public. We thought it might have been a document for the more than 100 people who were there.
Before we started rolling, Bob said, “Who do I have to beat?” He meant, who had been the most outrageous so far? “George? Robin?” He asked. We said yes, George Carlin and Robin Williams had gone far enough, but the ones he should be aiming for were Gilbert Gottfried and Carrie Fisher. Bob said, “Okay.” He took a deep breath and took off.
Oh my gracious God! There wasn’t a taboo that Bob hadn’t fallen into. His storytelling was so skillful and brilliant, his timing impeccable. He even threw in an imitation of the Three Stooges. The images he put in our minds were as shocking as anything I had ever imagined.
Time froze. It went on forever. Every few minutes he would start laughing, ask what he was doing, and hang his head. Then he would appear with that beautiful honest smile and go further. The biggest expense in turning our home movie into a feature was filtering out my constant, loud, giggling laughter.
Bob was as naked and vulnerable as any performer I’ve ever seen. He undressed. He showed us his insides. His comedy proved his good-guy image. Bob said the most offensive things we’ve ever heard, and we loved him not in spite of it, but because of it.
This kind of artist has become rarer, and some say with good reason. I do not know. I always trust comics, but internet troll jokes, memes and comments are different. Trolls don’t seek to demonstrate and celebrate trust; they strive to destroy it. The troll does not want to use offense as a tool to achieve a shared humanity. There is no bravery.
I’ve heard thoughtful arguments against the transgressive comedy that I love. One problem is that it’s often the same groups of people who are asked to take the joke. I’ve never heard Bob insult marginalized people, but other comedians do, and I don’t think that’s really fair. Even though everyone is fair game for comedy, our culture causes those jokes to land unevenly. I see it. I don’t have the right to say to someone else: “It’s a joke. Move on.”