11/28/2013 06:43 pm ET Updated Jan 28, 2014

Putting the "F" Word in Its Place

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I've come to the conclusion that, with few exceptions, stand-up comics who use the "F" word are simply lazy and untalented.

I don't reach that conclusion as a prude from whose lips the word has never flown, and I'll go on to describe some pretty good occasions to use it. But my increasing disgust with F-bombers at the stand-up mic arises from my lifelong appreciation of the high art of crafting genuine comedy. I love great comedy too keenly to abide second-raters appearing to amuse an audience with genuine humor when all they are really doing is tickling a nerve that is rooted in the violation of a longstanding social prohibition.

I say "appear to amuse an audience" because comedians (and especially comediennes) who drop the F-bomb invariably evoke a noise from the audience that sounds for all the world like laughter. But it's totally bogus. Oh, it is a laugh-like sound, to be sure, but not the gust of deep laughter that true humor evokes. It is nervous titter that mimics laughter: "Tee-hee, oooooh, wow, he/she said it! The F-word right out here in public! Here, among all us proper people who paid money to sit in this seemingly proper place where it would be shocking for any of us to say the F-word in this mixed company. Whee!"

When a comic provokes genuine laughter, as opposed the counterfeit laugh-like noise the audience produces on cue when an F-bomb is dropped, it arises from our appreciation of a situation that has been carefully crafted by the comic. There are well-established situational formulae for true humor that freshly original comics use, by which an audience is drawn in and willingly manipulated toward the punch line, which can be either a skillful, agonizingly drawn-out approach to a fully anticipated disaster in which we are omnipotent and delighted observers sensing the climax, or can be a totally unexpected, whiplash turn of events that dazzles us and detonates a burst of hilarity ("Never saw that coming!") The number of tactics that can be employed in crafting genuinely funny jokes is legion.

Within the last 48 hours I have heard three uses of the F-word: one sadly proving my point about how to cheapen a comedian's performance, one in which the use of the word constitutes almost the entirety of a comedian's performance but is actually not inappropriate and one in an excruciatingly painful personal situation where no other word would have quite so completely expressed the ferocity of the speaker's feelings.

The first was the warm-up performance in McCarter Theater in (very proper) Princeton, New Jersey. The main event was Lewis Black, for whom the F-word constitutes about 85 percent of his vocabulary, and everyone who bought a ticket surely knows that. His warm-up comedian displayed a brilliant grasp of situations ripe for humor that he developed with wickedly deft creativity. And he displayed extraordinary ease of gesture, timing and interplay with the audience that had me and the rest of the audience in stitches time and again. But time and again he disappointed me by gratuitously dropping in some variation of the F-word. I say "gratuitously" because he already had us hooked by the clever setups and trip-hammer punchlines and his outstanding use of his body and voice tone. We were ready to laugh, and did laugh, because of them.

But he contaminated our response (and his gratification, if he gets my message) by slamming in totally irrelevant Fs, so that the noise we made was both genuine laughter and counterfeit laughter. I mentally replayed each joke and stripped out the F-ing. And guess what: they were just as funny, would have gotten just as robust and raucous a response, and in the process would have rewarded his artistry. The man is really good, but took on the shabby cloak of contemporary cheap tricks, reducing himself on the F-bomb occasions to the level of a collegiate pub open-mike wannabe. He's too good for that. And as a "warm-up" act, he certainly didn't need to prepare us for the F-storm that Black would unleash. We were already ready for that. Rather, I dare him to do an entire show without a single F-word, because in so doing he would separate himself from the second-raters he unfortunately has chosen to sound just like and perhaps realize how good he really is.

As for Lewis Black, well, he has made a living shouting Fs in a crowded theater. But his entire performance is ranting and raving, and when humans rant and rave they inevitably resort to four-letter words. And so one buys a ticket to his show expecting a shower of F-words that seem almost natural, given his entire shtick. I have howled in uncontrollable laughter at Black, especially his "Red, White, and Screwed" act which is liberally peppered with F-bombs, so many in fact that part of his act is lampooning the powers that be who forbade his doing the performance in Kennedy Center precisely because it contained (by their actual count, it seems) some 42 uses of the word.

But not even he needs it all the time. By far the funniest Lewis Black riff I have ever seen was his five-minute rant against Glenn Beck's apparent "Nazi Tourettes" syndrome. And guess what: he was four minutes into it before he indulged the one and only F-word of the entire, laugh-until-you-weep performance. And because he did it on The Daily Show and it's bleeped-out on the video, you never hear it and certainly never need it as you keep gasping at the relentless brilliance of his routine. You want to see a genuinely funny man at work, watch that clip.

On the other hand, my wife and I donned our ministerial robes to lead a memorial service yesterday for a woman whose son is a dear friend of our daughter, son-in-law, and of ours as well. Our daughter was with the son at the moment of his mother's death at the hospice suite where she spent her last days surrounded by family and an extraordinarily sensitive hospice staff at her bedside.

But within one minute -- actually, less than one minute -- of his mother's drawing her last breath, an officious administrator of the hospice facility swept into the room with a clipboard and began rattling off the immediate next steps (sign here, ship the body there, pay this and that). Not entirely certain that that seemingly last breath only seconds before really had signaled his mother's death, the shocked son shrieked at the administrator, "Get the f*** out of here!"

It's moments like that for which the F-word was created (although earlier generations would have been satisfied with "hell" instead).

And I do understand that there are certain environments where, sadly, it seems to be sine qua non to getting attention. As a rookie soldier in boot camp at Fort Ord, California, I inexplicably found myself appointed a platoon leader, which meant that I had about eighteen equally young and immature soldiers for whose work and performance I was suddenly responsible. Something of a contrarian at arbitrary times and places, I had at age twenty pledged to myself that I was going to go through my entire army experience without smoking or swearing, both of which were longstanding staples of my youth.

But for the first few days, my every order to members of my platoon seemed to fall on deaf ears. Finally, as a experiment, I made liberal use of the F-word, just as the grizzled drill sergeants were doing: "Take the f***ing mop and clean that f***ing latrine floor." "What the f*** did you do that for?" "Get the f*** over to the mess hall." Mirable dictu! Now we were communicating, and my platoon went on to superior performance and commendations galore. When in Rome...

No one has put the F-word in better perspective than an Indian professor of English who offers a learned lesson in its myriad grammatically legitimate uses and, in so doing, sort of cauterizes it. My earnest hope is that today's comedians will have the guts to relinquish its cheesy employment for pure shock value and dare to discover whether they have the true comedic talent (as Black demonstrates in his F-free Glenn Beck rant) to put an audience into delighted convulsions because they were able to create something that was actually funny.