My area has one of those weird over-the-air channels that plays reruns of third-tier sitcoms like Mr. Belvedere and Dear John. But they also play old episodes of the Johnny Carson-era Tonight Show, although stripped of all branding to tie it to Tonight Show, for what is clearly legal purposes. Anyway, I watch this sometimes because I like to fill in the holes of my comedy education as I am just barely old enough to have missed Carson. For the most part, the show is not the amazing masterpiece of television that I have been led to believe it is. Sure, there are those highlight clips we’ve all seen a bunch, like when he messes with the potato chip lady, or they throw the tomahawk and it hits the crotch on the person outline. But they can’t all be winners, as Carson made thousands of episodes of The Tonight Show, day in and day out. These are the ones that air on my TV station, but they’re worth watching for the comedy. The affability and ease with which Carson tells jokes that I don’t understand because I’m not aware of, say, the political climate of 1981, means I still laugh because Carson is just so skilled at delivering them. And then there are the standup segments, featuring now well-known comics when they were up-and-comers.
I must have been watching one from about 1989 or so, because the comedian was Larry Miller. Generic name, and not one of the comedians from the era who got their own ABC sitcom (Larry! does not exist – I checked), but you would recognize him from his many small roles in movies, such as the only shopkeeper who’s nice to Vivian in Pretty Woman, or the overprotective dad in 10 Things I Hate About You. Or, like I did, you remember him from his ubiquity on standup comedy shows that endlessly ran on A&E, Comedy Central, and USA in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. He usually did a routine like he did on this particular Carson episode, and I had forgotten about it, and how masterful, well-written, and influential it was.
Miller’s routine was called “The Five Levels of Drinking.” How could anybody possibly have anything new to say, or a new way to say it, about the near-universal and almost-always-the-same human experience of getting drunk, acting stupid, and pretending to swear off booze forever? Miller found a way. “Five Levels” is more of a monologue or spoken-word piece than it is a collection of jokes because it’s a carefully constructed story about a single topic.
It’s the story, told in the second person (the action revolves around “you,” instantly drawing in the audience) about a man who gets more and more drunk at a series of increasingly sketchy locations. In each of the five stages, individual details about the behavior of the character change, each time escalating things to more and more absurd heights. For example, Miller’s protagonist goes from arguing against artificial turf in sports, to arguing in favor of it, to thinking he is artificial turf. And the tipple of choice changes to, from beers at a bar, to tequila, to a bottle of rum, to “some kind of thick blue liquor.” The character becomes increasingly affectionate and then hostile to the same stranger, and then winds up drinking with guys who got out of jail “as recently as that morning.” Each stage is very rhythmic and ends with a refrain of “why, as long as I get [diminishing number] of sleep, I’m cool.”
The humor here lies in both the familiar as well as the absurd places that the familiar could be gently massaged into heading. It’s also in the details and the rhythm. In the often generic sea of late ‘80s comedy, it was eye-opening to see that comedy didn’t have to be just setups and punchlines about dating.