George Carlin, comedian, wordsmith and all around provocateur, died
this evening at 71 in Santa Monica. That heart of his, frequently
abused and often
prone to coronary attacks (three of them before his last), finally gave
out. The world’s a poorer place for his passing, but man… he gave so
much to the folks on this chunk of rock that he won’t be forgotten.
Comedy, sure… the man was a comic, but more importantly he stood for
something more than simple
laughs (his routine, from the late 60’s onward, became more akin to
Lenny Bruce’s sociological satire than Shecky Green style groaners)…
He was a counter-culture hero to some simply for his general appearance
and grooming in the
1970’s… the long-haired hippy look he once used for comic fodder on
became a badge of sorts, a flip o’ the bird to straight society… and
this guy was on TV, saying weird shit and coming into a living room
where many felt Milton Berle still belonged. For decades thereafter,
he became a symbol of all that is righteous about
the freedom to voice one’s opinion in stark terms designed to make you
laugh and question the very foundations of Western society: its culture
and overriding philosophy of materialism, greed and hypocrisy.
Carlin, much like his early contemporary Lenny Bruce, was a virtual
poster boy for the first amendment of the Bill of Rights. Due to seven dirty words played
over public airwaves in the late 70’s, Carlin indirectly bequeathed to us what’s
known as the “safe harbor” provision for broadcasters using the
airwaves… So, from 10pm to 6am, things can get a little blue…
earmuffs for the kiddies, puh-leeze.
F.C.C. v. Pacifica Foundation,
a landmark case brought about by a Carlin routine on words and how we
tend to segregate them… just
words, man. Not bullets, just thoughts and words. Words with enough
power to create a little havoc for the court system to handle.
Suddenly, Carlin was perceived as dangerous and a loose cannon… and
his career, up until his first heart attack, thrived.
Carlin was more than a stand-up comedian, more than just a performer…
He was a true wit with a love for language, in particular his own
It was English, his mother tongue, and its myriad ways of saying what
really mean, but just might be thinking, that drove his writing and
performance. He was as fond of the
euphemism as he was the way words could be categorized and
compartmentalized, so as to make them “safe” somehow… he was
fascinated, mostly, by the way we fool
ourselves, lie to ourselves and savage ourselves with nothing more than
linguistic twists and trips of the tongue. It is this style of humor
that, more than any mere joke for the sake of a cheap guffaw, comes
across strongly on his albums and his later cable TV performances (but
never really in films… his sardonic touch translated well, but his
overall style and the righteous anger that oftentimes fueled his
stand-up act, never came across as strongly).
He will be missed… for there’s really not to many like him. Sure,
there’s plenty of comics and satirists out there that can turn a phrase
like Carlin… but after Lenny, it was Carlin (along with Redd Foxx and,
later, Richard Pryor) who set the stage for guys like Chris Rock, Bill
Maher, Carlos Mencia, and Bill Hicks (and more than a few women comics
too… but thankfully not Carrot Top
or Gallagher). Carlin’s style wasn’t a license for a comic to be as raunchy as they’d like to
be… no, his style simply allowed the performer to have the latitude to speak their mind without some
local-yokel cop busting their ass off the stage and into the local clink
for the night. That is essentially how George Carlin should be
viewed… Sure, there were plenty of laughs to be had (on stage,
screen, radio, etc.), the guy was a comic genius with terrific timing,
some great character bits and a ton of off-color and less vulgar
material that will withstand the test of time… but Carlin’s knack for
turning a phrase, contrasting and comparing aspects of the language to show up its
underlying meanings, will forever be his true claim to fame, just as it
seemed to be his true calling.
And so, I remember George Carlin… My first brush with his comedy was
a cassette a buddy one locker over lent to me during my time in high school. He tossed me a copy Carlin’s A Place For My Stuff.
I never gave it back… probably still have it somewhere… Think I’ll
try to find it and give it a listen.
Carlin was sui generis… and there won’t be another quite like him…
I’ll leave these musings with a quote from the man himself on the
nature of time, for time is all we really have.
“There is no present. There’s only the immediate future or the recent past.” — George Carlin, 1937-2008
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