Scratch any cynic and you’ll find a disappointed idealist.
I don’t have pet peeves. I have major, psychotic hatreds.
George Carlin, who died Sunday at age 71, made being and pretending to be angry in equal measure his life’s work. Carlin was born in Manhattan, where he lived until he joined the Air Force in 1954. After getting kicked out of he Air Force for numerous sins (none bad enough to earn the Big Chicken Dinner, though), he tried his hand at DJing. He kept getting in trouble and, eventually deciding to go it as a duo with fellow DJ Jack Burns, then solo, becoming one of the kings of Sixties (establishment) standup. Lenny Bruce changed Carlin’s life, moving him from suit and tie king of establishment comedy to the king of sarcastic anti-establishment libertarian comedy in a few short years, spawning a pile of imitators. He attained broad cultural importance in his “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” which ultimately led to the Supreme Court in 1978. If you want a brief retrospective, see the Wiki page and, of course, the flood of obits to follow soon, e.g., the one from the New York Times.
We’ve decided that Carlin—love him, hate him, some of both or maybe neither—deserved a little appreciation.
Mildly Piqued Academician I’m too young to have seen Carlin at his peak (the early to mid 1970s), before his first heart attack. (Too much cocaine will do that to a person.) So basically I know him from his HBO specials, film work and books. His books are, essentially, the written version of his standup. I found Carlin to be about 52% hilarious and 49% cringe-inducing (yes, the overlap is intentional). When he was on he was amazing but the line for me was often crossed into wince. Carlin, like George Orwell, ripped imprecision in language, in particular things he viewed to be euphemisms. Unfortunately, unlike Orwell, he often shot with a broad pattern and could hit targets that didn’t really have it coming. The most memorable episode of this for me is the shell shock -> combat fatigue -> post traumatic stress disorder one. Survivors of traumatic events that may have nothing whatsoever to do with being bombarded by artillery fire often have the exact same symptoms; post-traumatic stress disorder is not a vague euphemism. Nonetheless, I think we’ll miss George’s commentary on the next ten years. Nobody else has his touch, though I’ll give nods to Dave Chappelle and Chris Rock. Most of his imitators are >52% cringeworthy and <49% hilarious.
Angry Overeducated Catholic I have to concur. Towards the end I often found Carlin a bitter old man who seemed to have lost “the funny.” Even then, though, he had flashes of greatness. And, earlier, he was incredible—with that rare gift to, as one tribute put it, “offend without giving offense.” Even while he was ripping up your sacred cow, you could laugh along—at least much of the time. And his routines about baseball vs. football and the instructions you receive on airplanes remain two of the funniest things I have ever had the pleasure of hearing.
Ultimately, however, Carlin is a celebration of the American tolerance for dissent. He spoke his mind, come what may, the nation embraced him for it. He was also that rarest of things: an honest man. And one who did what he loved right up to the end. Lord knows he had his faults—a whole truckload of them—but in a world of spin, he was refreshingly blunt about where he stood. And so, knowing that the Lord of the Universe is on record as disliking wishy-washy types much more than honest unbelievers, I hold out hope for even this most vocally fallen of my co-religionists. To close, then, even though he’d hate to hear it: Requiescat in pace.
Angry Immgrant The mark of a real performer is that he can be enjoyed by many audiences, and he never lets himself be typecast into only one character. Despite fighting against censorship by the tried and true method of vigorously promoting profanity (much of it lovingly parroted by every college freshmen in America), at his peak, he wasn’t limited to forcing a laugh through the cognitive dissonance of unexpected vulgarity that he declined to in his later years. He re-invented stand-up comedy as social commentary, (much to the benefit of Seinfeld, Bill Maher and John Stewart). When people tried to pigeonhole him as a heartless swear machine, he befuddled them by being a multi-year mainstay on the children’s show “Thomas the Tank Engine”. I remember being taken to his live show, only to leave within 10 minutes of it starting — as the live show wasn’t his TV stand-up act, it was the all guns blazing act.. That we thought his show wouldn’t be full of profanity goes to show our naivety about stand-up comedy, but also demonstrates that his non-profane work was quality enough that we forgot about his mainstay. With a mainstay like that, that’s an impressive feat.
For all of the things he might have done (“I might have brought my arrowhead collection…”), he leaves the reality of a mixed legacy. For a guy whose characters were so vehemently against pretending everything is pure and unsullied, I think he’d be satisfied with that.
Who? I hear he croaked.