George Carlin RIP
It’s probably a good thing that George Carlin didn’t believe in an afterlife. Because if he had, he would be turning over in his grave as a result of being remembered and lauded in the precincts of The New Nixon. He had no use and great contempt for our namesake; he stopped voting after RN defeated George McGovern in 1972 because elections provided only “the illusion of choice”.
But death as well as politics breeds strange bedfellows, and I wouldn’t be surprised if RN and GC were to have some very interesting and mutually enlightening conversations if they ever meet in that place in which only one of them believed.
I think that RN will appreciate George Carlin’s integrity, the intensity of his convictions, the rigor of his mind, the breadth of his interests, his personal tenacity, the brilliance of his comedic expression and public performance, and the honesty and humor of his writing. Their common denominator was that they cared and thought about pretty much the same things; their fundamental difference was that the way they cared and thought about them was separated by 180 degrees of angle.
What is indisputable is that they inhabited and influenced each others’ worlds. George Carlin played a fundamental part in the history of the popular culture of the 1960s and 1970s. His Ur routine —“The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television”— illuminated the time in the way great comedy always has and does. And even after its 1978 detour through the US Supreme Court ( FCC v. Pacifica Foundation — or in Carlinian terms, 399,993 v. 7), it is still relevant today, when at least six and a half of the seven words are still unspeakable on the public airwaves. Thanks to YouTube the routine is available as it was originally recorded and in a slightly freer-form live performance that picks up very early on the material in progress.
His fascination with words and their meanings, and with the way the words stayed the same while their meanings were twisted or perverted for the convenience of the powers that be and the furtherance of consumerism, was present early and late in his career.
As Harry Shearer points out in his thoughtful appreciation on the Huffington Post, the “Modern Man” word poem —among George Carlin’s last work— is a conceptual, compositional, and performance tour de force.
George Carlin was one of the progenitors of modern stand up — right up there in the pantheotic company of Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor. As Jerry Seinfeld puts it in today’s New York Times:
You could certainly say that George downright invented modern American stand-up comedy in many ways. Every comedian does a little George. I couldn’t even count the number of times I’ve been standing around with some comedians and someone talks about some idea for a joke and another comedian would say, “Carlin does it.” I’ve heard it my whole career: “Carlin does it,” “Carlin already did it,” “Carlin did it eight years ago.”
And he didn’t just “do” it. He worked over an idea like a diamond cutter with facets and angles and refractions of light. He made you sorry you ever thought you wanted to be a comedian. He was like a train hobo with a chicken bone. When he was done there was nothing left for anybody.
Although George Carlin had not been well for some time, his death at 71 on Sunday in Santa Monica was unexpected. As Jerry Seinfeld remembered, they had spoken only nine days before; apropos the recent deaths of Tim Russert and Bo Diddley, Mr. Carlin had said: “I feel safe for a while. There will probably be a break before they come after the next one. I always like to fly on an airline right after they’ve had a crash. It improves your odds.”
George Carlin will survive on America’s contact list for far more than the six weeks he himself prescribed. And whether or not he is smiling down on us, we will still be smiling at him.