I can’t believe the news today…
George Carlin… gone??? Insert all seven expletives here, add a few for good measure. It’s been a tough couple of weeks in Celeb obits. Everyone knows Carlin. His seven words you can’t say on television cemented that. Pro or Con , any age you know this man. But what Carlin do you know? Do you know the elder statesman of comedy? He of the gravelly voice who appeared in Kevin Smith Movies? And really, he almost made Jersey Girl watchable… Do you know the cab driver of his short lived T.V. show, The George Carlin Show? Do you know the ranting comedian of the HBO specials, a man whose Ideas had become a melding of extreme right and extreme left, peppered with truths at once frightening and comforting. He made us laugh at our own hypocrisy , an uncomfortable laughter that left us wanting to do better at the end of his set.
To know my Carlin you have to be between the ages of 44-55. The first time I heard the seven words I wasn’t yet ten years old but circumstances got me beyond the giggles quickly. Swear words on a comedy album were not unheard of, but there were a lot strung together, and hell, I was a kid. This was in the day where kids collected record albums with their allowance money. And many of us liked the comedy records. The comedy on these albums was a far cry from that of sitcom T.V. , Archie Bunker and his flushing toilet noted. But while Cosby and Newhart and Mort Saul and yes Joan Rivers made me laugh they didn’t really speak to my psyche. Richard Belzer and Gary Sandling’s comedy had an underlying meanness. It was Carlin who made me begin to think with my comedy. It was Carlin who seemed to offer hope at a time when it was hard to find. Although much too young to be children of counter culture, those of us in the 44-55 age group saw evidence of “establishment” betrayal every night on the evening news. Vietnam, Watergate, Woman’s “Rights”, The Energy Crisis. And we weren’t even teenagers yet. Carlin’s comedy gave our early cynicism validation…. Fuck WIN buttons. And we watched his case go through the court system, praying that our Supreme Court would uphold freedom of speech… And once again we were let down on the evening news.
Carlin was one of many comedians influenced by the incomparable Lenny Bruce. In 1976, with his new found infamy he ushered in a little late night television show, featuring players from the comedy club circuit. The Show was called Saturday Night Live and for its first four years was not to be missed even though it was on Saturday Night and I was becoming a teenager. This was a group of people who could make me laugh at the absurdity of American life and for 90 minutes forget how much my voice didn’t seem to count. It’s right that Carlin got the show started.
He had health issues all the while. A heart attack when he was very young may have changed his path but it never changed his humanism. I remember thinking while watching Bill and Ted’s excellent adventure that he wasn’t my Carlin anymore. He’d become a brand name, used to validate lesser comedic projects. But still there were moments in his stand up… Shining moments. His Diatribes on AIDS spoke to everyone, his frustration with racism, sexism and the onslaught of pop culture as opposed to news were, at moments brilliant. So I’ve always found it sad that this man who made you think of your fellows in one breath, would use the next to call voting the illusion of choice. He shared his reasons for not voting in stand up, encouraging the same apathy he reviled. For some, it made his later work unwatchable. Me? I always took him in, and sifted the material.
The recent death of Tim Russert left me saddened and concerned for the future of informative Sunday morning television. The death of Sydney Pollack reminded me of how important his body of work was to me. The death of Cyd Charrise leaves a little less beauty in the world. The death of Paul Sands marks the demise of the man who taught me the importance of story interpretation, and the beauty of classic fables. But Carlin … gone… it comes as a shock even though it should have been expected for the last 25 years. I’m not alone in this, the early obituaries are far from complete, celebrity quotes coming in slowly. For those of us who had our eyes opened by this man and used his comedy as a bell weather for formulating our own ideas about the world around us, it’s impossible to think of him as gone. Because he’s part of us. And for now we swear a little and mourn a lot.