George Carlin, My Hero

George Carlin is one of my heroes. Not for the routine that made him most famous -- the seven (later 10) dirty words you can’t say on TV -- but for so much of his work that, while making us laugh, also made us look at ourselves and was really social criticism: his poem about his hair and its length (“wear it to there or to there or to there if you dare!”) and the goofy news guy (“In Baltimore it’s 6:43, now for the 11 o’clock report!) making fun of the supercilious seriousness with which so many newscasters intoned to us, decades before The Daily Show.

Comedy is one of the few ways (along with music) in the U.S. to do social criticism and gain mass appeal, fame and fortune, and sneak it under the radar. Early on, and a little bit still, I did comedy, and may do more of it. I can well appreciate the courage Carlin had, the the strength of will and energy. It's bad enough to be standing in front of a hostile audience that doesn't give a damn and is ignoring you through a drunken haze at 2 a.m., or working to fill the pockets of a sleazy club owner who pays you $15 and a drink, if that. But to stand up by yourself on stage in those conditions night after night for years, and build up an audience, and then continue to take risks, not play it safe, get arrested as Carlin was but be unrepentant. Carlin finally got the attention of the establishment, including Congress, for his list of dirty words. I have to think he knew what he was doing, that he knew he wouldn't be sneaking under the radar with those. I noticed in the NPR obit quoting Carlin today that when asked his regrets, he mentions his and his wife's drug use, not because of any edict or strictures, but because of how he felt it harmed his daughter.

My wife gave me a box set of Carlin CDs as a present a few years back, and while I seldom listen, I do cherish them. I'm not a big collector of DVDs or books or spoken CDs -- who has all that shelf space, and how many would you really want to read or watch or listen to more than once or twice? But Carlin's work is an oeuvre that to me goes far beyond comedic laughs. I saw Carlin live, once, at a circle theater in the New York area, and marveled at his mastery, his timing, physical prowess, voice control, microphone technique. A video of a 2003 HBO special under the writer credit says: George Carlin. Not only was he a master performer with impeccable skills, but he also wrote his own stuff. I don't know if others ever wrote for Carlin, but I do know that a great number of top comedians, especially later on in a career, will have others contribute a lot.

Words. Carlin believed in them, in their power, forever playing around with meaning and hidden meaning, while slipping in the social critique. (One of his chosen oxymorons: Military Intelligence.) Today, I admire Carlin's seven dirty words routine more than I did when it first gained fame. I see it for the boundary pushing bit it was, following in the footsteps of Lenny Bruce before him. And society in some ways has caught up to the man who was visionary in his own goofy ways: there are plenty of farts on TV now (watch the routine posted on Silicon Alley Insider, to see what I mean), and Jon Stewart says a barely bleeped "shit" on his show about every 5 minutes. (Granted, it's cable, but that means it's in, what, 85 percent of American homes?)

I was told today by a well-known comedian and satirist that Carlin last year at a show seemed old and tired, not on his game. I've seen a news report that he was performing to get out of tax debt. Both may be true. But neither can remove the wealth of humor and wisdom he left us.

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