The real shock and awe has worn off a little, that of George Carlin, as he might say, “going away.” I am able to better assemble some thoughts about, for me, the most important comedian we had.
“Going away,” George said about humanity. The planet is staying right here. But we, polluting little bastards, are going away. No one who ever did standup comedy made apocalypse so clear, so funny and so acceptable. His cosmological views reassured me. He called human beings, in a later HBO special, “an evolutionary cul-de-sac.” And while a lot of TV shows have claimed his legacy is the “7 Dirty Words You Can’t Say” routine and the Supreme Court case that upheld our rights based on it, I don’t think so.
That was a landmark ruling but as far as I am concerned, George Carlin redefined what you can do as a comedian. He expanded the language. He got dark and then brought it back to goofy for those admirers he flipped out a little. He was a magnificent poet-philsopher-goofball and even when his material got crass, it had class.
George outlived his colleague Lenny Bruce, a brilliant comedian who was, alas, destroyed not only by his own demons but by the thing that can destroy any comedian: bad timing. The time in which Lenny performed was not a time for acceptance of his language and concepts. What I’m still thinking of, in George’s past, is the FM/AM album. It literally captures his transition from suit-and-tie, inoffensive guy to counterculture genius. The photos on the album and the two different sides of material are the great transition of doing ten years of a certain kind of material and then saying, I am ready for a change…and so is society.
I loved that George made Americans rethink their behavior as a people, their knowledge about world events and their responsibilities to the rest of the world as a superpower: “What the fuck do white people have to be blue about? Banana Republic ran out of khakis? The espresso machine is jammed? Shit, white people ought to understand that their job is to give people the blues, not to get them.”
George went too soon but he wisely used his later years to bring “cranky” to an art form. What better excuse than being old and the most prolific comedian around to really kick mental comedy ass and cause shift in the minds of fans. He questioned, as “motivated,” people like serial killers and CEOs. “And anyway, I think motivation is overrated. You show me some lazy prick who’s lying around all day, watching game shows and stroking his penis and I’ll show you someone who’s not causing any fucking trouble.”
The most important comedians always cause trouble. They create cognitive dissonance, making you chortle at something naughty and then stunning you into silence with some wry observation on just how waywardly screwed up life on this planet really is.
I’ll always treasure the one time I met George. I’ll always be in awe of the suit-and-tie guy from The Ed Sullivan Show who let his hair—and all our minds—grow.
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Wellstone Action! (Sen. Paul Wellstone, MN)