George Carlin is fuckin’ dead, not smiling down at us

George Denis Patrick Carlin.

Born May 12, 1937.

Conceived at Curley’s Hotel in Rockaway Beach, August 1936.

Expired, like a magazine subscription, June 22, 2008.

Really, that’s a more appropriate obit than “R.I.P. George Carlin” or “Great comedian remembered for his incisive social commentary and deft wordplay”.

C’mon. Anyone who knew Carlin’s material would know that he hated bullshit like that. He’d much rather get something like the charming lines (and headline) above. They’re a compliment. They’re in his language and his style. As a matter of fact, I can feel my language taking on his tone and syntax; so I’d like to believe that when the man died, his soul went into my body.

Unfortunately, there’s no such thing as a soul, and I’m not that lucky, and when you’re dead, you’re fuckin’ dead. That’s why it’s called “dead”. As in not alive. There is no afterlife, because it suggests being alive, and yet supposedly, it happens after you’re no longer alive. But when you’re not alive, guess what? Yup, you’re fuckin’ dead.

God (or lack thereof), I DO sound like Carlin.

carlin

I also think that a flippant tenor is only appropriate when talking of the death of a comedian. A few years ago, I heard John Cleese interviewed about his career, and he was asked to recall each of his fellow Pythons. When he finally got to Graham Chapman, Cleese said, “And last and certainly least…or certainly the most dead…” He also recalled how Chapman urged the other Pythons not to do anything unnecessarily grave or sentimental at his funeral (this very close to the time he died of cancer in 1989). It’s also worth mentioning that Terry Jones called Chapman’s death “the worst case of party-pooping in all of history”.

And by the way, if you’ve heard Carlin’s take on euphemisms, you’ll have a chuckle every time Carlin is referred to as having “expired”, “passed away”, or like his dog Annie, “went away”.

I’d like to think he’d refer to himself as a “dead fuck”.

A very brief anecdote: I was on a red-eye flight from California to New York last night when my brother tried to call me with the news of Carlin’s death. When I talked to him today, he said that he tried to reach me when I was on the plane. And without missing a beat, I said, “Fuck you! I was in the plane! Let Evil Knievel get on the plane!” My voluminous Carlin quote bank came in handy, even in the event of his death.

Just for clarification, the second part of my headline alludes to a segment in his final HBO special, It’s Bad for Ya. He pokes fun at all the things people say at funerals when someone dies — and by the way, he was unusually preoccupied with death in his final two HBO specials, the former being called Life is Worth Losing. Among those expressions is: “Ya know, I think he’s up there right now, smiling down at us.” To which he replied, “First of all…there is no ‘up there'”.

Interestingly enough, I just finished correcting someone who mistakenly thought that Richard Pryor was still alive, and now that Richard and George are “together” — joined by the holy bonds of heart failure — I thought I’d recall one of my favorite Carlin quotes. It was in reference to the incident in 1980 in which Pryor set himself on fire while freebasing:

“An update on the comedian health sweepstakes. I currently lead Richard Pryor in heart attacks 2 to 1. But Richard still leads me 1 to nothing in burning yourself up. See, it happened like this. First Richard had a heart attack. Then I had a heart attack. Then Richard burned himself up. And I said, ‘Fuck that. I’m having another heart attack!”

carlin_arrested

Despite all this flippancy, I am of course deeply saddened by the death of the man who has been my single favorite comedian since I was 12 years old. At that time, I was on a family vacation out in the middle of Texas somewhere (don’t ask why), and I was using the opportunity to watch HBO in our hotel room, since we didn’t have it at home.

I saw this wiry, pony-tailed guy who looked old enough to be my grandfather talking about flying on airplanes, dissecting the entire ordeal from start to finish. I don’t think I’ve ever laughed as hard as I did when Carlin described his method for planning his route to the emergency exit.

Even as a young kid, I knew I was watching more than just a guy who did goofy shit and made me laugh. Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was aware of Carlin’s unique skills as a rhetorician and wordsmith. He once described the attitude of a comedian as reflective of a way of looking at the world, a willingness to look around and say, “Something’s wrong here…”

While I was laughing like a little girl, listening to Carlin lambaste golfers and bourgeois environmentalists, my mother checked on me to see why I was so overtaken.

“Oh, that’s George Carlin,” she said. “I liked him better when he didn’t swear as much.” She was more a fan of the tamer days of “Baseball and Football” and “Hippie-dippie Weatherman”.

carlin_more

But while I like the cleaner Carlin stuff, I know that it’s impossible to talk about Carlin without mentioning his relationship with so-called “bad language”. After my first exposure to Carlin, I spent my early teens tearing my way through everything Carlin had done up to that point. It didn’t take me long to get to Class Clown and its final track, the one that got the law on his ass for several years and resulted in a Supreme Court hearing: “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television”.

I remember not being able to contain my excitement after reading the title. Agreeing to listen to the track felt like an act of defiance in and of itself. Of course, standards of censorship had changed by the mid-90s — among other things, racy episodes of NYPD Blue were making their way onto network TV — but if considered as part of the early-70s, FCC-dominated media zeitgeist, “Seven Words” never loses its power, its fearless and honest examination of the extent to which language can affect us.

Interesting note: Just a few days ago, I happened to re-watch Carlin’s 2004 appearance on Inside the Actor Studio. Of course, James Lipton requested that Carlin recite the seven deadly words, which were all verboten in the early 70s. Carlin complied, and this time, only five of the words were bleeped. It seems “piss” and “tits” are now allowed. Progress.

The original list of seven went through several amendments and incarnations, finally culminating in the astounding “Incomplete List of Impolite Words”, which never fails to make my jaw hit the floor.

It’s just one of many “list” routines he did:

“People I Can Do Without” (e.g. a proctologist with poor depth perception).

“Advertising Lullaby” (No cash? No problem. No kidding! No down payment. No payments or interest ’till September).

“Things to Watch Out For” (e.g. anal rape, quicksand, rogue elephants).

“I’m a Modern Man” (…a man for the millenium…an alpha-male on beta-blockers, prematurely post-traumatic).

carlin_young

One of the things that always irked me was when people referred to Carlin as a bitter old cynic. I guess I reserve a special contempt for this since I’ve received the same label myself, even at 28. But I think of myself as a frustrated idealist, not a cynic, and I believe Carlin was the same way. A true cynic doesn’t complain about the sordid state of the world, because a cynic expects nothing more. A true cynic accepts the nature of reality and doesn’t bother to conceive of an ideal.

A frustrated idealist, on the other hand, sees the world for its potential and mourns humanity’s inability to achieve that potential. A frustrated idealist sees how people screw things up and develops a certain disdain that can be misread as true cynicism.

Carlin regarded himself as an optimist, and as much as some of the things he said would suggest otherwise, I believe him. It was his optimism and idealism (and thus his frustration with reality) that I believe led to his increasingly acerbic satire. Up until the early 80s, if Carlin engaged in political and social commentary, it was usually in a conversational tone, a relatively light frolic through the absurdities of the American cultural landscape.

By the mid-80s, however — with Reaganomics and the Moral Majority in full swing — his commentary turned towards invective, a more pointed, accusatory, and altogether polemical thrashing of societal hypocrisies. He was more outspoken about his hatred of religion — especially the presence of Christianity in American life — and also his opposition to political conservativism.

His aim shifted from merely extracting a few laughs from his audiences to beating them over the head saying, “Look at this! This is fucked, and we can do better!”

carlin_foole

In the documentary The Aristocrats, Carlin (who was the cerebral centerpiece of the film) said that he tries to find out where the line (of political correctness) is drawn, deliberately cross that line, bring members of the audience across with him, and have them be glad they came with him. While it’s tough not to hear in this a kind of self-satisfied arrogance, Carlin’s willingness to explore (and transgress) boundaries of supposed decency was what kept him fresh and continuously relevant even into his 70s. If it was arrogance, it was arrogance justified and well-earned.

Of all Carlin’s personal qualities, one of the most important to me personally was his unashamed atheism. I arrived at my atheism on my own, but Carlin was one of the people who helped the process along. When you’re subconsciously nursing the idea of engaging in a philosophy to which less than 5 percent of the world subscribes, and when you’ve been brought up amongst the other 95-plus percent, it helps to have people who give that minority a conscious voice.

While I don’t consider myself a “militant” or “evangelical” atheist, I feel passionately about the idea of atheism as a socially accepted, credible viewpoint, and I find it sad that “atheist” is often equated with “immoral” or “valueless”. The idea that religion is necessary for values and moral guidance is a bogus one, and Carlin was often fond of tackling this fallacy.

But more than anything, what made Carlin special for me was his ability to look at common human experiences, many of them quotidian or unpleasant (or both), and appeal to the humor that we all knew was lying under each and every one of those experiences. He was truly a comedian for the people, because he was interested in the human experience, and he took the time to look beyond the surface of everyday life and find comic gold.

He himself said that one of his jobs was to tell us things that we already knew but forgot to laugh at the first time. After listening to a Carlin routine, I felt a little enlightened as well as entertained. I always came away thinking that what I had heard was more important than just simple diversion. And despite being the grumbly frustrated-idealist-not-cynic that I can be, I often walked away from a Carlin bit feeling glad that I was part of the human race.

And I am part of the human race. Unlike George. He’s fuckin’ dead. And dead people give less than a shit about the sanctity of life.

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5 comments so far

  1. Jacob on

    Excellent eulogy (or maybe just logy, since Carlin hated euphemisms). The expertly placed Youtube nostalgia sent me down memory lane (where I found a jock-strap covered in sprinkles…).

  2. remixedmetre on

    Ah yes, chocolate sprinkles at that. And don’t forget the mule hoofprints! Must have been quite an evening.

  3. Amanda on

    Your entry really works as a personal response and review of Carlin’s legacy.

    I’ve read and watched a lot of Carlin stories today, and it’s made me think how formulaic obituaries have become. We aren’t reporting on the person, but rather on the idea that one is an icon and therefore deserve a feature obituary.

    I’ve written obituaries/tributes before and find that it is difficult to link personal experience and the actual person’s life in one cohesive piece. You did that here. It’s as irreverent as he would deliver for another — and would probably want for himself.

  4. Matt H on

    Sigh, there goes my only interest in comedy. And he had to die before seeing the atheist revolution reach fruition, although I’m sure he wasn’t expecting it any time soon.

    Rich, be sure to tell me if you discover any comedian who’s like Carlin (Lewis Black’s not quite there). Great obit.

  5. Blogger's Father on

    Very good piece, but we are old and we remember him when he startled us just by being beyond cool without the “bad” language on the Smothers Brothers (circa 1968). He was great, but mostly, he was very, very funny! You forgot to mention that we saw him live here in Houston!


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