Monday, June 23, 2008

George Carlin

George Carlin, in case you haven't heard, has passed away from heart failure at the age of 71.

As a comedian, I suppose I am required to say something. But I must be honest. I was never really that big a fan; especially in comparison to my favorite comedic icons of that era, Richard Pryor and Steve Martin. To be sure, Carlin had good delivery and a lot of his routines were extremely clever, although I don't consider him as groundbreaking and revolutionary a figure as many current comedy historians do.

Basically, I consider the most remarkable aspect of Carlin's career to be his good luck. Since he was essentially the torchbearer for Lenny Bruce, Carlin's greatest fortune was the luxury of delivering what amounted to the same type of "shocking" and highly literate material in a much more permissive (and therefore safe) society than the one which ultimately destroyed Bruce and simultaneously enshrined him as America's quintessential martyr for the cause of free speech.

In fact, Carlin was such an admirer of Bruce that he was actually arrested in Chicago after mouthing off to one of the cops who were busy arresting Lenny for obscenity. According to the story, Carlin even found himself sitting side-by-side with his idol in the police van outside the club. One could make the argument here that it was this fortuitous incident that provided Carlin with the necessary "street cred" to advance his career in the postmodern standup comedy world.

In Bruce's lexicon, free speech meant free speech unilaterally. Since then, free speech, as applied to the current crop of American comedy, has been redefined to mean sanctimonious, overdone, and unoriginal criticisms of presidential administrations (a la Jon Stewart); selective and communally-approved outbursts of "political incorrectness", often delivered by an attractive young female (a la Sarah Silverman); or profanity for the mere sake of profanity (a la Bob Saget).

Though Carlin unquestionably began his career by carrying on the legacy of Lenny Bruce (a role which both comedy history and the overall popular culture of the 1970s dictated somebody must fill), it nonetheless would be a mistake to suggest that, in his later years, Carlin did not play a significant factor in the current, watered-down redefinition of free speech as applied by Stewart, Silverman, and Saget.

This, however, could be attributed to Carlin's longevity (and possible senility) in his role as elder statesman of the standup comedy/social commentary scenes and not to any innate mediocrity on his part, either as a writer or as a performer. For despite his flaws, Carlin was anything but mediocre. That being said, his titles as innovator and revolutionary deserve much more academic scrutiny than they have hitherto received.

In sum, George Carlin was a man of his times. And unlike Lenny Bruce, Carlin's times were ready for him. This advantageous synchronicity was undoubtedly Carlin's greatest strength.

His early targets were valid and, in many ways, profound in their exploration--in particular, his damning critiques on crass consumerism and the retardation that money, marketing, and media had embedded into the average American consciousness by the advent of the 1970s. Here, one thinks specifically of Carlin's famous analyses of the words "shit" and "stuff" in relation to material possessions.

My favorite routine of George Carlin's, however, is his relatively innocent linguistic compare/contrast study of the games of football and baseball.

"In football, the object is for the quarterback, otherwise known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy--in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use the shotgun. With short, bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack which punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy's defensive line. . .In baseball, the object is to go home. And to be safe! I hope I'll be safe at home! Safe at home!"

George Carlin, may he rest in peace.

Wm. Franken
(Trieste, Zurich, Paris, 1914-1921)