Several of the obituaries I’ve read have mentioned that the course of Carlin’s life and comedy were forever altered the night he first caught Lenny Bruce’s act. I had to smile at that, because it is certainly true that Carlin passed on the favor to others, including me. The first time I listened to my first Carlin album, FM and AM, something changed for me as well. It wasn’t the first time I’d heard a comic use profanity, though this was before the advent of cable TV, so such material could only be heard either live or via a non-broadcast recording. So what was different about Carlin’s use of profanity? Well, it was just as true then as it is now that many comics use profanity as a substitute for creativity. Carlin was the first comic I’d ever heard who used profanity at the service of his humor rather than as the point of his humor.
I want to clarify my use of the word profanity here. I’m not merely talking about the terminology, e.g., Carlin’s oft-cited Seven Words. I’m also talking about profanity of subject matter. Carlin would talk about religion, sex, birth control, and drugs with the same wit and aplomb that he might employ to deliver a goofy weather report from Al Sleet, his Hippy-Dippy Weatherman character. A few years later, I was exposed to the uncensored work of Richard Pryor, who elevated profanity itself to an art form, but that’s beyond the scope of our present discussion.
Some of the things I’ve read about Carlin the last few days reflect what I consider to be an inaccurate perception of his point of view. One writer referred to him as a “left-wing hippie.” Another called him the “comic voice of the counterculture.” My reaction to that would be, “Well, which stratum of the counterculture are you referring to?” Perhaps I should just turn the microphone over to Mr. Carlin himself. I quote here from the preface of his book Brain Droppings, which has occupied a position of honor in my bathroom since I was given my first edition copy of it by my sister Bev:
…if you read something in this book that sounds like advocacy of a particular political point of view, please reject the notion. My interest in “issues” is merely to point out how badly we’re doing, not to suggest a way we might do better. … What may sound to some like anger is really nothing more than sympathetic contempt. I view my species with a combination of wonder and pity, and I root for its destruction. And please don’t confuse my point of view with cynicism; the real cynics are the ones who tell you everything’s gonna be all right. … By the way, if by some chance, you folks do manage to straighten things out and make everything better, I still don’t wish to be included.
Such words do not fit much of anywhere on the left wing-right wing continuum. I think it would be wise to abandon any search for handy labels to plaster upon Carlin. To do so only dishonors and discounts his wonderful individuality. The one label I will allow to slip by is this one: Funny. At the risk of severely mixing metaphors, “Funny” is the ace of trump that beats any other card you’d like to put into Carlin’s hand.
There was an on-line essay making the rounds several years ago that illustrates how widely misunderstood Carlin was. It was titled something like “I Am A Bad American by George Carlin.” I’m sure it’s being recirculated even as I type these words. Several people sent it to me, assuming that it was what it claimed to be. I knew immediately that it wasn’t Carlin’s work – it was basically a conservative rant about what was wrong with America. As so often happens in the wilds of the Internet, somebody decided that their message would get more traction if they attached the name of a famous person to it, but anyone who actually followed Carlin’s work and philosophy would probably have spotted the fakery pretty quickly. The essay was not utterly devoid of humor value, but its clear political agenda and obvious deception cut deeply into its entertainment value. It spread so widely on the Internet that Carlin had a formal disavowal of the piece on his web site.
At one time, I owned quite a few Carlin albums. For my money, the best two were FM and AM and Class Clown. The latter is probably best remembered for marking the debut of his Seven Words monologue. The album after that one, Occupation: Foole, contains an expanded version of the monologue, but that album is marred by the fact that Carlin sounds alarmingly stoned throughout the recording. The image at the top of this post is there to honor my favorite Carlin album title: An Evening With Wally Londo, Featuring Bill Slaszo.
A bit of Carlin trivia I recently learned: His first solo album, Take-Offs and Put-Ons from 1966, was recorded live at the Roostertail in my home town of Detroit! Shout-out for the homies!
I close with one more quote from Mr. Carlin. It’s not that it’s so very funny, but it’s the last line on the last page of Brain Droppings:
“Laugh? I thought I’d die.”