Monday, June 23, 2008

George Carlin, 1937-2008

I heard the news this morning that comedian George Carlin died yesterday of heart failure at the age of 71. Although popularly associated with the so-called liberal "counterculture" of the 1960s and 1970s, it seems to me that comedians of the satirical sort like George Carlin always have to be fundamentally conservative, a theory born out by comments made by his friends in this obituary. The wicked humor of comedians like Carlin is premised on an acute understanding of his culture's fundamental hypocrisy. Example: his response to the question posed to him about the Super Bowl halftime show ending with Janet Jackson's breast-baring "wardrobe malfunction." Said Carlin: "On that Super Bowl broadcast of Janet Jackson's there was also a commercial about a 4-hour erection. A lot of people were saying about Janet Jackson, 'How do I explain to my kids? We're a little family, we watched it together ...' And, well, what did you say about the other thing? These are convenient targets." I couldn't have said it better, George: every weekday on the evening news one can hear repeated advertisements for drugs that might help solve "erectile dysfunction," but nary a word is raised in protest by the vast and so easily outraged middle-class, that great defender of bourgeoisie values and genteel sexual morality.

The greatest comedians have always been keenly aware of language, and hence it is entirely appropriate that George Carlin is perhaps most famous for his "Seven Words You Can Never Say on TV" routine, a sketch not so much about proscribed words--that is, obscenity--as it is about the Orwellian nature of the media to control both thought and reality. Carlin said he learned a lot about his craft by observing comedian Lenny Bruce, a comedian continually harassed by the authorities over charges of "obscenity" whose routines were also frequently premised on an examination of language; in this sense "Seven Words You Can Never Say on TV" owes much to Bruce's influence.

But while Lenny Bruce was clearly an influence on him, Carlin always said his idol growing up was comic Danny Kaye. Years ago on the radio I heard an interview with George Carlin in which he talked about how as a kid he very much adored and admired Danny Kaye, perhaps the preeminent comedian of his era. He said as a teenager he stood for hours in the rain outside a theater where Kaye was to appear, wanting to meet the great maestro in person and hoping to get his autograph. When Danny Kaye appeared, chauffeured to the spot in his grand automobile, Carlin (and others) rushed out to greet him--but the great comedian pushed by them and strolled silently on into the building, ignoring them and not saying a word, as if they were invisible. George Carlin's child-like silliness--a strength, actually--and his characteristic facial contortions no doubt owed a lot to Danny Kaye, but I think his iconoclasm, and the powerful hatred of hypocrisy so evident in his best comedy, came from that moment when he was so coldly pushed aside by his idol.

Because of that second or two of callousness, one of the best American comedians of his generation came into being. In any case, he and his idol are both equal now.

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