Sunday, June 29, 2008

R.I.P. George Carlin

I know you've already read a billion pieces on George Carlin's passing, but I want to throw my own two cents in.

I first saw Carlin on The Tonight Show when I was twelve or thirteen years old. He was doing his wacky newsman bit, a bit that he probably hadn't done in a decade or more at that point, and I still remember one of his items: "Scientists discovered a new number today--the number bluuuuuurgh, between six and seven." It still makes me laugh.

It wasn't until I was older that I discovered Carlin's eviscerating side, the part of him that hated humanity but loved it at the same time and only wanted us all to wake up to what he saw as the truth. "My job," he tells the audience in one of his 1970s comedy specials, "is to tell you about things you already knew about but didn't realize were funny." I suspect that in the '90s and '00s, he'd have added "and the things you thought were okay but aren't."

I saw him a few years ago at the Orpheum Theatre in Omaha, for example (that's when I realized he wasn't long for this world--he'd had to move the show back several months because of major heart surgery), and he did a ten-minute bit on obesity. Jay Leno talks about how Americans are overweight oh my God isn't that funny every night, but Leno's a hack; he always goes for the easy laugh and has no conviction. Carlin had nothing but conviction, and for the ten minutes he talked about obesity, we were all rolling in the aisles but secretly terrified for the future.

They've been running his specials for the past month or so on HBO, and I've been TiVoing them all. He was brilliant all the way back to the beginning, of course, but his '70s material is too self-consciously quirky for me, too "isn't that cute?" He uses his hippy-dippy-weatherman voice too much, and while he's got loads of interesting things to say about language (I maintain that Derrida did nothing that Carlin didn't do better), his act from that era grates on me.

But then he stopped using cocaine. And he got angry. Very, very angry. In 1984, he came out on stage and talked about farting; in 1999, he comes out and his first words are, "Let me tell you what bugs me about pro-lifers." It's as if he woke up from his opium dream and saw the world how it really was and then got pissed about it. I suspect that if Carlin hadn't already been a comic at the time of his great awakening, he'd have been a prophet or a philosopher or a pundit instead.

At any rate, of the hundreds of reminiscences about Carlin that are out there, this is my favorite. Rest in peace, George. I believe in heaven on my good days, and I hope you made it--even though you didn't want to.

1 comment:

Tim Rhodes said...

I maintain that Derrida did nothing that Carlin didn't do better

I love this quote, and couldn't agree more.