Monday, June 23, 2008

Remembering George Carlin

For reasons I don't know, I asked a friend over the weekend when the last time was she played a cassette. My friend, who is about 10 years younger than me, just sort of looked at me and said, "I think . . . think . . . I have an old cassette somewhere . . . maybe a B-52's album from high school."

Laughs from around the table . . . all from people 10 years younger than me, my wife and children excepted.

Of course, as the oldest person there, with the exception of my 263 year-old father-in-law, who, by this point in the conversation, had nodded off after polishing off more food than anybody else, I could go back further in time than the B-52's.

"I have three cassettes," I proudly announced. "'Cheech and Chong's Greatest Hits,' Richard Pryor's, 'That Nigger's Crazy,' and 'AM-FM,' by George Carlin. I have the album versions of these three gems, too, as well as some other of Pryor and Carlin's old stuff."

Silence.

"George Carlin? Didn't he do the "Thomas the Tank" show for a while?" came one comment. Uh, yes he did, and so did Ringo and Alec Baldwin. From what I remember of the show, which I watched more than I wanted during my son's extraordinarily expensive and cult-like "Thomas the Tank" phase I think Thomas became sort of a post-rehab, reintroduction into mainstream society for many a fallen musician/actor/entertainer.

"Wait a minute," said another youthful miscreant. "George Carlin did the 'Seven Dirty Words' routine that went to the Supreme Court. Didn't we do that case in your class?" I remember when read the dirty words out loud and some people freaked out! That was my "Welcome to College moment."

"Wrong," said another. "That was your 'Welcome to Ivers' moment.

"You bet your ass it was," I responded. "The late 60s/early 70s were the best years of Carlin's career."

How strange, then, that not 24 hours after associating George Carlin with the ancient playback medium of the cassette tape and "Thomas the Tank" we would learn of his death at 71 from heart failure. My three favorite stand-up comedians of all time are Lenny Bruce, George Carlin and Richard Pryor, with 1960s era Woody Allen a close fourth. Woody might not, on first glance, appear to belong with that group, since he didn't really spend much time commenting on American social and political culture. But what all four men had in common was their devotion to literacy and language. Yes, they were observational humorists, but not in the Jerry Seinfeld vein, whose comedy picks up, in many ways, from where Bill Cosby left off -- fairly innocent, clever, open to all ages, well-delivered and, in the end, innocuous.

Bruce, Carlin and Pryor were anything but innocent and innocuous, and they were not open to all ages. I bought my first Carlin album without my parents' knowledge, although, as it turns out, they were thrilled that I was leaning towards social and political satire with a comedic edge rather than more conventional stand-up. My first Pryor album was actually an 8-track tape from a friend of my father's who I knew from my weekends hanging out in African-American neighborhoods near his store. I used to try to riff with some of the black guys at the newstand, but I had no game to match where these guys were coming from. It took George Carlin to point out to me the name of their game, "The Dozens," which he talked about on one of his albums. I can still remember his line:

"You wanna play the dozens?/The dozens is a game
But the way I fuck your momma is a goddamn shame."

I used that line once, and, from the initial stares I got I thought I was going to get the crap kicked out of me. Not at all. After about five seconds of silence, I got laughs and low-fives, which had recently replaced "giving skin" as the preferred African-American acknowledgment of doing or saying something good. Giving skin had recently been appropriated by white athletes, so that was now out.

"Here, man," said one guy, retrieving the 8-track from the car. "You're ready for this. You'll get it and laugh your ass off.

"Are you sure I should listen to this," I asked, pointing to the "That Nigger's Crazy" title.

"You're okay. You've hung out around here long enough to know what Richard's talking about. Go ahead and take it. Keep it."

In return, I gave him my Carlin album, which he "got," even though Carlin's stuff was less outwardly race-specific and more comprehensive in target-selection. Thinking about it, Carlin was arguably a precursor to "The Simpsons," which sticks it to everyone and, in its best moments, rarely misses.

George Carlin has been eulogized so far as a comedian who will be remembered for his distinctive literary style, which focused on so many absurdities of American life that it's impossible to canvass his career without missing something. I'm not so sure I think of Carlin (or Pryor or Bruce, for that matter) as a comedian. For me, he was a social and political satirist who happened to be funny as hell. Like Bruce and later Pryor, he made comedy an R-rated enterprise, junking his earlier career as a "Tonight Show"-worthy act in favor of something much more substantial and important. Listen to his early routines on Vietnam, divorce, the game show culture, the absurdity of classifying some words as "dirty" and other words as merely "offensive" even though they meant the same thing. One of his earliest and most memorable bits for me was his rank-ordering of profanity based on the perceived offense. My parents would ask me to first clean my "stuff" up, then, less patient, request that I stop leaving my "crap" all over the floor before finally . . . finally screaming at me to get this "shit" out of here or watch it end up in the dumpster. After I heard Carlin do this routine, including his immortal line, "can't fool me. Shoot is shit with two holes in it," I was hooked for life. Had he made his way into my house? Was he supplying my parents with these lines?

I had the privilege of seeing George Carlin once, in 1977 or 78, I think. He was almost an hour late coming on, but he made up for it with an extended and painfully funny performance. I can still remember the T-shirt he wore that night, "Front" on one side, "Back" on the other. Simple, obvious and right in front of us. Except, like almost everything else he noted and incorporated into his routines, he was the first to notice it and take it public.

George Carlin will not receive the equivalent of a state funeral, like the late Tim Russert of "Meet the Press" fame did last week after his sad and untimely passing. Yet, there is no doubt who will ultimately leave a greater and more lasting impact on American culture. Carlin redefined and broke ground in American social and political satire and forced Americans to take a much more honest look at themselves and the world they created and in which they lived. Russert, who was a nice man, devoted father and husband, hosted a television program that did little more than serve as a forum for various politicians to push their "talking points" or "spin" events to the public that, much more often than not, bore no resemblance to what really happened. Russert has been dangerously canonized by the corporate media and the Washington establishment precisely because he did not break the first rule of the Washington social contract: first, give and take no offense. Carlin did just the opposite, operating at the bare margin of mainstream American culture because he never hesitated to give offense or take it from people he never believed should be nearly as respected as they somehow managed to be. I could never imagine Carlin letting Dick Cheny, Scooter Libby or Karl Rove off the hook, as Russert (and all the Washington talking heads routinely do). Carlin would have skewered him in a way that would have made Jon Stewart look like Jerry Seinfeld (to whom he bears, at times, a spooky similiarity). In the end, to the extent that America holds its worst citizens and officials accountable for their bad, irresponsible and dishonest behavior, we should remember to thank Carlin for reminding us that politics is often an occupation for fools.

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