Sunday saw the passing of a giant in the entertainment industry. George Carlin passed away from heart failure. He was 71 years old.
As I scanned the major-media “obits” for Carlin, I couldn’t help but notice that most of them missed what to me, at least was the essence of George Carlin’s contribution to the entertainment industry.
The media focused largely on his “7 Words” bit, and the boundaries he broke with respect to the FCC and obscenity rules. To me, however, his legacy after over fifty years in show business transcends that one routine.
George Carlin was a rare comic in a number of ways. First, he was smart. Very smart. He’d say things that sounded completely outlandish, but everything had an internal logic to it. He spent a lot of his time railing against religious conservatives, not focusing on their intolerance, but rather their illogic. An example: “Christian conservatives are against abortions, and against homosexuals. Well, who has fewer abortions than homosexuals? You’d think they’d be natural allies…”
A second unique quality of Carlin is that, despite his apparent liberal bent, he was really against politics as a whole. Again, his criticisms have the virtue of being funny not only for the delivery, but for their accuracy.
Carlin also did not take himself too seriously. He would intersperse his political and social commentary with more base items such as fart jokes: “Where would a comedy show be without fart jokes?”, and everyman commentaries about the daily hazards of driving (mostly being on the same road as Carlin), the poor quality of television, and annoying habits that people have.
No target was off limits to Carlin. Even while doing commercials for 1-800-COLLECT, he had anti-phone company material in his act. (He acknowledged it in his routine: “If any of you have some cognitive dissonance about the fact that I do these jokes and do commercials for the phone company, well, you’re just going to have to figure that shit out on your own.”) Despite (or perhaps because of) his stint as Mr. Conductor on a popular children’s show, he railed against children, and our societies’ treatment (or, worship, as he put it) of them: “Children are just like any other group of people: a couple of winners, and a whole lot of losers.”
As an aspiring comic, I grew up on George Carlin. From Klass Klown to Life Is Worth Losing, I watched his HBO specials, and listened to his routines. He never stopped being funny, and he never stopped being smart.
I can only hope that my own material could live up to the brilliance, saavy, and heart of George Carlin. He was the gold standard of stand-up comedy, and he will be missed.