In my previous essay for this series, I wrote about humor, particularly bad taste. One of the comics that I’ve enjoyed for most of my life is the late George Carlin. A wordsmith of incomparable wit, Carlin holds a place of esteem even among his own profession’s best representatives. Widely considered influential for both his content and the style of comedy he utilized, George Carlin helped me fall in love with language and recognize the potency of words.
What surprised me most about Carlin’s background was his lack of formal education. While Carlin spend his early years at the Corpus Christi school in Morningside Heights (a section of New York City), he never completed high school. This was the 1950s, though, and not having a diploma didn’t mean one couldn’t gain employment. Much like today, lack of formal education can be a detriment to one’s career prospects. This apparently didn’t faze Carlin, who knew he wanted to be in show business from an early age.
Raised as a Roman Catholic by his “lace-curtain” Irish mother and educated by the Catholic Church, Carlin experienced an unusual education. According to one of his many interviews over the years (this one at the Aspen Comedy Festival with Jon Stewart as the interviewer), the Corpus Christi school was progressive for its time, disregarding the traditional grades and corporal punishment common in other schools run by the Church. Keep in mind this is pre-Vatican II Catholicism. Prior to the Second Vatican Council’s rulings in the 1960s, the Catholic Church still held to ancient standards of tradition and education (some could say medieval standards). By his own admission (a sign of his deep-seeded rebellious nature) the Church was not for Carlin, even at an early age.
George’s rebellious nature shined in his young life. He would frequently run away from home. Later on as an adult, he would encounter trouble in the military during his short enlistment in the Air Force. While Carlin was discharged under honorable circumstances, he was also court-martialed three times by his superiors, mostly due to poor attitude. This anti-authority streak remained in the background as he began his comedy career, mostly working as a disc jockey.
How a high school dropout and military washout ended up as a radio disc jockey still confounds me. I imagine the relative freedom of independent radio station allowed station managers leeway in hiring people. Unfortunately, I’ve not heard too many of his routines with eventual partner Jack Burns. What I have seen of Carlin’s early career is light years removed from the iconoclast that tore down American values by the time I discovered him in the early 1990s. He had short-cropped hair, a nice suit and tie, and told funny jokes (harmless jokes) and hackneyed impressions on The Ed Sullivan Show or The Tonight Show with Jack Paar. He was middle-of-the-road and just the same as every other comedian of that era. Take a look at them sometime: Jack Benny, Milton Berle, even Rowan and Martin, and countless others seemed to be pressed from a mold at the Acme Comedy Factory.
Carlin’s transformation (professional and personal) was inevitable when viewed in hindsight. Iconoclast is a word that should be used sparingly and only in the proper context. Sadly the word “rebel” has been so overused and misappropriated over the years that all its original meaning has been lost. Carlin was a rebel hiding in a pressed suit. He was also a contemporary of Lenny Bruce, the godfather of modern comedy. Carlin was actually arrested alongside Bruce (who was routinely arrested by cops after his shows on obscenity charges) for not having his ID. The seeds of his professional and personal rebellion against the dominant American culture can be traced from his turning toward Bruce’s method of comedy all the way back to his blanket refusal to follow the dictates of his mother (who George nonetheless loved deeply).
My introduction to Carlin was long after he’d transitioned out of his counter-culture faze (which he assumed toward the tail-end of the 1960s). He was the sunglass-wearing time traveler Rufus in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. During my early teens, my brother and I would raid our mom’s record collection, giving us exposure to the counter-culture George Carlin, the hippie-dippie drug user from his Class Clown album. Only when I was older and began looking into his biography did I realize how much of tectonic shift that was for him. None of the major comics of that era (with exceptions like the late Richard Pryor) were performing at colleges, connecting to younger audiences, or challenging social authority. The comics of the 1970s (often showcased on event shows like the Dean Martin Celebrity Roasts) skewed older, targeting the parents of the Baby Boomers.
I was fortunate my mother collected those records; otherwise, I’d never heard Carlin’s stage material. The routine for The Seven Dirty Words You Can’t Say on Television remains Carlin’s best known bit. Those seven words would land Carlin in jail on obscenity charges and lead to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling (F.C.C. vs. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U.S. 726 ) that reaffirmed the F.C.C.’s ability to amend the Freedom of Speech portion of the First Amendment to the Constitution.
The beauty and poetry of the Seven Words bit aren’t the curse words themselves; instead, those words are the punch line. The best part of the joke is the set-up, where Carlin playfully shows all the myriad ways we refer to dirty words without saying the dirty words. It’s the first time Carlin would examine American hypocrisy but not the last time. Much of the material after Class Clown and AM&FM are forgettable riffs. By that point, the wild lifestyle had taken a toll on Carlin and his family. It wasn’t until the 1980s rolled around that he began to resume his place as one of the great firebrands of comedy as cultural criticism.
Carlin’s battle with drugs and alcohol gave him an open door to discuss the famous cliché that artistic brilliance comes from wacky behavior and illicit substances. During the Aspen interview I referenced earlier, Carlin’s observations on drugs are spot-on. Mind-altering chemicals do, at first, open the doors to creativity. Speaking from personal experience as well, it begins simple enough: all pleasure, very little pain (maybe a hangover, as Carlin put it). Continued use and abuse ends with all pain and very little pleasure. Hearing Carlin speak frankly about his addictions helped me overcome my own dependencies.
By the time I was a kid in the 1980s, Carlin was shaping himself into a fiery social critic and observational comedian. It between rants against the Baby Boomer establishment he’d once catered to in the 70s, Carlin would pull off jokes making fun of everything from driving habits to common sayings that made little sense. Unlike most social comedians (who only focus on one side of the political spectrum), Carlin would give both sides of the aisle both barrels of humorous, acerbic vitriol. Liberals were charged with the continued coddling of American culture whereas conservatives were lambasted as hypocritical chicken-hawks and criminals.
My favorite routines of this era deal with the hypocrisy of American language, particularly euphemisms. To Carlin, euphemistic language obfuscated the truth rather than laying the truth bare for all to see. One particular routine demonstrated how language had been altered during his lifetime. It was a part of his Doin’ It Again special, where he charted the progression of “shell shock” to “post-traumatic stress disorder”. There’s also a wonderful back and forth series of words concerning everything from how “toilet paper” became “bathroom tissue” to the moral evasion of the CIA’s “depopulating” an area. The euphemisms Carlin highlights hide ugly realities that American culture would rather ignore.
As I became an adult, I started questioning the Protestant religion I was raised in. George was there every step of the way, pointing out the absurdities of religious thinking. Carlin was the first atheist I’d ever been exposed to. My mother wasn’t too fond of his anti-god rhetoric but rather than banning it (which would only have increased the mystique), she let me and my brother watch his specials. Carlin’s obvious fascination with language kindled a similar fascination in me, leading me to express my thoughts on paper more and more. Toward the end of his life and career, Carlin no longer considered himself a performer who wrote his own material; rather, he considered himself a writer who performed his own material.
Near the end of his life Carlin’s material took on a decidedly darker tone, entering a more nihilistic arena. Much of the material in his last two shows was heavily focused on social criticism and death. He seemed to revel in a form of extreme gallows humor, viewing the human race as a big joke that’s starting to reach the final, fatal punch line. Carlin’s famous quote on the subject of humanity is that when you’re born of Earth, you get a ticket to the freak show; being born in America nets you a front row sea; and some people get to bring a notebook.
Carlin was a notebook guy, holding up a straight mirror so we could see our collective funhouse reflection. He caught grief from a great number of groups for puncturing bubbles of pomposity and mendacity. Beneath the angry old man was a wounded idealist and a class clown who wanted attention, approbation, and applause. Because of George, I kickstarted my skepticism. Because of George, I wanted to become a storyteller.