Tuesday, June 24, 2008


Like Barack Obama, George Carlin is a slate on whom anyone can project whatever they need to be true. In Obama's case, he's secretly a progressive who must pretend to be centrist in order to be elected. In Carlin's case, at least based on what I've read in the past 24 hours, he was really a liberal, or in John Nichols' mind, a radical. Some commenters at a bizarro reactionary site, which I won't name as my in-box gets enough crazy mail, appear to think that Carlin endorsed torture and in his better moments, hated liberals. After nearly 50 years in the business, and covering the vast amount of ground he did, it's no wonder that Carlin was numerous things to countless people.

To my friend Mike Gerber, Carlin was a cynical has-been who, like the aging Rolling Stones, milked his career far past its expiration date.

Now, critical interpretations of comedy are usually impossible to reconcile, simply because humor tends to be subjective. But I must take issue with Mike, who posted his dissent at Jon Schwarz's place, and who has one of the better analytical minds I've encountered in recent years. Yet with Carlin, I believe that Mike totally misses the mark.

"A good rule of thumb is a comedian's impact, lethality, acuity, or what-have-you is roughly inverse to his/her access to the mainstream. (See Pryor, Bruce, Hicks, Mort Sahl)," writes Mike. "Carlin produced a couple of great routines--'Seven Dirty Words' and 'Baseball/Football'--but after 1975, he'd said all he had to say."

Really? I don't think that's true at all. It may be that the type of Carlin comedy that Mike enjoyed ended after 1975, but the man kept pushing past all those earlier, more lovable routines.

There was a stretch where Carlin withdrew from most social commentary, and focused on minutiae like "A Place For My Stuff." And even then he made fun of this turn. As with "SNL," Carlin was the first celebrity host of "Fridays," reuniting with his old partner, Jack Burns, who was the show's head writer and main inspiration. In a short film by Tom Kramer, Carlin mocked himself, making observations about the color of a butane flame, among other pointless bits. (He also appeared as a disc jockey in a sketch about a PLO radio station: "It's ten o'clock. Do you know where your country is?") Far from phoning it in, Carlin explored other areas of comedic interest, while noting that not all of his fans approved. I certainly didn't. To me, it seemed that Carlin had surrendered. Turned out that he was prepping, whether consciously or not, for his next artistic phase (spurred on by Bill Hicks' example, among others). If he truly wanted to play it safe for the money, he would've stuck with the "Stuff" routines, as they appealed to a much wider audience and were commercially friendly. But he didn't.

Mike continues: "For my entire professional life I've found it's easy to 'get large audiences to laugh at some very bleak and unwelcome messages.' They are conditioned to equate cynicism with humor. It's much harder to sell an audience on comic viewpoints that have space for positive characteristics."

Again, I don't know what audiences Mike is referring to here, but in my experience, very small segments of any comedy audience embrace bleak and unwelcome routines. Most people simply want to laugh, and not think about why they are laughing. As Jay Leno discovered long ago, the key to winning over an audience is to make them feel in on the joke, and that rarely happens if a comic lambastes Americans for being greedy, fat, violent dolts who'll believe anything so long as it's wrapped in pretty colors. Indeed, I can't think of any serious comic in the past decade other than Carlin who dared to say such shit. If a 22-year-old, unknown comedian delivered Carlin's later bits verbatim, either in a club or on a late night show, he or she would be booed off the stage. Decent people don't want to be preached to! How dare that young cynic describe Americans that way! Oh man, I can hear it from here.

So how did Carlin get away with it? Familiarity played a large role. Whether or not they agreed with him, many people felt that Carlin earned the right to denounce American stupidity and gluttony. The great comedy writer George Meyer once observed, "If people think you’re coming from a place of smugness or viciousness, it won’t be as funny to them . . . George Carlin gets away with murder in his stand-up, because people sense that he’s honestly hurt that the world isn’t a saner place."

Exactly. Not only that, Carlin served as an acceptable conduit for the darker impulses that, beneath the pretty wrapping, numerous Americans know exist, but wish not to engage. Carlin said what people fear is true, and even then, not all accepted his message. This is why so many people spoke critically of Carlin's "bitter" later years. As reality worsened, Carlin's routines kept pace, and not everyone could or desired to do the same. Far from the hooting, clapping seals that Mike imagines Carlin's audience to have been, there was plenty of ambivalence among those crowds. You could hear the uncertainty in some of their responses. Still, Carlin didn't let them off the hook.

If this is "mainstream" comedy, as Mike suggests, then we're living in a golden, satirical age. But it's not, and the "satire" that Mike believes America is drowning in is largely toothless and ineffectual. Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are sharp guys with smart writing staffs; yet if anyone is cynical, it's those two, winking at the audience, letting them know that it's all a joke, and won't you please consider buying the products that appear between the political put-ons? Your laughter and money are most appreciated.

For all of their "satirical" assaults, Stewart and Colbert believe in the American political system, and push their audiences to participate in it. Carlin was the exact opposite. He trashed not only the system, but the people who keep it alive, which includes all of us. Mike calls this "the comedy of capitulation" which is "precisely observed and exquisitely crafted, and tries to convince the audience that the world sucks, people are assholes, and 'what can you do but laugh...and watch my special on HBO.' Its message is one of helplessness and hopelessness and anger, but most of all passivity -- which is why its so compatible with corporate comedy."

Again, this better describes Stewart and Colbert, and to a degree Bill Maher, than it does Carlin. Far from preaching "passivity," Carlin wanted people to reject the fixed state of American politics, reminding them that under the present conditions, there is no chance for serious change, much less reform, since the owners of the country have the place pretty much locked down. That's not "capitulation": that's recognizing reality. Granted, it's a tough thing to process, as there is no ready blueprint for a Better Tomorrow. That can only come if enough fed-up people unplug from this savage game, and begin to explore alternative ways to express themselves politically. That won't be easy or comfortable. Hell, it may be utterly impossible, given what we're up against, both externally and internally, where fear and insecurity keep so many of us chained to what's known, however awful it is.

George Carlin essentially told us to wake the fuck up and take control of our lives. That he doubted this could be done did not soften his message; it made it more pressing. And now he's gone. Even the most hardened "cynic" should shed a tear for that.