Monday, June 23, 2008

Sympathetic Contempt

Another angry prophet is gone. Perhaps the last one, as far as my generation goes, anyway. Not that I'm as old as George Carlin -- don't rush me. But when I became comedically aware in my early teens, Carlin was laying it down, sporting long hair, beard, t-shirt and jeans, spreading the word in straight venues like "The Mike Douglas Show," seemingly relaxed yet deadly and precise. Carlin was a master of language and form. In my view, only Richard Pryor reached the same comedic heights. Lenny Bruce showed the way; Mort Sahl, while smart, was too reserved; Bill Hicks, as Barry Crimmins -- a first-rate satirist himself -- keeps reminding me, was just turning the same corner as Carlin and Pryor before cancer killed him. Chris Rock flirts with the vibe, but is too enmeshed in corporate showbiz to fully explore it. Maybe in time, whatever time's left.

I once publicly embarrassed myself while defending Carlin. Marty Ingels, dying for some kind of exposure, decided to wage a press release jihad on Carlin's comedy, saying that it was too dark, too obscene, and wasn't family friendly. When the producer of a radio talk show in New York couldn't convince Carlin to engage Ingels, he asked me to do the honors, which I did rather aggressively. I ripped into Ingels, called him a washed-up comic who couldn't tie Carlin's shoes, and said that as far as I was concerned, Carlin was only warming up, that he would probably plunge deeper into the madness. Ingels flipped out, called me a miserable asshole, hung up, and then was coaxed back on where he and I traded jibes for the better part of an hour. It was a waste of time, and in a sense dishonored Carlin's genius. When Page Six of the New York Post mentioned our sparring, I felt even more ridiculous.

Still, it came from a good place. My respect for Carlin never wavered, and he's the only comic I've ever seen who could tell Americans how full of shit we are without joking it up. By the end, he simply expressed the truth, no frills attached. As Carlin himself put it:

"Don't confuse me with those who cling to hope. I enjoy describing things the way they are, I have no interest in how they 'ought to be.' And I certainly have no interest in fixing them. I sincerely believe that if you think there's a solution, you're part of the problem. My motto: Fuck Hope!

"I am a personal optimist but a skeptic about all else. What may sound to some like anger is really nothing more than sympathetic contempt. I view my species with a combination of wonder and pity, and I root for its destruction. And please don't confuse my point of view with cynicism; the real cynics are the ones who tell you everything's gonna be all right."

I can think of no better mindset for the Summer of Obama. You were one of the true greats, George. Farewell.

MUG SHOT: The above is from 1972, after Carlin was arrested in Milwaukee for obscenity. Back when certain "class clowns" were taken very seriously.