23 June 2008

George Carlin RIP - 1937-2008

Those of us engaged in the War on Bullshit have lost our finest general.

I'm normally rather good at obituaries -- one of my first professional writing jobs was an obit (of Graham Chapman), I gave my father and father-in-law damn good sendoffs (if I do say so myself) and I've even won an award for one (Pat Troughton). But I really can't write a death notice for George Carlin. This is kick in the nuts.

I hate hyperbole and the kind of overly-effusive whitewashing people find hard to resist when a death takes them by surprise. Look at Saint Tim Russert for example. I'm not saying he wasn't a great guy, he was -- but why isn't that enough? Doesn't the obvious good job he generally did with his career, private life and family speak for itself? To my way of thinking, the best thing one can do to honour a person who's died is remember them truthfully. Obviously one wants to emphasise the good qualities and downplay the bad, especially at memorial services -- but people should really refrain from pretending the dearly departed was some perfected version of who he or she actually was.

So when I say that George Carlin's influence on me is hard to overstate, I am being as bullshit-free as I know how to be. He was largely responsible for shaping my sense of humour. Reading Sherlock Holmes teaches one to be observant of people; George Carlin showed me how absurd we are.

I can vividly remember buying AM & FM -- one of his first albums -- with my own allowance money at the tender age of 10 in 1972. I had probably seen him on television and liked what I saw; I was too young to catch the start of his career as a more conventional stand-up and only discovered him at the beginning of his "hippie" period. But by the time 1974's Occupation: Foole came out, I was a devoted fan and sure I was going to be a comedian (I did eventually realise that goal, and might well take it up as a job again someday).

I think it's safe to say that he was the first (and one of the very few) celebrities I ever identified with: his first album, I found out later, was "Class Clown" and indeed that was the role I had already carved out for myself in my early school career; Carlin's parallel history gave me the approval I needed to question authority, defy convention and generally spend my school days being disruptive.

I followed his career faithfully, through his drug problems and his booze problems and the multiple heart attacks and the often-surprising career moves (Mr. Conductor?!). Through him I found out about Lenny Bruce and many other people who were either subversively or openly counter-culture. Such brain-training prepared me for a better appreciation of art, music, politics -- anything where there was an established "wisdom" that could be turned on its head.

A few years back I got to do a phone interview with him because he was coming to Orlando to do a concert. I was able to tell him briefly how much his early career had shaped my view of the world, and how much my religious views had evolved to match his. Anyone who has known me for any length of time has heard me quote steal his "Frisbeetarianism" ("when you die, your soul goes up on the roof and you can't get it down") as my religious identification of choice.

Towards the end of his life, Carlin started focusing on different areas of his comedy, doing a little less "skillful wordplay" and "observational humour" (areas of comedy he didn't invent, but refined to an art form) to make room for more attacking the mass cognitive dissonance that is rapidly driving the US (in particular) and the world (in general) mad (not the funny kind of mad, either).

He went after religion and authority and death and every hot-button, squirm-in-your-seat topic he could think of with ever-increasing fury. Instead of gently leading the audience to new places as he used to do, he hurled f-bombs like grenades and insulted your god with a machine-gun-like blaze of invective. He told you flat out: there's no god, there's nothing after death, you're an idiot to listen to the church or the government or advertising. Yet the same thousands of people who went to his concerts and laughed their asses off on Saturday night were sitting in the pews on Sunday swallowing that same nonsense again -- though maybe, just maybe, with a bit more of a wink and a nod and a nudge-nudge than they'd had last Sunday.

Carlin wanted people to wake up and think for themselves, and for the most part he failed his mission. I think he touched a lot more people than just me, but we're just way outnumbered by the mindless conformist pricks who's idea of being a rebel is to buy an overpriced sports car and drive it into a tree at 100mph. The people who can ignore the illegal and immoral war the US is in the same way they can step over a homeless person, but if some gay somewhere wants to get married they want a fucking Constitutional amendment.

In the end, the authorities beat him: George had facts and logic and reason and the ability to be articulate and funny and inspirational. Back in the 60s, that shit would have been enough to get at least some positive and helpful things done. But the Empire figured it out: let people earn just enough money to buy their big-screen TVs and their Starbucks and their XBoxes and their iPods, and they won't cause a fuss -- because they get to the point where they can't bear to lose those things, because "those things" keep them fat and happy. They'll sit down and shut up if you give them enough bread and enough circuses, and then the authorities figured out how to get the church and the state on the same page so there's no more mixed messages. Jesus went into the corporate world and now runs the USA by proxy! Whew! That was close!

Without Carlin, I despair for our chances of ever putting the bullshit genie back in his bottle. The news media will eulogise "that guy who said seven dirty words on television" and bury the rest. He'll be remembered as a funnyman rather than a revolutionary, a comic rather than a commando.

Those who still have the capacity for the dying art of critical reasoning know the real story: the steamrolling tanks of "Obey Without Question" have one less Tiananmen student standing in their way.

And that's no bullshit.

1 comment:

Peter said...

Brilliant, observant and wholly worthy obit for a true legend. And you get extra points for referencing one of his skits with your last sentence.