Monday, June 23, 2008

George Carlin Dead at 71

I'm at the age where all my childhood influences are beginning to die off. I hate to sound morbid, but after losing Kurt Vonnegut and Matt Helm author Donald Hamilton last year, I'm bracing myself for the days when the cast of Star Trek and Mission: Impossible start dropping off (Leonard Nimoy will count for both shows, and Martin Landau will count for M:I and Space: 1999, two best uses of the colon ever). Anyway, hearing about George Carlin's death this morning on the radio gave me that same twinge in my gut whenever I hear of the passing of someone who meant a lot to me. I felt it just last week when I learned that my Aunt Mildred died. She was 95 and went peacefully, so it was not a heart-wrenching experience, but I still flashed on all those happy Christmas evenings we spent at her house after the orgy of present opening and food gorging was over. I still stuffed my face with her delicious Chex Mix, which was way better than anything found in a box.

George Carlin seemed to be on every variety and talk show around back in the late 60s and early 70s. He appeared to me as this hip hybrid of old-style stand-up comic and hippie. He had long hair and a beard, but also wore a suit and performed tightly constructed comedy bits. In the summer of '72, my brother brought home his comedy album FM & AM, and I could see a transition taking place. He appeared on the cover in a funky knit shirt, blue jeans, and boots, looking every bit like the hippies I saw downtown. The content on the album was a 50/50 split between straight, five-minute routines and more observational humor sprinkled with four-letter-words. Fortunately, my parents were open-minded enough to allow me to hear this material at 7 years old because I think it gave me an insight at a young age into the hypocrisy and complexity of the world I would soon be an adult in.

I had an easier time understanding bits like the Hippie-Dippie Weatherman than the material about sex in commercials or the birth control pill, but it felt like an education. I was too young to appreciate the humor, but I felt like I was being introduced to a world I hadn't yet experienced. I even tried to educate my friends by reciting these routines verbatim; a practice that got my friends and me in hot water with some of the parents in the neighborhood.

Not much later, my brother brought home Class Clown, and it was obvious that George Carlin's transition away from traditional stand-up was complete. Instead of creating abstract premises with improbable characters, he was talking purely about himself, exploring every detail from his Irish-Catholic background to making swallowing sounds into the microphone. Of course, this album also contained the Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television, which caused such a furor and got Carlin arrested because he performed the bit in front of an audience that included children. I thought this was hilarious at the time because I was listening to this material with my family and I was not horribly warped by the experience. In fact, Carlin never seemed dirty to me. The dirty jokes my friends told at school seemed far worse because those jokes only existed for the sheer shock value of saying something sexual or scatological. Carlin's routines used four-letter words to shed some light on our own human condition and how up-tight we are about ourselves as a species.

Someone said this morning that Carlin was a "gateway" comedian for him, and I have to agree with that. Carlin certainly changed the way many comedians crafted their acts, and he in turn opened people up to seeking out comedians that had more to offer than lame jokes about "these kids today" and impersonations of James Cagney ordering at the McDonald's. My brother and father starting bringing home albums by Redd Foxx, Cheech & Chong, and Richard Pryor. The Pryor albums were so rough, my Mom had to draw the line at allowing them to be played in the house. My Dad would buy them on 8-track tape, and we would listen to them in his Mazda RX-3. Huddling in that car during a cold, winter night laughing our heads off at Richard Pryor is one of my fondest memories. Yes, the language was harsh, but the language was not the joke. The language simply amplified the power of the joke, which often dealt with racism or relationships or politics. It was real and human and dead on.

By the time Carlin released Toledo Window Box, my interest in his comedy began to wane. He would later admit that drug abuse was beginning to control his life at this point, and I think it shows on this album. It's less focused and feels like he's treading over ground he touched on before. In fact, I didn't pay much attention to George Carlin until the 90s when he seemed to re-invent himself once again. Moving past the observational humor that had become passe by that point, he became almost an other-worldly person who commented on the oddities of our world from arm's length. The commentary was even more biting because he had given up on trying to appeal to a particular audience or align himself with a political position. He just blasted from all angles with no concern about how he was perceived. It was truly ballsy material performed at a time in his life when he could have coasted on his old routines. Always pushing the boundaries right to the end.

If any younger folks wonder why us middle-aged cranks think people like Adam Sandler or Dane Cook are lame, they should give a listen to the old material of Carlin or Pryor. When you're lucky enough to grow up listening to geniuses like that, you get spoiled.

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