The big world of George Carlin

I heard a voice crying in the wilderness. It was fearsome stuff, and it was the truth. And I laughed and laughed.

“But there’s a reason. There’s a reason. There’s a reason for this, there’s a reason education sucks, and it’s the same reason it will never, ever, EVER be fixed. It’s never going to get any better, don’t look for it, be happy with what you’ve got.

Because the owners, the owners of this country don’t want that. I’m talking about the real owners now, the BIG owners! The wealthy… the REAL owners! The big wealthy business interests that control things and make all the important decisions.

Forget the politicians. They’re irrelevant. The politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice. You don’t. You have no choice! You have OWNERS! They OWN YOU. They own everything. They own all the important land. They own and control the corporations. They’ve long since bought, and paid for the Senate, the Congress, the state houses, the city halls, they got the judges in their back pockets and they own all the big media companies, so they control just about all of the news and information you get to hear. They got you by the balls…

It’s called the American Dream,because you have to be asleep to believe it”.

And still some people prefer to dream. 

I know nothing about comedy. I read Aristophanes and used to think Groucho Marx was funny, but a look at Comedy Central’s list of the 100 greatest standup comedians leaves me with almost 100 unfamiliar names. I recognise Lenny Bruce, Billy Connolly and Dave Allen, but Connolly is the only one I’ve actually seen. So when I discovered George Carlin I had the fairest perspective of all: ignorance. Now I’ve got to appreciate these four names, and I’ll go on to explore the others.

As I see it, there are the great humorists and satirists from the past: Aristophanes, Plautus, Juvenal, Petronius. But these wrote in Greek and Latin and are (unfairly) the concern of scholars and old school college graduates (the ones who’ve been phased out now). Next most recent comedians with a worldwide effect include Chaplin, Marceau and the Marx Brothers. Then, although not a satirist or comedian (though his works contain a lot of humour) came Bob Dylan, who showed that political comment and personal obsessions could reach a mass market. His example cross fertilised with that of Lenny Bruce, who retailed unpleasant truths with a stunning command of language and a humorous bite, and that of Dave Allen, an Irish comedian whose brilliant humour bought obscene language, sexual frankness and political comment into the living room through over 30 years of TV transmission, perhaps the most extraordinary achievement of them all, and Peter Cook, another seminal British comedian. These influenced in turn people like Pryor, Carlin and Hicks, who in turned influenced another generation. Most of these developments happened first in the 60s, and people have been riffing on it ever since. Those who know more could add more names.

George Carlin fits an unusual niche. His format is literary performance art, and his matter came to be some of the most penetrating satire of the last 100 years. There’s a major difference between early and late George Carlin shows. In 2008 there’s a white headed elderly man dressed all in black pointing out to his audience what sheep they are to give away their rights and responsibilities in favour of what makes them feel more comfortable. From the mid sixties on to his first HBO Special in 1977 Carlin is an adroit mime with an astonishing command of the English language able to point out some almost imperceptible absurdities in human behaviour and language and show them to his audience. Some fans state they prefer the early, funny, Carlin. Others like the astringent satire of the later skits, while, occasionally someone will ask, what’s so funny about a grumpy old man complaining about what he doesn’t like.

Carlin did reinvent himself. He moved from being a comedian to being a satirist. And sometimes he sounds like an Old Testament prophet to me. That must be confusing to some people, because he could always make his audience laugh. Right from the first Special in 1977 Carlin shows a mastery of presentation that he never lost. The ability to stand up in front of an audience of thousands and pace the show, to run the skits into one another with seamless transitions, to respond expertly to the audience, has rarely been done better by any performer. Carlin talked for over an hour in these shows and kept his audience’s attention throughout, in every show he did. What is even more remarkable is that his material was so original. He presented his own reactions to excessive and dangerous behaviour, and broke many taboos in doing so. And, as Louis C.K. pointed out in a New York Library tribute to Carlin after his death, it was a show that took enormous courage to give Try it!

There are many predecessors who influenced Carlin. He cites the Three Stooges and Lenny Bruce. But Carlin was first and foremost a writer. He wrote his own material, and he was the author of three best selling books, with combined sales of over two million copies. Comedians require little explanation: they either make you laugh or they don’t. Perhaps it would be illuminating to look at a couple of satirical writers just to see from what viewpoint they are operating, what conventions they are following. This is the side of Carlin that seems to throw some people who are expecting mere light amusement.

Satire is largely a moral exercise designed to change a wrong, but because wrong doing is more interesting than right doing, it can be very entertaining.

The greatest of all satirists is the Roman Juvenal. He lived and wrote in the late first century, about 80-130 AD. Surprisingly enough ancient Rome had a version of stand up comedy, rhetoricians who harangued the crowd in the forums and tried to raise a laugh by ridiculing the current excesses. The speakers had to be loud and exaggerated to pull in an audience, and Juvenal may have been one such. His theme: no bullshit! Juvenal castigates pretension and affectation, in language that exhibits superb technical skill, broad range of vocabulary, is libelous, profane and occasionally obscene. Considered one of the very greatest Roman poets, Juvenal energetically and vituperatively taunts the passive crowd bought off with bread and circuses to tolerate the excesses of the worst emperors in Rome’s history. He asks that unsettling question: who is supervising the ones who are supervising us? His underlying stance is moral, the inculcation of a sound mind in a healthy body, but the depiction of Roman excess is far too entertaining for that cause to be present in the readers’ minds. Juvenal may have been a Stoic, but it’s the zest of his ridicule you remember. Some of his work is still censored today by those it makes uncomfortable. Carlin professed to have given up on his society. It’s too late, was his message, he just wanted to enjoy the spectacle of a rich and gifted society on self destruct trajectory. Bob Dylan was just an entertainer so he said, just a song and dance man. But all these peoples’ work is really a sign of hope. There is more on Juvenal here:

At the close of the 19th century the popular humorist Mark Twain accepted a number of lecturing engagements throughout America and Europe, and his performances at these events are the first recorded examples of modern stand up comedy. At the same time Twain was becoming a free thinker and a radical critic of American society and religion. In fact some of his views had to be censored in his lifetime, only surfacing posthumously. Twain was a performer who successfully reached a wider audience by becoming a writer, and an entertaining humorist whose humor became darker and more bitter as he aged.

“In religion and politics, people’s beliefs and convictions are in almost every case gotten at second hand, and without examination”.

“Of all the animals, man is the only one that is cruel. He is the only one that inflicts pain for the pleasure of doing it”.

“It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them”.

These quotations are just a few that seem to me to show that Mark Twain must have had a strong influence on George Carlin. They prefigure some of Carlin’s own material. Or perhaps what’s funny and absurd when you’re growing up appears tragic when you’re older.

The comedian who seemed to most influence Carlin was Lenny Bruce. Lenny Bruce moved from stand up comedy, at which he was very good, to a kind of acerbic, nervous self cannibalism. The thing that strikes anyone who watches one of his performances is the honesty of it. Perhaps honesty is not the right word. More the verisimilitude of it. Lenny Bruce went far beyond entertainment in his performances, he spoke the truth, often to people who were more comfortable with lies. Courageous. Perhaps that was the reason why he died.

By contrast, there’s Billy Connolly, a working class hero with low tolerance for bullshit whose humour is personal, not critical of society, anecdotal, sometimes about the very act of putting on a show, yet whose targets are often the same as Carlin’s. A notable difference is that Connolly is good humoured most of the times, and laughs at his own jokes. He gets angry with hypocrisy and obfuscation, but rarely aims at more comprehensive targets, let alone his audience. It’s interesting to see Connolly (b. 1942), Dave Allen (1936-2005) and Carlin (1937-2008) taking on the same target, such as airline safety misuse of language (Allen and Carlin) or the disconcerting behaviour of hair on an aging body (Connelly and Allen) to gain a perception of each comedian’s technique and emphasis.

No mention of comedians can fail to suggest the extent influential performers are absorbed by their younger peers. Humour is contemporary (try to follow some of Roy Rene’s material), but often you can see the work of older comedians shaping the subject chosen or its presentation. This is why I think of Juvenal, Twain and Bruce when I watch Carlin. As for the word play, I know of no precedent. Maybe Shakespeare. Public Enemy or 2Pac? Carlin is unique among comedians for his literary gifts. Others may be good actors, good mimes, good performers, as Carlin was. Few are as good writers, as acute observers, as precise depictors of foolishness or dishonesty or excess as he was. I see him as being as important a writer as Mark Twain, but as basically a performer whose material has to be watched to be appreciated.

The HBO Specials
After eight top selling CDs (three gold) and many, many live shows and TV appearances, comedian George Carlin took the logical next step and moved to a starring role on television in 1977, for the first of what would be 13 HBO Special one man shows before a live audience and a retrospective called 40 Years of Comedy. Carlin had an enthusiastic following. Comedy Central voted him the number two spot on its list of greatest American stand up comedians (after Richard Pryor, but the trouble with Richard Pryor is that unless you’re American you can’t understand what he says. I don’t get a single word). Carlin won five Grammy awards and was nominated for a further 12, was nominated for five Emmy awards, and was awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humour posthumously.

****1977 On Location: University of Southern California (USC) 85m.
After a cautionary introduction to excuse Carlin’s bad language (the set ends with the almost proscribed Seven Dirty Words piece) the audience give Carlin a welcoming stand up ovation. He reprises some of the pieces from his comedy albums. It’s decent enough, but I found it palls after two or three viewings, pieces such as: Monopoly; In the supermarket; Walking (with a good mime presentation); Dogs and cats; Children; and Rules. The set ends with two of Carlin’s best pieces: Airline language ****; and the Seven words (+ three) sketch *****. The point of these last two is Carlin’s obsession with associating words with their meanings, and not letting them take on a conventional life of their own, one we scarcely listen to. Carlin loved words, one reason he is both a great writer as well as a great performer.

*****1978 Again!: Celebrity Theatre Phoenix Arizona 81m.
The show starts off with one of Carlin’s ‘I wonder’ lists of “goofy shit” (what happens to the rest of the frog when frogs’ legs are served in a restaurant and so on). Inventive, unexpected observations designed to make the audience think outside the circle of their ordinary presumptions. **** It’s followed by a brilliant observation of the inexact way we treat time in practice even though measuring it with extreme precision. Carlin mines the language for phrase after vague phrase and tries to tie an exact meaning to each one and ends up being rather profound ***** This routine is followed by his absurd News routine, then he reprises his character Al Sleet, the hippy dippy weatherman.**** Next he has some interesting thoughts on Death and dying,**** and finished off with the famous 7 Dirty words routine.***** The set ends with Carlin calling his wife Brenda on stage for an acknowledgment (and a kiss: the couple married in 1961, and Brenda died of cancer in 1997).

***1982 Carlin at Carnegie: Carnegie Hall New York 60m.
Carlin starts this set by confiding he’d had a heart attack, his second. He seems to be performing without his usual relish. The pieces are mostly old routines from his CDs: Rice Krispies; Have a nice day; In the refrigerator; Fussy eater; The news; Dogs and cats; and Dirty words. The last two are extensions of previous performances, and seem to me to go on too long. Some great moments, but still minor Carlin.

***1984 Carlin on Campus: UCLA Los Angeles 60m.
A place for my stuff****; flamethrowers; cars and driving; animated news; baseball and football. Some classic pieces, but somehow a curiously constrained show. Shots of the audience in helpless laughter and applauding show that they got it at the time, but I found it a bit dull.

****1986 Playin’ with Your Head: Beverly Theater, Beverly Hills, California 60m.
Carlin is in full force at this show, flawlessly interacting with the audience and presenting some of his best work: Hello/Goodbye****; Battered plants***; Moment of silence****; Losing stuff*****; Wearing an earring***; and Sports. His targets are the oddities of human behaviour, and his observation is exact and insightful. Human beings: you gotta laugh. “Stuff we all know but just forgot to laugh at the first time”.

***1988 What Am I Doing in New Jersey: Park Theatre Union City New Jersey 60m.
People I can do without; the Reagan criminals***; the FCC and censorship; right to life***; bulimia; American double standard; civil war***; cars and driving. The first Carlin rant on politics, the first Carlin rage and frustration tirade, the call “Well, fuck you!” for an easy audience response. The audience here is dual, a raucous one supposedly at Mannys, standing room only, that sounds like a lynch mob, and a rather sedate hall audience who look as if waiting for something to happen. This is not comedy but tirade, and too unfocused to be satirical. (The previous year a large number of Reagan’s administrators had been indicted for human rights abuses in Nicaragua; but the year after the concert Reagan ended the Cold War. Hey, is he a goodie or a baddie?) Carlin started to mine his own opinions for material in this presentation, not always successfully.

*****1990 Doin’ It Again: The State Theater in New Brunswick, New Jersey 60m.
Carlin is at the top of his form in this show, totally in command of both material and audience, one of the best presenters you’ll ever see, displaying a caged tiger energy that focuses your attention on what he says. Most pieces are on language, something Carlin was concerned about all his career. But here he goes far beyond wordplay and examines why we use indirect language, and charts the damage that misuse does. FCC and its concern with bad language, and the language Carlin won’t use – a devastating attack on buzz words****; embarrassing moments***; dogs; stupid people; rape, and how humour works by exaggeration with any subject, Carlin won’t accept a forbidden subject for humour***; people who try and control language and the loss of freedom that involves, PC fascists***; organ donors; and in a final and brilliant section, words and euphuisms and fear of reality, a piece where Carlin is really profound and insightful *****. A great entertainer and a really wise man.

*****1992 Jammin’ in New York: Paramount Theater Madison Square Garden New York 60m.
Carlin has moved entirely into satirical territory now: the thing about satire is it doesn’t need to be funny. From now on Carlin is only intermittently funny, he’s concerned with rubbing our noses into what’s wrong with our society. Isaiah didn’t try to raise a laugh either. The show is expertly paced, dynamically presented by a great performer, hilariously funny, and so profound in what it says you hardly notice the humour. Every piece is worth watching again. Rockets and Penises in the Persian Gulf****; Little Things We Share****; Airline Announcements****; Not in My Backyard*****; Golf Courses for the Homeless*****; The Water Sucks*****; The Planet is Fine (the People are Screwed) *****. This is Carlin’s finest hour.

*****1996 Back in Town: Beacon Theatre Broadway Manhattan New York 60m.
Devastating criticism of society combined with razor sharp intuition of why things are the way they are, George Carlin continued to prove he’s one of the most perceptive men on the planet in this special. Presented with furious energy, this is humour at its most subversive. You laugh, then find yourself thinking about what he says for days afterwards. Right to life *****; Balancing the budget*****; Fart joke****; Funny phrases****; Pet hates***; I don’t vote*****. If it’s bullshit, George notices and makes you laugh. Then he makes you think. A lot of people don’t like that.

****1999 You Are All Diseased: Beacon Theatre Broadway Manhattan New York 65m.
This is a much simpler show than many previous ones. Carlin just rants for an hour on some of the things he doesn’t like: airport security; obsession with germs; belief in angels; cleanliness; whites singing the blues; advertising; and then he finishes with one of his most devastating and perceptive pieces, There is no god *****. This is Carlin aiming at easy targets. But it’s full of energy, intelligence, perception and outrage. Like the man himself. Carlin was 61, he’d recently lost his wife Brenda to cancer, and it doesn’t take much insight to see under the anger and outrage he expresses what a caring man he was. If one man can rail like this there’s hope for us all.

***2001 Complaints and Grievances: Beacon Theatre Broadway Manhattan New York 55m.
Impressive performance, flat material. Most of the pieces seemed to be about things Carlin didn’t like. Oh, so he doesn’t like names like Todd? Carlin throws in a fart joke and one of his driving pieces, but not much raised a smile, mainly because I didn’t empathise with most of what he was talking about. Except the last piece, the Two commandments *****.

****2005 Life is Worth Losing: Beacon Theatre Broadway Manhattan New York 75m.
There’s a saying that goes: life is too tragic to be taken seriously. Here’s an exceptionally intelligent man using his awesome skill with the English language to create a kind of manic poetry giving variations on this theme. Beginning with a great rap on cyperspeak*****; followed by reflections on suicide and obesity and extreme human behaviour, a devastating analysis of the American Dream*****, and finishing with an astonishing poem on Armageddon*****. This concert leaves both standup and satire behind, and takes a new direction, it’s a rap by a great master of English prose. No laughs, just genius.

****2008 It’s Bad for Ya: Arts Center, Santa Rosa California 70m.
Carlin talks about growing old****; what happens when people die****; self esteem movement***; raising children***; rights**** A minor point: Carlin died less than four months after this show was made, after a 30 year history of heart trouble, and would have been conscious his own death was drawing near – yet he has the courage to face facts and make a joke about it, and I think that courage is something very close to the centre of his art.

Back in the 70s Carlin noticed the funny things people did, and particularly the way they disguised things by misusing languages, and began pointing these oddities out to his audiences. He seems to have begun asking the reason for this behaviour in the late 80s, when he entered the territory of satire.

The society he examined was American, yet the problems he saw there are everywhere. Polarisation of wealth. And inappropriate responses to the consequent wrongs by politicians, conservative groups and the ordinary man in the street. Reactions like an aggressive foreign policy to protect oil markets; discriminatory behaviour (on the part of groups that called themselves ‘Christians’ ironically enough); compulsive consumerism, hypochondria, obsession with gadgets, RPG and TV. It’s happened before. The situation is reminiscent of France in 1789. No matter how you arrange the deck chairs the Titanic is still going to sink.

Carlin accurately skewered some of these inappropriate responses, probably with the intention of enlightening his audience. The bigger dick foreign policy might sound ridiculous, but it does explain the Bush phenomenon. Turning golf courses into housing for the houseless might sound utopian, but is does explain the reason for their plight. The wrathful god whom people placate with donations to churches is comical, but is unfortunately just what many people do rather than live a life of spiritual values. Carlin spoke for a repressed, “have a nice day” society. He was the licensed jester who said all the things other people couldn’t say but wanted to, and that was the source of his popularity.

Some people resist what Carlin has to say. They say he’s crude, obscene, uses filthy language. Although not an explanation (Carlin’s critics don’t want him explained) such people need to remember that Carlin is a performer. That all performers create a persona, a person who is a little larger than life, a little more exaggerated in characteristics, as a way of projecting their material to the audience. Watch Carlin on stage. The black clothes, the gravelly voice, the constant movement, the anger. He’s not like that in interviews. It’s part of his act. He’s an actor. And what he does on stage was done before him by a great line of talented performers and writers: Aristophanes, Petronius, Molière, Kempe, Armin, Chaplin, Marceau, Lenny Bruce…Strangely enough, all these are doing exactly what a preacher does in the pulpit. But they’re not telling you what’s wrong, they’re showing you. First they use crudity and exaggeration to shock you out of your complacency. Then you laugh. Then you acquire a perspective you never had before, at least consciously. It might not be much, but you’ve shifted a bit, your attitude has changed a little. Not many people can have this effect. Carlin was one of them.

George Carlin was a major artist who made a great contribution to 21st century culture, and for an amazing 40 years was one of the most popular comedians in America, selling out concerts across the country and placing albums in the top 40 charts, a career achievement that must be second in length only to that of Groucho Marx. The point of Carlin’s work is that it does offer highly intelligent commentary on his society from which we can all learn to cope in a more adequate fashion with the complexities we face in life. Carlin at the very least reminds us that one of the greatest resources we possess is laughter.

George Carlin saw things around us we weren’t able to and had the genius to bring them to life for us in all their alarming absurdity. Move over, Juvenal, Mark Twain, Lenny Bruce, Carlin’s come to join you. When it comes to mixing wordplay, mime, comedy, bitter satire and rap there’s absolutely nobody to compare him to.

But he was irreplaceable. It amazes me to see people quote his piece on seven words you can’t say on television and preface it with a warning: “bad language!” His point is, language isn’t bad. It’s neutral. There are bad meanings. There are bad people. But language isn’t bad. For god’s sake, come back and tell us again.

Some people actually think this piece is anti religious. Simple minded. It’s anti stupidity (the stupid won’t get it). And it’s a sign of hope (that someone will listen).

“When it comes to bullshit, big-time, major league bullshit, you have to stand in awe of the all-time champion of false promises and exaggerated claims, religion. No contest. No contest. Religion. Religion easily has the greatest bullshit story ever told. Think about it. Religion has actually convinced people that there’s an invisible man living in the sky who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of ten things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these ten things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever ’til the end of time! 

But He loves you. 

He loves you, and He needs money! He always needs money! He’s all-powerful, all-perfect, all-knowing, and all-wise, somehow just can’t handle money! Religion takes in billions of dollars, they pay no taxes, and they always need a little more. Now, you talk about a good bullshit story. Holy Shit!”

©2012 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.


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