George Carlin kicked the world in the ass
I first met comedian George Carlin at the impressionable age of 13. During our five-minute conversation, which took place backstage in Las Vegas and which I remember as if it happened last week, he asked me all about my family, friends and school, and when I made a joke about one of my teachers, he retraced for me some of his hilarious steps through catholic school which he had made famous on his "Class Clown" record. Kind and sincere, Carlin didn't seem at all put off by the fact that this little kid wouldn't let him leave. He seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say; it was a conversation, not just an autograph moment. We connected. It may have helped that I recited for him a few of his own routines, verbatim, including his famous "hair" poem (I had long hair at the time, too). In the middle of our talk, I just started in:
I'm aware some stare at my hair.
In fact, to be fair,
Some really despair of my hair.
But I don't care,
Cause they're not aware,
Nor are they debonair.
In fact, they're just square.
They see hair down to there,
Say, "Beware" and go off on a tear!
I say, "No fair!"
A head that's bare is really nowhere.
So be like a bear, be fair with your hair!
Show it you care.
Wear it to there.
Or to there.
Or to there, if you dare!
My wife bought some hair at a fair to use as a spare.
Did I care?
Spare hair is fair!
In fact, hair can be rare.
Fred Astaire got no hair,
Nor does a chair,
Nor a chocolate eclair,
And where is the hair on a pear?
Nowhere, mon frere!
So now that I've shared this affair of the hair,
I think I'll repair to my lair and use Nair, do you care?
Carlin was visibly surprised and pleased that I knew his poem by heart. Frankly, I knew it better than anything from my 8th grade English book, which should tell you something about my future as a student. When we parted, Carlin smiled at me warmly, looked me right in the eye and said, "Go kick the world in the ass, Jamie." It's the best advice I ever got during my shaky junior high years or, really, ever. And I still try to live up to it.
I can't say Carlin and I became friends after that brief encounter, but when I became a journalist, first in college and then later, I interviewed him every chance I could and we established a warm rapport. I reminded him each time we chatted of our first meeting behind that stage at the Las Vegas Hilton in the 1970s. He assured me each time that he remembered the meeting with "the long-haired little blonde kid." I'm not sure he really remembered, but I always appreciated him saying he did.
Carlin's public persona, especially as he aged and his material darkened and became increasingly vitriolic, was that of an angry, alienated, solitary man. But I never found him to be any of those things. He wore the weight of the world's bullshit on his shoulders, yes, and was disgusted with the hypocrisies, absurdities and cruelties of life. But there was a kindness within him that some of his fans may have been unable or unwilling to see. And by the way, his anger was entirely justified. He was mad as hell but for all the right reasons. If pure anger is ever righteous, his was.
There was simply no filter for George Carlin, in or out. When he saw someone acting like an asshole, there was no internal machinery that prevented him from just saying, out loud, "You're an asshole." He was out there, to be sure, perpetually dangling on some of society's thinnest limbs as he railed against religion, big business, feminists, golfers, politicians, environmentalists, animal lovers, kids, grandparents, clergy, celebrities, political correctness, America and so much more. He exposed all the world's countless delusions in his inimitably smart yet hilarious way. Sizing up virtually everyone and everything in the insane asylum that is our popular culture, he was an equal opportunity blaster who did not belong to any clubs or tribes. He even railed against people who rail against people.
Carlin bemoaned the misery and meanness of the world, but within his own little universe he was actually a relatively happy and sweet man, a loving husband and father who for the most part had his shit together. He did not hate for hate's sake. He wasn't just about ranting and rage. He was equally fascinated with and bemused by life's banalities as he was the big-ticket stuff. His love for the curious and confounding minutiae of our language, for example, and his propensity for pure goofiness and silliness all demonstrated a slightly twisted but enduring sort of joi de vivre that I suspect kept him from going totally bonkers as he explored the darkest corners of the human condition.
In one-on-one conversations, Carlin was neither pissed off nor mean-spirited. He was gracious, engaging, even hopeful. And that sets him apart from so many of the comedians and social critics living and dead with whom he is so often compared. So many other comics who are filled with that fire from to Lenny Bruce to Sam Kinison to Carlos Mencia have had a difficult time turning off the stove when they step off stage and generally don't have that inner joy. Carlin, one-on-one, was in many ways the opposite of the man he was under the lights. That's what everyone who knew him better than I say, too.
Carlin wasn't a pushover by any means, but he was kinder and gentler when he spoke with folks on an individual basis. This sounds paradoxical, but it isn't. "I love people," Carlin once said. "I hate groups. People are smart, groups are stupid."
There's the rub. Even in his angriest, most pessimistic moments George still held some hope for the individual. He rightly felt that people, individually, hold great promise, but that when they get together in groups of two, or 2 million, well, that's when the shit starts hitting the fan.
Unlike many of my other childhood heroes, including professional athletes who more often than not disappoint when you meet them in person, Carlin's status never diminished. He is one of my only true lifelong heroes besides my father. And the news of his death hit me hard. It was like losing a relative. The world just suddenly feels like a slightly lesser place, a place where fools, fakes, hypocrites and jerks are a little freer to celebrate and be their stupid selves. They are celebrating his demise.
How perfectly fitting that one church group in Kansas is insisting that the world is better off without Carlin. The Westboro Baptist Church the buffoons best known for demonstrating at funerals of American soldiers with their "God Hates Fags" signs said in a press release sent out last week that "George Carlin is in Hell. Deal with it. You will soon join him. America is Doomed. We will picket George Carlin's funeral. Amen."
The group, which is almost too over-the-top ridiculous to even acknowledge let alone criticize, calls Carlin a "filthy blasphemer, obscene potty-mouth skeptic, agnostic, and profane atheist'" who "made lots of money making fun of God." All true. The church is perfect fodder for a Carlin comedy monologue. If only he were still here to write and perform it.
There've been very few people in modern society not just in the comedy world, but society at large with Carlin's courage, integrity and willingness to dissect bullshit at every turn. But more than all that, he was just so funny. As subjective as comedy is, it is nonetheless very safe to say that he was the funniest stand-up comedian of all time. Even Richard Pryor would defer, I'm sure.
In their well-meaning tributes to Carlin since his death, journalists have focused understandably on his subversive side, his battles with censors and his infamous seven words you can't say on television routine. (For the uninitiated among you, they are shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cock sucker, mother fucker and tits.) These are legit issues to ponder, of course, but what most writers are missing is that Carlin was not just a man obsessed with crossing societal boundaries. He had the mischievous but giddy soul of a child.
It was revealing that Carlin, who never stopped laughing at the idea of farting in church, would do such sweet, intimate things as share a swallow with his audience. He'd stick the microphone up against his throat and let the audience in on something so personal and seemingly innocuous and inane as the sound of a swallow. There was, along with all the fury, pure childlike joy in Carlin's soul that seemed to belie his sometimes ferocious takes. The duality of George is the duality of us all he just took it to both extremes whereas most of us stay a little closer to the center.
Talk all you want about Carlin's brave, edgy material, but the ultimate litmus test for any comedian is of course much simpler. Did he make you laugh? Well, no one ever made me laugh harder, and unbelievably he made me laugh consistently for more than 40 years, with smart, funny and new routines every year.
Carlin also loved his fellow comedians. He truly appreciated and respected his peers. Every time I interviewed him, we'd talk about other comics. His sad death created a comedy void that will never be filled, but there are other stand-ups out there who are doing their best to carry on his tradition. Is there anyone as adept at combining biting social commentary with truly funny and unique personal observations being cynical and silly at the same time? No. But there are comics who were influenced and inspired by Carlin who will carry on his tradition and who undoubtedly feel an extra bit of pressure now to keep at it.
The most obvious heir at present is Lewis Black, whose righteous anger and advanced bullshit radar capabilities are nods to Carlin and who, like George, sometimes betrays a bemused smile and caring heart beneath the hostility. Black's angry man schtick works. But Carlin was funnier. There's also Jon Stewart, who share's Carlin's cynicism, intelligence and bullshit detection capabilities. Funny, clever and trenchant, and, like Carlin, likable, Stewart is a worthy heir. But Carlin was funnier.
Others capable of carrying on Carlin's tradition include Bill Maher, who's smart, and often funny, but more affected and takes himself a little more seriously than Carlin ever did and who can be off-puttingly snide and pretentious. There's Steven Wright, whose deadpan, bizarro observations are funny and inventive but not necessarily topical or as consistent. There's Chris Rock, a gifted, natural comic who combines justified anger with general observations about life and adulthood but doesn't quite reach Carlin's level of insight. And there's David Cross, whose irreverent, cynical, sometimes near-genius stream of consciousness routines are funny and on the edge but who is simply not as personable as George.
Carlin was the most subversive and controversial comic we had, but throughout his career he retained a populist likeability that disarmed even his most scathing routines. There was no pretense in George, no arrogance. Just honesty. And even when you combine the talents of all these comics mentioned above, they do not equal the talent of one George Carlin. There'll never be another comedian, or person, like him. We've lost an American icon who transcended the comedy world. He was in fact our most trusted and reliable social critic. That short but meaningful conversation I had with him when I was 13 is indelibly etched into my brain. It is one of the treasured moments of my life. I'll miss George Carlin greatly. He kicked the world in the ass.
Published July 2008