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• • •
"Mike and Jon, Jon and Mike—I've known them both for years, and, clearly, one of them is very funny. As for the other: truly one of the great hangers-on of our time."—Steve Bodow, head writer, The Daily Show

"Who can really judge what's funny? If humor is a subjective medium, then can there be something that is really and truly hilarious? Me. This book."—Daniel Handler, author, Adverbs, and personal representative of Lemony Snicket

"The good news: I thought Our Kampf was consistently hilarious. The bad news: I’m the guy who wrote Monkeybone."—Sam Hamm, screenwriter, Batman, Batman Returns, and Homecoming

June 23, 2008

George Carlin, Natural Friend Of Human Rights And Human Liberties

(If you haven't already, be sure to read Bernard's long piece, with pictures, about his recent trip to the West Bank, as well as his thoughts on a two state solution.)

This is Mark Twain, talking about Carlin-types in 1888:

[Comedy] is a useful trade, a worthy calling; that with all its lightness and frivolity it has one serious purpose, one aim, one specialty, and it is constant to it—the deriding of shams, the exposure of pretentious falsities, the laughing of stupid superstitions out of existence; and that whoso is by instinct engaged in this sort of warfare is the natural enemy of royalties, nobilities, privileges and all kindred swindles, and the natural friend of human rights and human liberties.

Here's Carlin fifteen years ago, talking about the first Gulf War:

—Jonathan Schwarz

Posted at June 23, 2008 12:20 PM

The intro (or forward, whatever) to his book "Brain Droppings" was truly inspirational. The man was an artist.

Posted by: albany layman at June 23, 2008 01:24 PM

he was a genius. but how come when i say what he says, people dont laugh?? they just think im nuts?

Posted by: josh at June 23, 2008 05:00 PM

they just think im nuts?
Posted by josh at June 23, 2008 05:00 PM

everything resolves into timing and staging, brotha...

Posted by: woody, tokin librul at June 23, 2008 06:52 PM

Speaking of the First Gulf War. EVER WONDER who finally ended up with the KUAITI OIL FIELD LEASES? The oil fields that Saddam burned. (I'm guessing Poppy Bush)

Posted by: Mike Meyer at June 23, 2008 06:56 PM

Once again, someone has traveled back in time to STEAL JONATHON'S WORDS. It is all the more impressive that Carlin managed to do this while BEING DEAD.


Posted by: jr at June 23, 2008 08:28 PM

I was struck by the howls from the crowd when Carlin talks about "Us" fucking people. "That's our job! That's what we're good at!" and the energy level of the crowd goes through the roof. His other observations draw good applause, but at least to my ears, the people who were screaming the loudest after those "fucking" comments had no idea that Carlin was mocking them.

I'm sorry to see him go.

Posted by: Bruce F at June 23, 2008 08:32 PM

RIP, of course, but Carlin became to comedy what the Stones are to rock and roll--a once-interesting artist who forged a very profitable second career as shorthand for a more adventurous age.

Carlin at his best always reminds me of a defrocked Jesuit; but after all the close-readings, I'm left wondering just who the guy is. This is a flaw in his work. If you look at the top rank of standups--Pryor, Bill Hicks, Carlin's idol Lenny Bruce--you can't imagine anybody else doing their act, because it is 100% informed by who they were. (Or who they wanted us to think they were.)

Listening to this routine, I'm struck by how much is laughter, and how much is "hooting." Hooting comes when the person with the mic says something that you agree with--liberating, yes, enjoyable, sure, but not really funny. "Repeat after me:!" Comics of the first rank are generally much too restless to indulge in this kind of thing.

A good rule of thumb is a comedian's impact, lethality, acuity, or what-have-you is roughly inverse to his/her access to the mainstream. (See Pryor, Bruce, Hicks, Mort Sahl). Carlin produced a couple of great routines--"Seven Dirty Words" and "Baseball/Football"--but after 1975, he'd said all he had to say. After that, Carlin became head cheerleader for all the guys who didn't want to be on the football team, and while there's nothing wrong with that, it doesn't make him a comic genius. Merely a consummately professional stand-up...say, the Alan King of the Woodstock Generation.

Posted by: Mike of Angle at June 23, 2008 10:25 PM

"RIP, of course, but Carlin became to comedy what the Stones are to rock and roll--a once-interesting artist who forged a very profitable second career as shorthand for a more adventurous age."

I don't get this at all. Carlin was always funny, but his material in his '70s heyday was a lot softer. It consisted largely of cheerful filth, observational humor, stories from the old neighborhood, and wordplay. It was later that he ramped up the social comment and the dark poetry, and that to me is the more adventurous material (which is why the mainstream media retrospectives are studiously avoiding it).

Through the '80s and '90s, he became adept at getting large audiences to laugh at some very bleak and unwelcome messages. That's nothing to sneeze at, and it's a lot different than the "hooting" you describe. (For instance, I revere Bill Hicks, but I have to admit that he indulged in "Bush is a fuckhead!"-type material - certainly a lot more than Carlin ever did.)

I think he ran that aspect of his work into the ground on the last couple albums, where there was little left to leaven the grumpery. But the idea that he didn't evolve or take risks, I find very hard to understand.

Posted by: Chris E. at June 23, 2008 11:02 PM

Am I the only one wondering if some members are laughing and cheering at some lines, especially at the beginning, because they think he's glorifying imperial machismo?

Posted by: Jonathan Versen at June 24, 2008 12:48 AM

Am I the only one wondering if some members of the audience are laughing and cheering at some lines, especially at the beginning, because they think he's glorifying imperial machismo?

excuse me. not trying for Carlinesque phallic humor, just pressed "post" before waiting for the cut n' paste of a rearranged sentence to finish.

Posted by: Jonathan Versen at June 24, 2008 12:52 AM

Maybe he just knew how to work a crowd is why they cheer?

Posted by: Mike Meyer at June 24, 2008 03:04 AM

Chris E., YMMV as they say, but your comment has made me want to dig into Carlin a bit more. I will be cuing up some LPs over the next couple of days; maybe my opinion will change with more study?

For my entire professional life I've found it's easy to "get large audiences to laugh at some very bleak and unwelcome messages." They are conditioned to equate cynicism with humor. It's much harder to sell an audience on comic viewpoints that have space for positive characteristics.

Throughout Carlin's career, he addressed issues only AFTER they were widely accepted. Bruce was literally hounded to death over the word "cocksucker"; Carlin came along 10 years later and turned swearing into a bit safe for college radio. Michael O'Donoghue's "Vietnamese Baby Book" was a audacious statement that still makes an impact on people who read it. Carlin's "Football/Baseball" was the same antiwar sentiment done witty and cute.

Don't get me wrong, Carlin's fine for what he was, but his image as a countercultural icon--or our need to believe in the efficacy of angry comedy--shouldn't obscure the reality that he was as much Andy Rooney as Lenny Bruce. Take the ideas in this YouTube video: that America is an imperialist power; that who we bomb is a racist calculation; that warfare is a dick-measuring contest between psychopaths; NONE of these ideas were new in 1992. Carlin's use of them here could signify the exact opposite of what you're saying, Chris--the final denaturing of these ideas, their harmless absorption into the mainstream.

Rather than being praiseworthy, knowing what we know today, "getting large audiences to laugh at some very bleak...messages" is morally questionable. It's thoroughly mainstream, and maybe even reprehensible--if you believe that satire is meant to do more than get you paid. Did anything Carlin say after 1975 ever change anybody's mind? Or did he simply preach to the choir? We all have uncharitable and self-indulgent thoughts when the world doesn't come up to our standards. Was it fun? Sure. Did it DO anything? Probably not. Was it genius? Only in the shriveled realms of mainstream American comedy.

There was nothing avant garde about Carlin; Terry Southern was talking about LBJ throat-fucking JFK's corpse in 1967. THAT's a bleak and unwelcome idea! Carlin's role was to commodify hip-seeming cynicism and bitterness, and bring it into the mainstream. This isn't progress, and we know it isn't progress, because it hasn't changed anything. Fifty years' worth of cynical comedy hasn't wised us up, or made us more thoughtful. It's dulled our sense of outrage, removing that essential spur to action.

Jon and I often speak of what we've come to term "the comedy of capitulation." Briefly, it's precisely observed and exquisitely crafted, and tries to convince the audience that the world sucks, people are assholes, and "what can you do but laugh...and watch my special on HBO." Its message is one of helplessness and hopelessness and anger, but most of all passivity--which is why its so compatible with corporate comedy.

What does it mean to have a society drowning in political satire, while Presidential elections are being stolen openly? I'm still trying to figure that one out. I don't mean to speak ill of the dead. Carlin was a fellow Santa Monican and toiler in the vineyard, and people enjoyed him. I wish him a speedy recovery; the old saw aside, dying must be hard.

Posted by: Mike of Angle at June 24, 2008 03:18 AM
Did anything Carlin say after 1975 ever change anybody's mind? Or did he simply preach to the choir?

I'm not a comedian, so I don't have the academic parsing of the nuances, but I do recall that during the 70s he was a part of the soundtrack that reinforces a type of personality that one may aspire to. Did we want to be George Carlin? No, but we wanted a part of his ideas in us as we went forward.

Preaching to the choir has its benefits -- it reinforces a philosophy and buttresses the ideas that grow stale in our daily drudgery.

I'll miss him, but when it's time to go, it's time to go.

Posted by: Labiche at June 24, 2008 07:57 AM

This post was censored by deleted it from on 23 Jun,
and I wanted others to be able to find it -- as Geo Carlin was one of my heroes:
☮ ☮ ☮ ☮ ☮ ☮ ☮

~ REBELNOW ~ had a similar minded word ABSURD, to which I add ___ L U D I C R O U S ___

George was brilliant at illustrating the IN-BETWEEN reality that exists in the OTHERWISE mundane life that we all live, so unconsciously everyday.

Without the silence between the notes,

__ there is NO possibility of MUSIC.

Without Geo CARLIN between the dull sameness moments of our lives

__ there is NO penetrating HUMOR


I am so moved by his COSMIC contribution to MOVE people out of their ordinariness, to illustrate the under-LYING __t r u t h __ of our PAINED existence.


May his passage bring us ALL closer to that celebration of that at-ONE-ness that he searched for his whole life ( and clearly DID find ). Thank GOODNESS for the blessings that he brought us all, and the cleverness of his illustrating our own foolishly trivial ILLUSIONARY attempts at LIVING __ B _ I _ G __ , while really feeling deep down so _ P U N Y _.

My blessings and heartfelt condolences to all who MARK his passing, may this be a new BEACON for each of us — to cut through the crap — and LAUGH at the face of the FASCISTS that attempt to own or _ c o n t r o l _ EVERYTHING

___ both all of OUR property
_____ a n d _______

___ ALL of OUR inner spiritual life as well.

It’s time for all of US to get more absurd and ludicrous,

___ to LAUGH so hard,
___ that our fillings rattle the
___ flimsy foundations of

___ neo_CON_jobster’s illusions EVERYWHERE

〓〓〓〓 L ■ A ■ U ■ G ■ H ■ T ■E ■ R 〓〓〓〓〓〓

〓〓〓〓〓〓〓〓 I ■ S 〓〓 T ■ H ■ E 〓〓〓〓〓〓〓〓〓

〓〓〓〓〓〓〓 M ■ I ■ R ■ R ■ O ■ R 〓〓〓〓〓〓〓〓

〓〓〓〓〓〓〓〓 T ■ O 〓〓 O ■ U ■ R 〓〓〓〓〓〓〓〓〓

〓〓〓〓〓〓〓〓〓 S ■ O ■ U ■ L ■ S 〓〓〓〓〓〓〓〓〓

« We must be the change we wish to see in the world » — Gandhi
« There is a sufficiency in the world for man’s need but not for man’s greed » — Gandhi
« We adopt the means of nonviolence because our end is a community at peace with itself » — ML King

Posted by: Presence « Namasté » at June 24, 2008 07:37 PM

Presence, maybe they censored you for being a dork.

Posted by: Jonathan Versen at June 24, 2008 07:44 PM

Fascinating, Dennis. As I said to Chris E., I'll be cuing up the Carlin...perhaps my viewpoint will change. And I'll be rereading your post again, too.

I'm not going to rebut you point by point; I'm not really there anymore, mentally, and I don't think it would be entertaining even if I was. But I am moved to say the following to get it out of my system. Everybody should please feel free to STOP READING NOW--I'm just working stuff out in my own head, for me. You believe what works for you. Enjoy yourself, that's what comedy's for.

What I think Dennis and I disagree on isn't George Carlin. It's what satire is FOR--or who it's for. If it's for the satirist, a personal act--in other words, if it allows the satirist to express anger and feel better for a time--then on those terms, Carlin was successful.

If the purpose of satire is to do the same for an audience, a "tribal act"--to allow them to express rage and feel better for a time--then Carlin was successful there too.

But if, as is often claimed, the purpose of satire is greater than that; if it is aiming to change society in some concrete and positive way, Carlin was a failure. This is how I judge him. I realize that this is a hell of a high standard, but we are throwing terms like "genius" around.

Carlin was a great standup, but he was flawed as a disseminator of ideas because (unlike Pryor, unlike Bruce, unlike Hicks) his anger vastly overwhelmed his compassion. Late-period Carlin comes in two flavors: "All those assholes!" and "All you assholes!" (BTW: If you walk around thinking everybody's an asshole, at what point do you realize, "Hey--maybe the asshole is ME?") Frankly, it bored me; and didn't really track with my experience, either. Most of the people I meet aren't assholes. Nothing about George Carlin suggested that he was any wiser than any other media wise guy; sure he was obsessed with words, but so's Bill Safire. Still, people constantly cut Carlin slack, suggesting that people like him perform a role in society, making it better, shaking it up, changing people's minds.

The older I get, the less true I think this is. It's simply a matter of human nature: People do not change their behavior in the face of attack. Attackers and attacked both harden themselves, redouble their efforts, batten down their beliefs. This describes the process of the last 40 years in America quite nicely, don't you think? If angry comedy angrily expressed changes things for the better, how come George Carlin got angrier and angrier? Could it have simply been about HIM?

I know it's frustrating for all us verbal smarties eager to point out the world's illogic and inconsistency, but in this reality, violence simply can't be healed with violence, and this holds for violence of the spirit, too. So if Carlin REALLY wanted Americans not to be fat, lazy, stupid, immoral, etc etc, he was going about it in exactly the wrong way. On the other hand, if he was primarily idolizing his own anger, or if he lacked the courage to look inside himself--well, then, his behavior makes perfect sense.

My experience with myself, suggests that the things that make people angry--really twang us--usually have some direct connection to our lives. Whenever anybody professes a strong emotional connection to something that doesn't impact them directly, my bullshit detector goes off. As always, YMMV, but that's been my experience--and not surprisingly, I've always achieved much better results addressing my negative emotions as directly as possible, not with observations about external things and wishes that THEY would change, but with medicine specific to me.

I'm not telling anybody not to enjoy George Carlin. Have a great time, laugh, whatever. But for me, his comedy is a trap for the spirit. It's not a "wake-up call" or a "deeper reality," or any other scrap of left-wing macho. It is the crying of someone with their soul stuck in a trap, pulling ever harder, suffering ever more. For fuck's sake, George--if it hurts, STOP DOING IT.

It's easy to sell rage and disgust and call it "jokes." Anybody who wants to learn, email me, I'm happy to show you how. But I'm done with it, not because I don't see the appeal of it (both for the seller and buyer) but because it doesn't relieve anything in me. On top of that, I don't see much evidence that it makes the world any better (its frequent claims notwithstanding), and some evidence suggests that it might actually be making the world worse.

Since about 1960 American comedy has gotten ever bleaker, ever more cynical, ever more about the comic's personal alienation. If this had produced a smarter, less violent, more compassionate, happier society, I'd be all for it. But it hasn't, so let's call it what it is: a flavor of cognitive distortion no more "honest," no more "real," and no more useful than the show-biz culture that came before it. Fun as it can be, it's long past time to stop deifying satire as enlightenment for people too hip to fall for religion. I wish it was, but it just ain't.

I don't know what comes next, but it's time.

Posted by: Mike of Angle at June 24, 2008 08:18 PM

I understand the aversion to mean-spirited comedy.I grew up watching comics courtesy of Merv & Johnny, and laughed at damn near all of 'em.

Oddly enough, despite my abysmal view of humanity, I'll take Maria Bamford any fucking day over Bill Look At Me, I Just Made Boom-Boom Maher, whose pettiness, narcissism and general hatefulness couldn't illuminate plankton, much less tickle my funnybone. I won't bother splitting hairs except to say I never saw Carlin as petty even when he was harsh.

Being unschooled in the science and philosophy of funny, and not being funny myself, I never considered comedy - stand-up, in particular - anything more, or less, than a narcotic.

Having experienced chronic headaches most of my life, intermittent back trouble and one (1) very stubborn kidney stone, I think narcotics are waaay underrated.

Posted by: Arvin Hill at June 25, 2008 01:24 AM

Rob, Jon and I also love that Peter Cook quote. He's perhaps my favorite modern comedy person--and his life story is fairly terrifying if you're in the business. It shows precisely what satire can and can't do on a personal level.

The math is simple for me: I love to laugh, and if somebody makes me laugh, I feel great warmth towards them. I wanted good things for George Carlin, not necessarily more comedy. If he could do angry comedy and still be personally fulfilled and happy, great. But it's very dangerous to be confused about what the practice of angry comedy gets you; its momentary relief (which fades) can lure you into never getting to the root of why you feel so bad. And the laughter of strangers is not worth a life of misery. It just isn't.

Arvin, I'm so sorry you have those ailments. I have some ailments myself. It would give me deep pleasure to think that something I wrote made someone feel better; it's so goddamn hard to be in a body. Hang in, and keep laughing.

Like I say, I don't know what comes next, but I think humility and compassion have to be fundamental to it. Carlin had some of each; Maher has less; that's why I find him mostly unwatchable.

Posted by: Mike of Angle at June 25, 2008 11:58 AM

Mike, thanks for responding to everyone. I take your point about compassion. Take Matt Taibbi, for example; in his latest book, The Great Derangement, he tried to survey the vast landscape of American suckerdom, but to reserve his contempt only for our leaders. It was an admirable attempt, but it's certainly not what his idol Mencken would have done, and I have to admit that I'd have enjoyed the book more if he'd been his usual, unrepentantly prickish self. Which says nothing good about me.

I just listened to Carlin's Complaints and Grievances, which was recorded shortly after 9/11. He responded with a string of fart jokes and a shout-out to Rudy Giuliani. Understandable, maybe, but not his finest moment. Truth be told, some of the free-floating hostility had gotten pretty tiresome, too. But the ending bit on the 10 Commandments is a true classic.

Posted by: Chris E. at June 25, 2008 10:05 PM