George Carlin was a comedian, a philosopher, an actor, an author, a social critic, a rebel and a patriot. On a personal level — and this isn’t to minimize his passing — I can’t tell you where I was when I found out that my own grandfather had died but I can, however, tell you where I was when I read about Carlin’s death in 2008. I was at work, in a group cubicle, scanning the Internet while counting down the moments of another wasted day at the office when the unfortunate news appeared before me. His death didn’t shock me (he did after all have the first of his three heart attacks in the mid-’70s), but it hurt. It was like something had been taken away from me — from all of us. His impact on our culture, which isn’t even to include the dramatic shift which he helped steer within the realm of comedy itself, is immeasurable.
George Carlin’s obsession with language and all of its absurdities helped drive such notorious pieces as “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” which, after performing live in Milwaukee in 1972, led to his arrest on obscenity charges. It’s been said countless times before, but had it not been for the brave social defiance of comedians such as Lenny Bruce and Carlin, there’s no telling just how archaic certain aspects of our culture might remain to this very day. I cannot express the positive impact that Carlin’s words have had on my life, but on this, what would have been his 74th birthday, I can celebrate some of his words which have mattered to me the most. These might not be hist “best,” finest or most acclaimed bits, but they are five that have left a genuine impact on my life.
One of the most telling aspects of Carlin’s continued impact was the mere longevity of his career. Though the appearances didn’t mark the beginning of his time as a comedian, George Carlin first began performing in sketches on The Ed Sullivan Show in the 1960s and released his debut LP Take Offs and Put Ons in 1967. Comparatively, no other comedian is likely to hold relevance for as long as Carlin did; nor is any other comedian likely to reinvent themselves as many times as the legend did. “Modern Man” is a high potency opener that not only revealed how remarkably sharp he remained as his career progressed, but how truly modern he was. The three and a half-minute piece is essentially a rap, and one which uses such brilliant wordplay that it still puts most modern MCs to shame.
“A Place for My Stuff” is essentially an existential breakdown looking at exactly what the hell stuff really is. What is stuff; what does it mean to have stuff; what do you do when you have too much stuff; why is your stuff better than other people’s stuff; where do you put your stuff? “That’s all your house it: A place to keep your stuff while you’re out getting more stuff!” Part of Carlin’s uniqueness was that he was able blow common idiosyncrasies out of proportion in such a way that the most monotonous commonalities became life-altering revelations. Sort of makes a Seinfeldian “What is the deal with stuff?” look a bit pale in comparison, doesn’t it?
Raised Catholic, Carlin’s increasingly confrontational view on religion was one of utter contempt by the time he died, yet it was one that was still guided less by emotion and more by rational objectivity. “Religion is Bullshit” combined with his piece about the Ten Commandments offer a manageable yet insightful introduction to religious skepticism: such a wildly broad and controversial field of subject matter that few other comedians might ever approach it with such detail, sincerity and humor.
A lengthy piece that touches on everything from social elitism to political disinformation, Carlin’s condemning piece on “Euphemisms” is one of the greatest instances of his dissecting the ongoing cultural shift that is leaving our culture with increasingly less clarity. As he explains, “Soft language: The language that takes the life out of life.” “I don’t like words that hide the truth. I don’t words that conceal reality,” he continues, before going on a full-blown attack on the stupendous shift toward useless political correctness. “It’s getting so bad that any day now I expect to hear a rape victim referred to as an unwilling sperm recipient.”
Another example of Carlin’s unique approach to contrasting and comparing aspects of language and culture, “Baseball vs. Football” is one of his most humorous reminders that comedy doesn’t have to revolve around intensely dramatic subject matter as religion or obscene social inequity. Comedy can still be as basic as a series of thoughtful comparisons between national pastimes. “Baseball is a 19th century pastoral game. Football is a 20th century technological struggle… Football is played in any kind of weather: rain, snow, sleet, hail, fog. In baseball, if it rains, we don’t go out to play… Baseball has no time limit: we don’t know when it’s gonna end — might have extra innings. Football is rigidly timed, and it will end even if we’ve got to go to sudden death.”
And in the end I’d like to believe that that was what George Carlin was about: He wanted to challenge us all to become increasingly aware of the world around us while ensuring that when all was said and done, nothing was to be taken too seriously. After all, it’s only just life: and even in death, life goes on.
[This post was first published by Culture Bully.]