One Comic, Twice the Laughs
Tuesday, June 24, 2008
Two comic personalities seemed to coexist within George Carlin during his preposterously long and fertile career. Both Carlins could amuse and both could be trenchant, but each came at his target from wildly different angles.
Angry George was the bearded iconoclast of the 1970s who shot to heroic counterculture status by assuming Lenny Bruce's mantle as a scathing social critic. During the latter years of the Vietnam War, Angry George left no hypocrisy unturned. He sprayed comic acid on whatever moved across the front page: religion, politics, feminism, sex, manners, environmentalism, drugs. "I'm in favor of the separation of church and state," this Carlin would opine. "My feeling is that either one of these institutions screws you up bad enough on its own. You put them together and you got certain death."
Gentle George, on the other hand, trafficked in the small things, the inoffensive and the innocuous. He was the absurdist, the semanticist, the wordplay artist, the imp. Gentle George said and wrote such things as, "Electricity is really just organized lightning," and "Before they invented drawing boards, what did they go back to?"
This latter Carlin produced "The Seven Words You Can Never Say on TV," "Baseball and Football" (his ingenious dissection of the differences between our national pastimes) and the more recent "Modern Man," a piece of verbal acrobatics so buffed and polished that it shoots past mere stand-up comedy and lands as spoken-word art.
"Seven Words," which accurately describes government policy to this day (if you don't count cable), is, of course, one of the most famous "blue" comedy routines ever performed. Yet shocking as its subject matter is -- or at least was, when he debuted it in 1972 -- Carlin's treatment of the material is far from gratuitous. He's so relentlessly cheerful (he compares one of the words to a snack product) that it now seems almost impossible to be offended.
But Carlin, who died Sunday night in Los Angeles of a heart ailment at 71, was at his worst when he let his anger and deep anti-authority streak curdle into nihilism. Once, during a tour that came through Washington in the early 1990s, he proposed that "anything could be funny," even rape. He then launched into a cringe-inducing monologue about sexual assault. Carlin was clearly lampooning political correctness -- a favorite theme -- but it turned out he was very wrong. Not everything can be funny.
Angry George often danced on the edges of the verboten. In one of his HBO specials, Carlin's topics included yeast infections, autoerotic asphyxia, an all-suicide TV channel and involuntary bodily functions. Among his many recordings were these titles: "You Are All Diseased," "Complaints and Grievances" and "Life Is Worth Losing."
Yet it was fascinating, if not particularly hilarious, to watch Carlin as he neared 70 -- wizened and weakened by years of heart trouble and a hard-fought recovery from cocaine addiction -- pushing miles beyond the boundaries of good taste. So much of the material induced not laughter but a thunderstruck "wow" at the aggressiveness with which he pushed into darkness. He once said, "I think it's the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn, and cross it deliberately." He did, even if he took a spill on the other side.
When properly harnessed, Angry George could challenge great institutions and speak truths rarely uttered. Those were the moments worth waiting for, when Carlin stopped flailing long enough to ring a few bells. "If honesty were introduced into American life, everything would collapse," he once said, going on to illustrate the point.
It was easier to love Gentle George, the Carlin who delighted in pointing out the absurdity of the trivial, creating the kind of observational humor that clearly inspired the likes of Jerry Seinfeld and Steven Wright. There was Carlin's ever-growing list of oxymorons -- "plastic glass," "holy war," "military intelligence" -- and his delight in redundancies, such as "raw sewage" ("Do some people cook the stuff?" he asked). And his epigrams and random "Braindroppings" (the title of his first of three best-selling books). What if, he asked, there were no hypothetical questions?
As much as Orwell, Carlin saw in language the power not just to obscure, but also to twist and pervert. He noted the evolution of military terminology -- from "shell shock" to "battle fatigue" to "post-traumatic stress disorder" -- with its ever more monstrous obfuscations. He once riffed, "I can remember when I was young that poor people lived in slums. Not anymore. These days, the economically disadvantaged occupy substandard housing in the inner cities. It's so much nicer for them."
His verbal dexterity and ingenuity were all the more remarkable given his lack of formal education. Carlin, who was raised by a single mother in the tough New York neighborhood of Morningside Heights, dropped out of school in the ninth grade.