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Monday, June 23, 2008
The world's grumpiest old man is dead and this makes me sad
George Carlin is dead? Well, here's hoping he's sitting in a shady spot on the sun, along with Joe Pesci and a long way from his noisy neighbor with the barking dog.
Like a lot of people my age, I didn't know about Carlin the comedian until I was older. I knew him as "Mr. Conductor" from Shining Time Station until I reached what he might have called "an age of reason." When someone introduced me to his comedy albums in high school I couldn't believe it was the same guy. Mr Conductor once spent time in jail on an obscenity-charged and his day job was spewing foul-mouthed philosophical tirades? I couldn't believe it.
Thus began a life-long infatuation with his books, comedy albums and HBO comedy specials. I don't think of him as a comedian. There's no way he belongs in the same boat as Robin Williams or Jim Carrey. Carlin was an endless source of amazing wordplay and frank and vicious social commentary, especially in his later years. Take his opinion on the topic of prostitution: "fucking is legal, selling is legal...why isn't selling fucking legal?" The man was brilliant at tearing down social norms, everyday absurdities and especially at draining the piss and vinegar out of organized religion. I don't think anyone could agree with all of his viewpoints, or even half of them, but he always made a great argument for whatever was on his mind.
I'm more of a fan of the angry, '90s-era Carlin than the loopy hippie obsessed with the foibles of the English language that my parents' generation laughed at in the '70s. I managed to see him during a sold-out tour date at the Hult Center in Eugene when I was in college. Carlin made the opening act, a musical comedian that sang songs about Bill Clinton, look like an contestant in a 5th-grade talent show. A well-dressed family sitting in front of a friend and I walked out during a bit about why he had decided to give up on God and start praying to Joe Pesci instead. This would have been nearly a decade ago now but I still wonder what the conservation on their ride home was like.
His last few stand-up specials were unmercifully bleak and I hope that his increasingly dark world view was mostly a put-on. Carlin supposedly lost a well-paid gig at the MGM Grand in 2003 because the audience couldn't handle his views on post-9/11 America. His last comedy special, It's Bad For 'Ya, which focused mostly on aging, death and parenthood, was as bitter as a nuclear-powered lemon. I guess it's oddly appropriate that a failing heart is what finally did in George Carlin. There's that old line about "behind every cynic is a disappointed optimist" and Carlin was one hell of a cynic.
Here's to you, George. Thanks for being an icon and for providing my colleagues and I with plenty of one-liners to throw around over the years. Here's one of my favorite Carlin bits, the one about Joe Pesci. This one, on why the Ten Commandments should be cut down to two, is also damn sharp.