Monday, June 23, 2008

Losing a legend

Like many people I was very bummed this morning when I heard the news about George Carlin’s passing. There have been a number of tributes throughout the day but I figured that I should share my thoughts on the man. He is certainly someone who deserves remembering.

When people ask me where my writing style and my sense of humor came from I usually point to a small number of sources. I always claim Monty Python as an inspiration for showing how absurdity and unbridled creativity can create brilliance. Kurt Vonnegut taught me that one can be funny, literary, sorrowful and thought provoking simply by repeating the words “So it goes” over and over again. And Douglas Adams taught me that depressed robots are incredibly funny. Those have always been my three main influences but in retrospect I think I give George Carlin a bit of a short thrift.

Because I was always a George Carlin fan. Once I outgrew the antics of Gallagher (when I was roughly ten and smashing watermelons became slightly less amusing) I started to watch more and more George Carlin routines. For a little while they were one of the few things my parents did not want me to watch. I lived in a pretty open household so something being too adult for me was really rare and made me want to seek it out more. Especially when all it consisted of was a guy on stage talking. Dirty words couldn’t be that dangerous.

But I think what it really was is that at ten watching George Carlin is going “he said a bad word, that is funny” to being sixteen and realizing “he is using language to subvert itself and that is hysterical.” Because if George Carlin was a master of anything it is being a master of language. There are poets buried in Westminster who did not know the English language as well as George did. Just take his famous football vs. baseball sketch. In it he describes the differences between the two sports by simply looking at the words used to describe them. For example…

(In an upbeat, happy voice) “Baseball is played on a field in a park. The baseball park.”
(In a dour, serious tone) “Football is played on a gridiron in a stadium. Often named Soldier Field or War Memorial Stadium.”

Carlin made you think. To really understand his comedy you needed to think as quickly as he was. Sure, you could laugh at the simple jokes but the deeper meaning is what drew you in. This wasn’t observational humor of Jerry Seinfeld or general wackiness of Robin Williams or the life sucking crappiness of Dane Cook. This was intellectual warfare of the highest order. It was subverting society by using the same words that created society. That is what made the seven words you can’t say on television such a wonderful concept. By being arrested for saying them he became a news story in which you had to discuss the words you cannot say. It just showed the inanity of it all.

At my best, I would like to think that I try to catch some of that brilliance. My snarkiness towards society and stupidity in general. That side of me that wants nothing more than to point out how stupid people with personalized license plates are. That part of me is due to listening to George Carlin. I’m a better writer, and a better person, for having had a chance to listen to his love of words.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

ahhh...the early times of the beginning of HB0 & the risker Showtime 'cable' channels. I clearly remember going to my aunt & uncles in Topeka to visit and when the adults would go shopping ee would flip the tv to these stations to see what all the fuss was about and while my two cousins (both boys)wanted to only watch anything with nakedness...I was simply drawn to a guy that was just talking onstage with a 'list of words' you can't say...but was saying them. I alsbelieve that while unknown at the time not only did george carlin have an impcat on my growing vocabulary he also was an early introduction to the reality that intelligence and satire that is wrapped in pointed comedic reproitire (sp) is by many considered more dangerous an influencer to the massess as it instills and provokes thoughts and actions beyond a johnny carson one liner. Carlin had a great influencer of political thought and social commentary setting the stage for so many things like John Stewarts Daily show and so many that came after. Truly a icon of our time. may he RIP. (excellent topic and refreshing review vs. many others on his passing)