George Carlin, preservationist of observational humor, died yesterday. He was 71.
Carlin belongs to a rather short list of what could call philosopher-comedians. Some individuals have that unique ability to prepare their reasonably rational world-views into a series of amusing anecdotes that fulfill the legal requirements of a 50-minute set. Carlin managed to do this more often than not. Alas, most people fall into the category of those who cannot successfully pull it off, much like the worthless Lenny Bruce or the patently unfunny Bill Hicks, two individuals who somehow managed to combined pretentiousness, heavy-handedness, and self-important pretense while simultaneously draining all the humor out of any idea.
Not that Carlin was free of heavy-handedness. He had the ability to combine thoughts about God and the human race with an equal balance of old age and the weather. Yet his cynicism never always translated into gut-busting humor; he often created laundry lists of vaguely related concepts in place of actual jokes.
The drugs, of course, didn’t help. He famously managed to host the very first episode of Saturday Night Live completely stoned (though, to be sure, anyone standing within a thirty-food radius of both Chevy Chase and John Belushi were bound to touch the moon). These drugs often compounded his medical problems, causing at least one heart attack (and a forced five-year semi-retirement) at the age of 39.
His trajectory as a comedian wasn’t particularly unusual, although looking back it seems almost quaint. He was a popular comedian on the standard evening shows, portraying reasonably gentle characters such as wacky disc jockeys and intransigent army officers. Arguably his most famous role, the “hippie-dippie weatherman,” propelled him to fame. One just has to wonder about that, a bit. You know full well he was just the hippie weatherman, but this was the 60’s, and if he were exposed to the prime time audience as just the hippie weatherman, millions of home viewers would immediately rush out to join the Viet Cong. Adding the “dippie” to the end transformed him from a wasted, embarrassing borderline commie to just kind of a stupid straw man, these kinds of distinctions being what passed for argumentative discourse in that decade.
He gained a measure of success as a stand-up comedian, but then broke away from the borscht belt humor that was plain, safe, and ultimately boring. He shed the standardized airline-food-and-DMV act and grew out his hair, started wearing tattered jeans, punched Lenny Bruce in the throat and took over his slot as the counter-culture zeitgeist.
Most of his material, and the basis for a significant portion of his act, was through a series of HBO specials. Here, he solidified his talking about language in almost a soft-Orwellian manner; he believed the government had an interest in controlling the meaning of words and phrases, but we mostly did it to ourselves, to make ourselves feel safer in a dangerous world full of unpredictable predators and mouth-breathers.
He starred in two prominent television programs: the George Carlin Show, which aired on the remarkably relaxed atmosphere of the Fox network. While a critical success, it was canceled after two seasons. His other main role was as Mr. Conductor from the children’s program Shining Time Station, a rather odd choice but a safe one, since it required the acting range no greater than Ringo Starr. His movie roles were notable if not particularly impressive; stints on Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure and its sequel, along with some of Kevin Smith’s movies, basically had Carlin play himself, not a bad gig if you can pull it off; at last count, Joe Pesci has won an Oscar.
The advent of the Internet posed a particularly frustrating problem for Carlin; he had gotten so good at thelist-based and language-based humor that was perfect for the unedited spontaneity of the quite verbal internet. Any bit of slightly clever doggerel anyone with a keyboard cooked up immediately got tagged, quite erroneously, with his name and forwarded millions of times by unsuspecting housewives and casual technophobes. Carlin dealt with this in a very Carlin-like way; aside from a lament on his web site, he just didn’t care.
His view of mankind was conflicted; while he was cautiously optimistic at times, he found the human race to be full of individuals grasping at each other’s throats for power, whether that power be at the point of a gun or through an advertisement to get you to buy a specific brand of soap. And this was reflected as he performed in his last years. His cynicism often overtook his comedy; he brilliantly melded the two, but it was becoming clear that he had little hope for the future of, well, anything. While dying at 71 is hardly cutting a young life short, decades of drug abuse and anger no doubt took its toll. And his repeated fusillades against religion did not temper as it was getting much clearer that he was older and sicker, and as far as Carlin is concerned, death was the final act of a spirit. There are, at any rate, seven words you most certainly can’t say wherever it is he is now.