George Carlin, RIP

June 23, 2008

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.

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How To Beat The Second Quarter Revenue Report Blues

June 19, 2008

This week has been a particularly harrowing one for me. And it can all be attributed to one reason: meetings.

In my real job in my real life, I am not nearly important enough to justify going to too terribly many meetings. I can usually get away with attending only one incredibly useless meeting every two weeks, if that. But for some reason this week was a perfect storm of wastefulness because I’ve packed in enough doodling, playing with my watch, sending inappropriate text messages, and trying to sneak peeks at my co-worker’s cleavage while someone else getting paid more than me talks endlessly about something that will never affect me anytime this millennium, but thankfully providing me with about a ream of paper’s worth of information, almost two pages of which I will utilize in my job.

It’s hard to really say too much more about meetings that anyone doesn’t already know. Somehow, corporate America has created an entire industry, which includes but is not limited to, books on how to hold more efficient meetings to software designed to help more efficiently arrange them, all to get ten minutes of legitimately useful information and stretching it out for an hour yet somehow considering this to be the epitome of free-market efficiency. Of course, the meeting is not an exclusively American invention; no doubt they slowly evolved from our European ancestors, where meetings in the local guild workshops were routinely held, though, to be fair, this was mostly a way to determine which one of the workers was going to get to eat that day and how often the soul-crushing beatings were going to be administered.

Well, being in so many meetings this week, I had plenty of time to think about ways to make fun of meetings, so I’m presenting below a list of the common personalities one will find at the standard American meeting.

That Guy Who Used To Work For This Awesome Company
This is the individual who, regardless of the topic, will compare it to how things used to be run in this awesome company he used to work for but no longer does for some invisible reason. When he worked at Standard Banana, for example, they’d get a 250% efficiency bump every time they gave out a sparkly key chain. Or Friday afternoons used to be da bomb back at National Synergy because some dude dropped off a chest full of ice and Yuengling for everyone to enjoy. The implicit intention of such suggestions is that because they worked so well in his former Valhalla, they would work gangbusters here, even though this is an open shop and doesn’t employ third-world adolescents.
Sample Quote: “When I worked for American Tin and Sand, they used to let us turn our radios up to .4 decibels on Fridays and on the day before a federal holiday. It was AWESOME!”
How to Neutralize: Tell him his ex-wife works at his old company now.

The Guy Who Always Manages To Come Up With A Counter Example To Everything That Is Only Vaguely Related To What Was Just Said
This person walked into the room with his head crammed full of righteous indignation, files mental folders in his head full of statements to make. And if nothing related is said to bring them up, then he’ll force them in an arbitrarily unnecessary way. He came to the meeting to make a point, regardless of whether it’s the right point or not. It’s very close to the actualization of an internet forum, only with more smarm and less chance of the word “asshat” being used.
Sample Quote: “Your report said that there would be no more revisions to the regulatory code this year, but you just said that IT was coming to reinstall the software next weekend. What are we supposed to believe?”
How to Neutralize: Ask him about his mother.

The Woman Whose Only Concern Is That She Will Be Able To Make It To Her Daughter’s Soccer Practice On Tuesday
This is the co-worker who, upon any new change being implemented in the workplace, will immediately distill its contents to determine if this will affect her ability to attend her child’s sports practice. “I have to be home by six on Tuesdays!” she’ll remind everyone every Monday and Tuesday and, in all probability, Wednesday through Sunday, too. And when little Robert is old enough for slow-pitch softball, well, you might as well chain the doors shut and burn the place down.
Sample Quote: “If this new Phase III Sales Website overhaul causes me to be even one minute late for the practice run, I will bitch about everything until the day I die.”
How to Neutralize: Torn ACL.

The Quiet Guy Who Doesn’t Say Anything All Meeting Until The Very End, When He Pulls Out The Verbal Equivalent of the H-Bomb
He’s older, probably has a comb-over and a tie that matches your grandfather’s couch. He rubs his temples and grimaces and shifts his weight around and finally when everyone is about ready to get up and leave he sternly bellows some self-aggrandizing comment. While they probably have the experience and astuteness to make some sort of positive contribution, they’re just use it to express their discontent with the world. For the record, before anyone is smart enough to point it out, this is me, only perhaps without the comb-over and not quite as much astuteness.
Sample Quote: “It will never work, and so help me Hannah, I will destroy anyone in my path who will make me change. I am going to go to my desk now and pout.”
How to Neutralize: Decaf.

Some Old Windbag That Wants To Talk About Anything Except What Is On The Poorly-Defined Agenda
One doesn’t want to heap too terribly much blame on this person, because pretty much no one wants to talk about what’s on the agenda, either. But this person, instead of converting a meeting from a deadly boring snorefest to a halfway decent way to pass the time, instead infuses the room with her own sense of dullness and perfunctory nothingness. She will be wearing a sweater with an animal or a flower on it, even in August.
Sample quote: “Your report on the profit projections for the third quarter reminds me of something my cat did this morning.”
How to Neutralize: Counter with your own stories about prison.

The Person Who Drafted That Poorly-Defined Agenda
Agendas suck, because they are ultimately about nothing except the self-puffery of the person who called the meeting in the first place. On the other hand, they’re a necessary evil because it at the very least tells you about how far along you are until the meeting ends. And they couldn’t take a grammatically correct sentence if it meant it depended on their advancement in the company. Oh, wait. That apparently doesn’t matter, since a person’s advancement in the company id dependent on their ability to organize meetings. Of course, the person with the agenda is also the one running the show, and they’re the ones who put you in this position in the first place. So screw ‘em.
Sample Quote: “Listen to me, or your fired. And even though I’m speaking, I said ‘your,’ not ‘you’re.’”
How to Neutralize: Retire.


There Goes Another Candidate: No, Seriously, There Goes Another Candidate Edition

June 11, 2008

Well, the primary season is effectively over, barring Barack Obama getting caught as a member of the National Rifle Association or John McCain getting caught with cholesterol. While this means that the election is headed for a long, hot summer of talking heads, attack ads, and trite, overused phrases referencing scandalous minutia only the practitioners of talk radio or 24-hour news networks could possibly care about, one has to stop and wonder what will happen to those vanquished in this fight. While we know that John Edwards will go back home to practice law, and Mike Huckabee is going back to Arkansas to sell used cars or whatever it was that he used to do, and Dennis Kuchinich is going back home to Mars in his chariot powered by the souls of dead unicorns, the big question mark hovers in the room: What is Hillary Clinton going to do?

Hillary, of course, has plenty of choices in this liberated world! Why, it was only a few generations ago that women had a limited number of choices for their lives: housewife, teacher, nurse, or marrying that guy so no one would know that he’s gay. If only we had had a candidate that could have represented how far women have come. But now, well, the opportunities are endless! Or at least seven bullet points long:
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Hillary As Attack Dog: Vanquished opponents and former Presidents normally make good attack dogs when they’re not playing golf with oil fascists or diddling the maids at their Presidential libraries. They can lob incendiary bombs at the other nominee without much blowback, since they normally have nothing to lose beyond a sweet gig at MSNBC, something that doesn’t pop up very often on Christmas lists. Hillary can do this with particular adeptness, as she’s displayed to Obama over the past six months or so. For example, she can wail on McCain for his voting of the authorization of force on…well, never mind. She can differentiate how she voted on the Campaign Finance Reform Act…oh, wait. At least she can point out their differences in the Comprehensive Immigration Reform Bill…er, you know what? Never mind.

Hillary As Fundraiser: The Clintons have long, deep roots in the progressive community, and having Hillary on top billing for any fundraiser will make the first-rate Hollywood moguls and second-rate music producers and third-rate Southeast Asian financial conglomerates crack open the vault and pour money into Obama’s campaign. The real treat, though, is that Hillary’s loss makes plenty of supporters feel guilty, and there are no more effective practitioners of liberal guilt than Democratic primary donors. She’ll be laughing all the way to the First Bank of the Fish Who Need Bicycles.

Ed Rendell As Hillary: While Hillary’s ambition is to claim the presidency, in her wake she has created those that supported her, and now are basically clones of her without all the baggage. Ed Rendell, the governor of Pennsylvania, is one of those. While large sections of the American population have an opinion on Hillary, far fewer are aware of Rendell, and Rendell has made fewer enemies on the national stage beyond Kansas City hockey fans and cheese steaks. This could spell trouble for Hillary, since an astute look by Obama at a 1) popular governor in a 2) swing state that is 3) very close to Hillary’s positions without 4) everyone south of the Mason-Dixon line grabbing the pitchfork and foaming sweet tea at the mouth at the mere mention of her name. Granted, selling Rendell means convincing everyone that the nation needs to be a lot more like Philadelphia, so it may be a good idea to stock up on Tovex.

Hillary as Vice President: She’s on a lot of lists to be a potential vice president, a thought that is both natural and unusual at the same time. It’s unusual in that for the last sixteen years Hillary has sacrificed foreign-born children in her back yard as a nightly ritual to become President; settling for vice president seems sort of anti-climactic. However, getting to the Presidency via the #2 slot has worked pretty well in the past. Just ask Al Gore, Walter Mondale, Hubert Humphrey, Nelson Rockefeller, and Dan Quayle.

Hillary As Senator From New York: Most people assumed that Hillary was elected to the Senate from the state of New York to represent her core constituency: carpetbaggers supporting abortion on demand who wanted really, really badly to run for President. All that changed when it turned out that she actually wasn’t a grandstanding hellion but a reasonably well-behaved junior Senator, a lot more responsive to the average New Yorker’s political sensibilities than Al D’Amato and a lot less likely to be wandering in downtown Albany in an unbuttoned dressing down smelling of Ben-Gay and gin than Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Granted, you could saw off everything from Schenectady westward and not have an impact on her support, but the entire world kind of revolves around the Big Apple anyway, so who cares?

Hillary As First Lady: While she won’t be the first lady of an Obama presidency, she can certainly act like one. Touring the country as the almost-winner while still retaining her cordial hostess skills may provide the Democrats with a softer side of politics. Granted, both John McCain and Barack Obama are pretty much pussies anyway, but let’s just say there are significant portions of the electorate thinks Aquafina is too tart and the band Kansas has too hard of an edge to them.

Hillary As Hillary: She won’t be baking cookies at Denver, of course. Although one has to wonder exactly what else she has to do with her time. Besides bitch-slap Gina Gershon, of course.


The Last Joys of Summer

June 7, 2008

Summer is soon arriving. The season brings out plenty of anticipated memories involving the sun, sandy beaches, and three full months before the kids go back to school so you have to make them do yard work to settle them down or at least send them to their grandmothers so you can get some peace and quiet for once in your life, or, more than likely, they will end up a the mall hanging out in front of the Sam Goody’s menacing the help and making the mall walkers touch their wallets out of a subconscious sense of ageism. Viva summer!

Of course, many people have plenty of plans for their summer. I am not one of those individuals. I tend to dislike the summer for no better reason than I’m lazy, and the summer is just one big guilt trip mother nature has bestowed upon this earth that is both constant and relentless.

Summer is a season for outdoor activities such as softball, an organized activity I despise with a passion unparalleled. If it’s your thing, no problem, but I hate playing it and I’m not so keen on watching it. Suffice it to say my hand-eye coordination is not something that would make the Marines quiver with envy, and watching me run is much like watching a eighteen-wheeler chug up a hill from a dead stop being pulled by out-of-shape pack animals that have to stop every twenty feet to catch their breath. The only advantage I would bring to a softball game would be the lack of energy by the other team from doubling over in laugher too hard, an advantage that would quickly disappear since my own team would be doing the same. And I just can’t bring myself to watch a game unless something or someone made it interesting, such as accepting money line bets at the concession stand.

I do golf, however. More accurately, I used to golf. I was never particularly good and usually an embarrassment to anyone I was with. Then things such as time, work, money, education, and a subscription to Atlantic Monthly interfered with my golfing schedule and as such I haven’t touched a course for years. I hit golf balls in my yard, at least, although my participation has decreased ever since I hit the leg of a plastic table and shattered it not unlike the Death Star destruction scene in Star Wars, causing the entire table and its contents of Fiestaware and candle holders to crash brilliantly on the cement. I found this to be charmingly amusing until I realized how much the table retails for at Lowe’s.

I do love playing petanque, a rather pussyish lawn game. It is very similar to bocce, although, unlike bocce, you do not have to be Italian or 120 years old to play. The object, to throw balls at a target, is exactly the kind of combination of simplicity and mindless activity to keep yourself busy so you don’t have to make conversation with your mother-in-law at the family picnic. It is played with heavy steel balls that will easily harm animals such as dogs that tend to run after anything that is thrown. Not that this has ever happened when I have played, of course. Ahem.

Many people go camping during the summer, another activity I fail to see the desire to do. I’m certain there’s a remarkable amount of relaxation and solace found in removing yourself from all cell phones, televisions, and other distractions, although to be fair the Detroit Red Wings made sure there were a lot less of that in my life anyway. But while I’m actually kind of sympathetic with spending time in nature, all of the hassle involved fending off ticks, sealing food to ward off errant bears, and the propensity of all U.S. Park Service Employees to look at me and assume that I am a courier for various plants and chemicals just don’t make it worth the trouble.

I’m also not a big fan of beaches. Mostly this is because I don’t particularly want to spend all day laying around doing nothing. OK, it’s a fair cop, that’s pretty much what I enjoy doing every single day of my life. I just don’t see the appeal of doing that outside in the blistering sun. I don’t tan well, I hate beach volleyball (though love watching it, pending the youth, gender, and size of the bathing suits involved) and I hate smelling like greasy fake coconuts all day long. Though the one activity plenty of people do on the beach—the notorious “summer reading”—at least has some appeal. Although the books involved usually involved espionage or murder, often having titles such as “Deadly Murder,” “Deadly Line of Sight,” “Trendy City Confidential,” “The Hunt For An Escaped Nazi And/Or Former KGB Agent,” “More Tom Clancy Military Vehicle Auto-Fellation,” “John Grisham Really Just Isn’t Trying Anymore. I Mean, Seriously,” “That Dream Guy You Just Married Is Actually Kind Of An Asshole,” and “I Highly Doubt This Is Proust.”

So this summer, go out and have fun doing whatever it is that normal people do in the summer. I’ll be here, waiting patiently for the fall, when I can go to the mall to get Dippin’ Dots with minimal interference from the local hooligans. Or at least redirect their efforts on the nearest game of bocce.