Tuesday, June 24, 2008

on George Carlin

It's not easy to adequately express how this man's presence in the world influenced who I am today. As much as The Beatles affected my music sensibilities, Carlin affected my sense of humor and attitude on politics, authority, American culture, and religious beliefs.
He was a boyhood hero of mine and a voice of reason growing up in 1970s suburbia.
I know it's cliche' to say this, but it's a huge factor; "things were much simpler back then."
Mass media consisted entirely of daily and monthly periodicals, ABC, CBS & NBC. No cable networks, no internet. FM radio was still somewhat underground, and you saw stand-up comics perform on Ed Sullivan, The Tonite Show, and Mike Douglas.
Nowhere else.

I remember
Class Clown was a very talked-about album when it came out. It was considered daring and even subversive, but people couldn't deny its power and swelling popularity. The FM jocks embraced Carlin wholeheartedly and played what bits they could on the air.
I was in the 5th grade then, and a classmate's older brother had bought the album. One afternoon we snuck it from his room when he wasn't around.
Track through track, we listened to Carlin wax on everything from being the class clown as a kid, to growing up Catholic (which I was at the time). From sharing a swallow of water, to America, to heavy mysteries, ..and of course; the 7 dirty words.
..and we giggled hysterically throughout. We listened to the entire album twice.

That was it for me. I was a huge fan from that day on.

I was 11 years old.

Of course I already loved Bill Cosby, but comedically? Everything beyond Cosby was virtually suit and tie, borscht-belt comics. The edgiest comedian on television was Alan King. Though Carlin wasn't technically a 'hippy', or even a babyboomer, he was clearly a part of the counterculture and the comedic voice for virtually everyone in that generation. As much as Richard Pryor would be for African-Americans. Carlin was the only comedian who really chewed into subjects like consumerism, the police, religion, patriotism and war, Nixon and Watergate.
He was fearless and unrelenting, but his humor was also incredibly disarming. There was his playfulness with language, expression and dialects, the exaggerated physicality and gurning, and his skill in nailing down the simple and delightful little absurdities that riddle everyday life. Among the astute and serious observations, there was an underlying goofiness that was irresistible.
The suggestion that ultimately none of this mattered. That life is not to be taken seriously.

When I discovered George Carlin I knew that he would become a voice I would identify with, through my teens and 20s and probably longer. Like Bob Dylan, or John Lennon were for others. And though there would be other humorists and comics that I liked (Pryor, Robert Klein, Steve Martin,..), Carlin would always be my favorite. He was the first to really show me that nothing is sacred. That authority is fiction, that everything was game and there was humor to be found everywhere.
And to me, nobody said it more succinctly, or funnier.

So another one of my heroes is gone. Carlin is in company with the likes of Jim Henson, George Harrison, Frank Zappa, Hunter S, Thompson, Tim Leary, ..Of course I've never known these people. But like many of us making our way through life, there are some voices other than our parents that we hear often, and that we identify with. Voices that awaken parts of us, inspire us, or simply reassure us in a crazy world. And though the opportunity never comes, there is a passing desire for a chance to meet them face to face, look them in the eye, and truly thank them for being out there doing what they do.

If only because they're here now, sharing the same time in this world as you.

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