Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Jesus Brings the Pork Chops

I am not going to bullshit you with some "George Carlin made me who I am" anecdote, but I'd be lying if I said there wasn't an influence there. As a kid, my favorite performers were comedians, and spending large chunks of those formative years in largely black areas of LA, I became attuned to black musicians and comedians pretty early on.

For comedy it was Richard Pryor and Redd Foxx that I heard most often, and when I finally heard the seven dirty words that Cracker America was up in arms about, I loved it, yet found it even funnier that Pryor's and especially Foxx' stuff was much filthier, gleefully so, and without the pretensions of guilt. Which of course was Carlin's point all along.

Once Carlin had passed through the corporate sphincter and had become truly embittered and imbued with his peculiar genius, he just got better and better. I love that his approach never faltered, never softened as he got older; if anything it was the opposite. This was especially gratifying as the '90s progressed, as true geniuses Sam Kinison and Bill Hicks fell, that Carlin was there to step in and take the fury further.

He was, to lamely coin a pun (truly the lowest form of humor), the very model of a modern major misanthrope. And it was that vein of misanthropy that I connected with in my earliest attempts at internets tomfoolery a decade ago. It was rambunctious, boisterous anarchic syndicalism, but rigorously so, with an impatience for intellectual laziness and braindead lovefests. Either put out, put forth, or fuck off, was the operative thrust of this ethos, and I could swim in that lake for a good long time.

Carlin's strength wasn't the old "truth to power" schtick; it's that he spoke truth to bozos. It is not, if you haven't noticed, a terribly lucrative market in telling Americans that they are fat and lazy and stupid, and easily bought off. Yet Carlin was able to do it with missionary zeal, yet not have it come off like a tedious lecture. That's an art, partly given credibility by his status as an elder statesman, but also by the clear joy he had in nailing people with their worst habits. The mastery of wordplay and pop culture and current events established genuine credibility to his caustic perorations, beyond any "contemporary" "comedian".

Puncturing social mores, or at least pretending to do so, is a staple of comics far and wide, but none can do it with the unblinking contempt, yet sympathetic heart, that George Carlin brought to it. I'm not a fan of too many people (in every sense of that phrase) -- fewer and fewer as I grow older -- but you could do worse if you were looking for someone to emulate. Carlin was nothing short of a modern-day Mencken, unfortunately in a world that seems to have forgotten many of H.L.'s psalms, only to live them out.


thedevilzone said...

You might have seen Louis C.K.'s tribute to him; it's pretty good. I also loved him for his complete fearlessness; it was so inspiring to see this little old guy get up there and simply give no fucks.

He wasn't really funny to me, not in a side-splitting way - seeing his shows would make me smirk appreciatively rather than laugh out loud, but his observations had enough substance to keep them in my mind for a long time. It was more like hearing a plain-spoken, irascible, entertaining philosopher than a funnyman per se. Which is just fine with me.

Heywood J. said...

I hadn't seen that, thanks for the link. I like Louis C.K.'s standup a lot; unfortunately, his HBO show was a mess. Great tribute though. It's good to see the fan come out in people who are established in their own right.

And you're right about Carlin not being "funny" per se; it was never about jokes. That's the hidden irony of the public misanthrope -- the whole act may revolve around how stupid and apathetic everyone else is (ahem), but if there weren't at least a subliminal nugget of, I dunno, hope, sympathy, the primal urge to start up a food fight or just fuck with people, they'd keep it to themselves. Frank Zappa was another guy like that, a virtuosic purveyor of bemused contempt (or is it contemptuous bemusement?).

The main thing was the fearlessness. Everyone's afraid of being blackballed or marginalized, and Carlin's not-so-secret weapon was that he just didn't give a shit. Because anyone who would marginalize him, why would he want their respect anyway? They'll try to eulogize him as some sort of lovable, harmless curmudgeon, but fortunately he was prolific enough to set the record straight.

thedevilzone said...

Oh, yeah, I remember an interview he did in The Progressive probably about ten years ago, where the writer asked him about the reactions he got to his scathing attacks on religion, and I remember George saying something to the effect of how he liked to get that stuff right out of the way in his shows to flush out all the well-I-never!-types, so that he and the true audience could get down to having some fun. He said something about waiting to hear those auditorium doors start banging open as people storm out in a huff, and I just loved it.

The guy also asked him about people accusing him of being "bigoted" against religion, and that was actually the first time I ever heard someone just eloquently steamroll that shit by pointing out that you're not born believing this mythology, it's a choice, and it's also a choice to keep believing it against all evidence to the contrary, so if you don't like being called an idiot, quit believing in idiotic things, and if you don't want to do that, go fuck yourself. I recall just cracking up right there at the magazine rack in Barnes & Noble, so happy that someone had finally refused to back down to that intimidation.

And Dennis Perrin also had a good post about him; this part parallels what you're saying: The great comedy writer George Meyer once observed, "If people think you’re coming from a place of smugness or viciousness, it won’t be as funny to them . . . George Carlin gets away with murder in his stand-up, because people sense that he’s honestly hurt that the world isn’t a saner place."