George Carlin, the legendary comedian, actor, and author, died on June 22nd, 2008 at the age of 71. It has been eight years since his passing, but the world still stings. In his 71 years, Carlin spearheaded a new vanguard of comedy, using wry, and often deliberately shocking language to examine and dissect hypocrisy, as well as the usual amusing foibles of everyday human life. Like the best comedians, Carlin was something of a philosopher as well, often expressing a viewpoint of toughness and even more often, cynicism. Carlin remains, to this day, the exemplar by which we compare all other comedians, and his blend of humor and dour life dissection is still the model to which all comedians reach.
Carlin would have objected to my use of the word “shocking.” Shock, he felt – to quote his interview in the movie The Aristocrats – was just an upscale word for surprise. Carlin often observed that the English language was full of an ongoing and evolutionary softening, and that “shocking” language was a myth perpetuated by a bourgeois set of ineffable conservative values that no one actually holds. This held true throughout his career.
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Indeed, one of his most famous bits was based on a 1978 Supreme Court case FCC v. Pacifica Foundation which allowed the Federal Communications Commission the legal power to determine what was considered obscene in public broadcast. This led Carlin, in a bout of good-natured joshing, to consider just how “dirty” dirty words are. He came up with a famous list of the seven words you could never say on television. Oddly enough, “tits” and “piss” have lost a lot of their stigma since Carlin did the bit.
If you haven’t seen the bit, then you are not yet educated. For completion’s sake, here it is:
The bit is light and upbeat, and hardly even seems shocking – excuse me, surprising – anymore. When it comes to arguments in favor of cussing as a mere form of communication that should be allowed anywhere, teenagers everywhere continue to quote this bit. Arguments about obscenity, foul language, and ubiquity of cussing all began here.
Carlin also argued that racist language was also acceptable, provided they were kept in the proper context. A racist person using a racist word to hurt a person was not okay. But casually saying them in a non-racist context should rob those words of their power. This is one were still getting past as a society. Hear any white person say the n-word, and you’ll still bristle a little bit. I am white, and I have come to replace the word with “ninja,” should the need arise to quote it.
Carlin eventually came down on the whole of euphemisms in general. He felt that our view of the world was being changed for the worse because our language was becoming increasingly evasive. In another famous bit, he pointed out that the term “shell shock” was eventually softened into “post-traumatic stress disorder,” which is a little too touchy-feely for his taste. If, he argued, it was still called “shell shock,” then perhaps veterans wouldn’t have such a tough time getting government help. Here is the bit:
Carlin’s career peaked, many would argue, with his 1992 special Jammin’ in New York. Carlin would continue to work until his death, of course, but his work became increasingly acidic. He still came out with some brilliant observations, but he began openly admitting that this was no longer joshing or presented things in good fun. A lot of late-era Carlin was based in his open hatred of society’s hypocrisy, and of most humans. He started releasing albums with names like You are All Diseased and Life is Worth Losing. At some point along the way, Carlin espoused an onstage persona of complete and utter misanthropy. Indeed, here’s a quote from Life is Worth Losing:
I look at it this way… For centuries now, man has done everything he can to destroy, defile, and interfere with nature: clear-cutting forests, strip-mining mountains, poisoning the atmosphere, over-fishing the oceans, polluting the rivers and lakes, destroying wetlands and aquifers… so when nature strikes back, and smacks him on the head and kicks him in the nuts, I enjoy that. I have absolutely no sympathy for human beings whatsoever. None. And no matter what kind of problem humans are facing, whether it’s natural or man-made, I always hope it gets worse.
Carlin hated government, hated religion (his outspoken atheism was a frequent topic of his late standup), and hated people in general, it seemed. This is a far sentiment from his relatively trifling, but no less deep, “Place for My Stuff” bit. Why don’t we enjoy that now.
Carlin was a brilliant comedian who, like Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, and Bill Hicks, pushed comedy into the realm of salient observation. In his hands, comedy could be silly and goofy – he wasn’t above acting in comedy films like Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back – but it could also be the very fabric of human analysis. He made the dissection of the human condition into a game everyone could play.
Eight years on, we still miss ya, George. We’ll remember you for a few more years yet.
Top Image: Orion Pictures
Witney Seibold is a contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.