On the passing of George Carlin

Hmm. “Passing.”

You can pass a truck on the highway, George would say. You can pass gas, pass a kidney stone, pass out, get passed over, celebrate Passover, take a pass, get a free pass, pass the potatoes…

You can get a passing grade.

Life is a test that everyone passes?

How’s George? He passed.

Carlin’s wordplay was more than a clever comic vehicle. In making us question the idioms in our language, we are forced to confront the assumptions implicit in those everyday expressions. When Carlin questioned our euphemisms, he revealed his true purpose: a quest for truth within the language that bombards us every day from politicians, television commercials, talking heads, song lyrics, even down to the little white lies we tell each other just so we can make it through the day without going for each others’ throats.

(No, honey, that doesn’t make your butt look like Terminal C at RDU.)

George would never say that someone “passed”. He would say that they died. He wouldn’t say it softly, either. He’d scream it right into your face in the same way he flaunted the “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” in 1973. The resulting “Carlin Case” from that bit being played on the radio is the reason that none of the really good shows come on until 10:00 p.m.

By the way, those words are ****, ****, ****, ****, ***********, ************, and ****. After all these years, I still have them safely committed to memory. I wish I could say the same about the Gettysburg Address or Hamlet’s “To Be or Not to Be” soliloquy.

If Carlin’s comic world-view can rightly be called a philosophy, then his was the earthy philosophizing of Diogenes, the Cynic who lived in a tub and traveled Greece with a lantern looking for an honest man. Carlin’s comedy was infused with the basic animal functions of humanity: eating, digesting, excreting, and, of course, the reproductive act. In one of his later HBO concerts, he announces unabashedly: “Time for some fart jokes”.

Clearly Carlin despised authority in any form. The Catholic Church was frequently a target for his ire, perhaps because of being an alter boy in his youth. Like many comics, making fun of the government was a frequent highlight of his act. His stand-up frequently took on the tone of a political diatribe as he would announce proudly that he doesn’t vote (“**** ’em, I don’t vote”), that all of the candidates are the same and that the choice between them is, in fact, no choice at all.

The older he got, the more vehement (and therefore less funny) these diatribes became. It became clear to me that in the end he was losing respect for most of us who have, to paraphrase Lewis Edwards, earned what we have chosen to settle for. Carlin thought that America could be so much more than what it has become since he first did the Ed Sullivan Show. If he’s anything like me, he was expecting flying cars, colonies on the Moon, and peace on Earth by 2008. My problem is (and I think I’ve mentioned this before) too many episodes of Star Trek at a young age. Carlin’s problem, I suspect, was the same as that of most crusty old cynics I know. He was born with a cockeyed optimism that made him feel foolish in the face of his experience with the world. At the root of Carlin’s discourse is a desire that is the truest of American sentiments. He wanted to be free.

Sigmund Freud said that humor is the result of unfulfilled desire. Others claim that it has to do with reversal of expectation, like making a baby laugh with a game of peek-a-boo. Although no one has offered what is to my mind a truly satisfactory explanation, it seems clear that there is a link between comedy and pain. I think that ultimately Carlin had something eating away at him, a basic dissatisfaction with things-as-they-are and no way to set them right.

Carlin’s role model, Lenny Bruce, lost his battle with his demons, as have so many other comics like John Belushi, John Candy, and, ultimately, Richard Pryor. Although Carlin may have whipped his personal demons into something resembling abeyance, it is clear that throughout his life they were never really silent.