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A Belated Tribute to George Carlin

It’s been nearly a week since I heard about Carlin’s death. I haven’t written about it partly because I just needed some time to digest the disappearance of someone who was one of the integral parts of my comedic development, but also because so many wonderful tributes have already been written about this philosopher — many speaking to his huge impact on the cultural landscape, his socio-political commentary — I simply cannot (and will not try to) capsulize what George Carlin meant in those terms, any better than has already been done.

Instead, I recall the witty and pithy observer of human nature, such as… “How about when you’re going up a flight of stairs and you think there’s ONE. MORE. STEP. Same thing going down the stairs… you think there’s one more step — ‘Holy shit! My hips are in my chest!'”

Carlin’s observations made you laugh hard. So hard, you finally let go of all the false pretenses that you generally put up as a wall to show how cool you are. You let go, and just laugh… and you don’t care if you’re actually laughing at yourself. (Because with George, you often were.)

Part of the genius of George Carlin is that a person could completely disagree with some (or many) of the things that he said — at least initially — and yet laugh loudly at them at the same time. He was able to insult half his audience and simultaneously have them eating out of the palm of his hands. George pushed our buttons… but not in a way that was solely provocative. He actually managed to challenge our point of view. Especially in his latter years, there was more commentary than comedy, and yet, it never ceased to be entertaining. And surely enlightening, as well.

I find myself bored with comics who embody the vibe of, “LIKE ME! PLEASE, LIKE ME!” They laugh at their own jokes because they’re afraid that you won’t. Of course George cared whether or not people liked his stuff, because that was his livelihood, but at a comedic level, he really DIDN’T care. He pushed his OWN boundaries. He ventured into areas other comics wouldn’t touch unless they were slightly insane. And if they did venture into those dangerous regions, their careers generally didn’t last long, because they’d get burned by the flames of indignation, or they’d get burned by their own incomplete commitment to what they were saying. Carlin committed. And we responded with love and awe for a man who stood by what he said, no matter what. Alas, if only there were more people who would be so bold.

Yes, I recall the man who did the famous comparison between American football and baseball — a routine he milked for well over a decade — in a most memorable discourse: “In football you wear a helmet. In baseball you wear a cap. Football is concerned with downs — what down is it? Baseball is concerned with ups — who’s up? In football you receive a penalty. In baseball you make an error. Oops!” But George Carlin will likely be first remembered, both by the public at large, and by myself, as the Will Rogers of our generation, someone who honestly said what he believed and didn’t concern himself with pandering to his fans.

My hope is that Carlin will inspire at least one person, in this generation or the next, to take up that gauntlet, brave that storm, and turn a mirror upon society in a way that really makes us see who we are, what we are, and where we are headed. Such a person may take some time to nurture… George himself in his early years was just a regular stand-up, doing regular jokes, until he was inspired by the works of the brilliant Lenny Bruce, and I think probably by people like Dick Gregory, as well.

It’s not about gimmicks. Gimmicks don’t last. It’s not about telling jokes. Jokes get boring. It’s about insight, and it’s about integrity. And for both of those, I’ll miss having George Carlin around to make me laugh, to make me think, and occasionally to tell me how much of an ass I am.

© 2008 DJ Holte

Posted by DJ on June 27th, 2008 at 7:15am.

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