Thursday, June 26, 2008

Hagiography for the Hostile

George Carlin died of heart failure Sunday in Santa Monica, California. He fucking mattered.

Our last true living link to the time of revolutionaries like Bruce and Pryor, he possessed a decidedly more intellectual lean than either yet possessed neither man’s trappings of lifestyles. We seem prone, in our least optimistic times, to ask what could have been but for Bruce’s casual-turned-consuming drug use (a predictable result of the na├»ve Beats’ junk affectation and, arguably, listening to jazz) or Pryor’s surprising expiration at the age of 65 (the inevitable result of such prolonged use of heavy narcotics and, arguably, those movies with Gene Wilder.) We had such a relic among us for all those years, and a man who stayed long enough to see more than one boundary to push in a lifetime. Of all the icons to inspire so many generations of comedy writers, Carlin seems the most immediately traceable to our modern “alternative” sensibilities, and he can also be remembered as a life lived in example to his philosophical descendants.

In all these ensuing decades of hack pun-smiths and observational retreaders coming to typify our expectation of comedians, Carlin’s routines were not only as clever and utterly original those years ago, but remarkable in their acuity and economy even today, defining a style truly unique from his peers and imitators. At his best (and he was always at his best, right up through his final performance just one week before his passing) he could proudly call himself the finest bullshit detector we’ve ever had, and to George Carlin that was a responsibility. Where imitation has lead so many to comics to (lucrative) mediocrity bereft of legitimately dangerous insight, Carlin never lost his edge or his nerve. Equal parts performance artist and dedicated semanticist, he remained every bit as attuned and committed to his roles as Andy Kauffman or Umberto Ecco. The vanguard of all enemies of the status quo, Carlin spent a career in our invented social covenant of language and put our skeletons out to bleach in the sun. His methods of subversion were both novel and precise, and his most memorable works sprang not only from the absurdities of the things we’ve experienced, but the very ways in which we talk about them.

But contrary to what many of us would like to think, commentary isn’t always activism. You have to earn the distinction of having ever changed anything, and Carlin won his bona fides many times over. A dirty, pierced long-hair in the button-downed entertainment industry of the 60s and 70s, one of the only outspoken atheists to remain in the public eye through the “moral majority” uprising of the 80s (and again in the 2000s), and a vital source of anti-institutionalism through the new century, he can be pointed to as someone who has definitively and profoundly altered not only popular culture, but the nature of American public discourse as well. And, of course, Carlin also has a badge of honor that none of whom we consider “edgy” comics today ever will- his “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” bit was so damned good it was played before the justices of United States Supreme Court.

In recent years we’ve seen the departures of the only voices of dissent to have ever made any difference: Hunter S. Thompson, Norman Mailer, and now perhaps our last great critic of convention, all in an era when we need them at their most volatile in an all-too urgent way. We’ve spent so long in numbing self-delusion that his clarity of vision could only be called miraculous, and his willingness to share it was among the closest things I’ve ever known to a promise of redemption that I could believe in. Before the official canonization, let me declare his nomination here: in our shared cultural mythology, George Carlin is our saint of words.


Steven said...

Excellent, and worth the wait. Though there are a few things worthy of discussion:

1. There are still some staunch defenders of the republic (small r) left: Vidal, Nader, Eastwood. Carlin's a loss, certainly, as were Mailer and Vonnegut before him. But it's not like we're facing the future alone and desperate.

2. There's also something to be questioned about just why it is that these bullshit detectors of ours are so old. Has American culture reached a point where it can't foster that kind of iconoclasm anymore? And has that lasted for the last 40 years? I'm serious: outside of Stewart and Colbert (both operating well within the mainstream), who else is there?

Brendan K. said...

1) Nader squandered his cultural capital by running in 2004. He'll arguably never matter to the mainstream again. You might have a better case with a blowhard like Michael Moore. Eastwood isn't anywhere near overt enought to count in this conversation (though I do adore him so.) Vidal I will grant you.

2) Our bullshit detectors have aged because we have decided to pretend everything was fixed by Reagan/Clinton (depending on your persuasion) and everything else was dwarfed by 9-11 and fighting wars without having to raise taxes. Counter-culture was co-opted by Hot Topic and Hipsterism and luxery cars (by respective age groups.) We're soft. We're self-deluded.

And yeah, Stewart and Colbert are in the waaay mainstream. I'd argue Stewart doesn't belong in this conversation either, but Colbert is close. The musicians are all out too. Atheletes: Ali's still alive, but otherwise there've been none since... Arthur Ashe?

Steven said...

1. Nader isn't a party hack like Moore. He's equally curmudgeonly towards both parties (admittedly not a wide spectrum), but people still listen. Congresspeople especially. But you're right, gone are the days he'll be on Time, and that's to our detriment.

Maybe (gulp) Chomsky?

2. If counter-culture has been co-opted by corporate interests, as you say (and I agree with), wouldn't it be appropriate that another counter-culture pops up? That was my real question: why hasn't that happened yet?

Hava said...

What an excellent and fitting tribute, Brendan. I was lucky enough to see him last December. I went backstage to see if I could meet him, but he'd already vanished into the night.

I don't think I've ever been this sad about a public figure's death before. I was going to say "celebrity" but that's too trite for a man of his stature.

R.I.P, my hero. You will be missed.

Brendan K. said...


Where did you see Carlin? In LA?


I meant to emphasize that Nader just that far away from mattering now, not that Moore is anything less than an ideologue and company man himself. I considered Chomsky and Zinn, but I'm of the mind that the time of the public intellectual is over and it's never coming back. I look to profile to dictate cultural significance, and while I would certainly say that both men loom large in my world, we'd be lying to say that they represent anything substantial about our culture at large.

Counter-culture didn't end with the hippies or anything. I think that, say hardcore is a good example of an organic movement springing up with criticism firmly entrenched as an ideal. However, I also think that in the last few decades, our entertainment media and other corporate interests have gotten extremely good at co-opting such movements faster and faster to when they initially begin. (See also: DC, Hardcore & emo, corporate.)

Hava said...

Hermosa Beach, actually. At a place called the Comedy and Magic Club, on my birthday! Seriously, best birthday present ever. He performed the material that was to be his last HBO special.