Yes, it’s my turn to euolgize him. I’m not a huge fan, I’ve probably only heard half his stuff, but I’ve been listening to him for almost ten years. Whether you agree with him or not, you have to admire his intelligence. That always scores points with me. There’s too much idiocy and mediocrity everywhere, not just in comedy, so someone like George is a beacon of light. Rather than go on, I’ll just make a list of things I loved about him and how smart he was.
1) His love of language. Whether in his less irate 70s comedy, or more recent diatribes, language, words, their use and meaning was a frequent topic of his. The humor could be observational and harmless, or later specials like Doin’ It Again, Jammin’ in New York, and You Are All Diseased, he went a bit deeper and showed us just how pervasive, influential, and powerful words really are.
2) His subversion. I have and will always believe that his renowned profanity was merely a way to get your attention, so maybe you’d listen a little longer. He always got a rap for swearing, but if you listen to his actual words (imagine that, patience, and not judging a book by its cover!), his intelligence is razor-sharp. I think he knew that most people are cretins and that’s the only way to get attention is to shock them. I always found it funny and ironic that a majority of the people in his crowds are the “ha ha, he said ‘fuck’ ha ha” while everything is going over their heads. I always feel bad when an intelligent comedian like him says something, then few people laugh, not because it’s not funny, but because he is by leaps and bounds the smartest one in the room. Then, in order to keep the cretins awake, he punctuates the joke or observation with a swear, or makes an easy, pandering joke. (I’m sure you’ve observed this phenomenon before.) I know this was intentional, this was his adaptation.
3) His anger and/or disdain. I’m aware that in his later years, he ranted a lot, and repeated a lot of the same stuff, but at least he gave a fuck. I’m sorry to sound curmudgeonly, but the things people laugh at, the films and shows that get patronized, youtube and “alternative comedy”, my lord. I don’t think it’s self-important to lament the absence of scathing, topical humor, given the shithole of a world we live in. You can do something about it, or stick your head in the sand. I know one can’t care about everything all the time, but I’ve talked to people who admit they just don’t follow or care about politics, world events, etc. Probably why I don’t have a lot of friends. I mean, I’m terrible at keeping up, but I try to stay relatively informed, or at least have an opinion. Suffice to say, Carlin’s is most definitely a dying breed (no pun intended, obviously). He may have been repeatedly political and social, but it’s a known fact how ignorant Americans are, so a nagging voice of reason is always necessary.
4) His honesty. Again, get past the dirty words and he is saying something honest. Ideally, it’s one of the duties (ideally) of a comedian to say the things we think but are too afraid to say or admit, and not only was his ability to do this immaculate, but he was conscious enough to be aware of this and remind us if that.
5) His balance. He could be mercilessly caustic, but he could be observational and innocuous. As I mentioned before, it gets exhausting being “important” all the time, which is the same for him. He started out in comedy as a goof, and carried it with him ever since, in his bits, and physicality, one of his underrated talents. (Look at his facial expressions in You Are All Diseased after he says “you want to know how you can help out your children? Leave them the fuck alone!” Love it.) Another example, look at the children’s entertainment he’s been a part of. He can be G-rated too. That’s multi-faceted.
6) And finally, his humanism. Despite his rants and his cynicism, he was an idealist at heart, which is what makes most of us cynics the way we are: seeing how things could be, then having to look at how they are. He’s more introspective than you’d think. There are too many instances and bits to demonstrate this, but my favorite comes from the very end of his 1992 HBO special Jammin’ in New York. Not only is the last segment incredibly poetic and sobering, including his take on environmentalists— “Save the planet? We don’t even know how to take care of ourselves, we haven’t learned how to care for one another!”— but as he says good night, his last words are “take care of yourself, and take care of somebody else.” Given his other comedy, I think he’d agree that with all the shit going on around us, that’s all we can hope for.
I could have cited Jammin’ throughout this entire post as a perfect example of all these points, but I highly recommend you watch it. In fact, I’ve been watching it the last 40 minutes. Every time I watch it, it’s never old, it’s never irrelevant, always thought-provoking. Please watch it.