Monday, June 23, 2008
GEORGE CARLIN RIP
It's rather too easy to exaggerate the virtues of a renegade celebrity when they finally pass on and glide into whatever ethereal after-existence one conspires to imagine, citing some usually short lived early insights into the layers of falseness and bad faith that sap us of our virtues , and turning a blind eye and a deaf ear when our late hypothetical rebel went sour, became hackneyed, and had exhausted all freshness of approach. We don't want our iconic iconoclasts to lose their reputation as relevant sayers of truth. The irony, of course, is that our collective mourning and remembrance wraps the departed with the same kind of wrap of cliche and truisms the truth teller sought to dispel; strange, wouldn't it seem, that the efforts of a Twain, a Thompson, a Richard Pryor or a Bill Hicks did nothing really to bring their generations to clarity and purpose, but only gave the old apologies a new coat of paint?
That's the dilemma when one sets themselves up as a a speaker of truth to power, as it were; in print one risks the charge of seeming shrill and paranoid, effectively marginalizing any effect one might have had on the discourse,and for the comedian, the risk is that one is charged with the worst crime of all, of not being funny. The late George Carlin, of course, never had a problem of being funny. At various times a social critic, a Menckenesque student of the innate ambiguities of language, a rather superb commentator and satirist specializing in the dialectic of unrealistic expectation meeting concrete and inevitable fact, Carlin caused laughter, nervous coughing, debates; and did, to some extent, provoke discussions after his comedy albums were played or his many HBO specials were finished, disagreements above and beyond the "funny bits" and laugh lines and landing on the subject near to Carlin's lovingly cynical heart, the collective delusions Americans rely on to buffer themselves against the stressed out and crushing banality of their (our) existence. His was the spotlight where Lenny Bruce, Mencken and Thorsten Veblen shook hands and polished the best insights into hard, fast and lacerating lines, given with a delivery which could, to steal a line from Norman Mailer, boil the fat from a cabdriver's neck.
One can maintain, no doubt, that Carlin was straining in the last ten years or so, that he was too acerbic at last, too acidic and joyless with the sharp stick he jabbed into the side of the obese culture he was attracted to as much as repulsed by. Perhaps; what I remember is that Carlin was a consistent cynic ever since he dropped his TV-friendly routines and brought some measure of refreshing independence to the shows on which he was a guest. Yes, I know, his criticism, his act, his jibes, his jeremiads were all an act, right. Yes, but that didn't make him a phony, and one had to admire Carlin's skill at remaining an effective entertainer for all the corrosive views he brought to the table. In a time when many a showbiz contrarian is soon revealed as disposable and ill-fitted for a long career, Carlin remembered what he was, at bottom, he remembered what made his skewed disposition marketable; he was an entertainer, a comedian. He could make you laugh, and that is a gift we see too little in our lives.