Sometimes comedy illuminates hard truths with a pointed urgency that other means can’t quite achieve. Sometimes comedy is just funny. This series of posts is mostly about the former instances, but the latter is valuable, too.
I was certain I had George Carlin all figured out. I’d been a fan since I was a little kid, when I’d do my best to blend into the furniture at adult parties I got dragged along to with the goal of listening along as the older attendees played Carlin’s comedy records. The mounting haziness and boisterous laughter of those adults thankfully prevented them from realizing the material reverberating through the hi-fi wasn’t particularly well suited to smaller ears and consequently doing their duty by hustling me from the room. I sat quietly giggling to jokes about farting dogs and crappy cookies, thrilled by the doses of dirty silliness. While my appreciation for Carlin evolved to be more about his facility with language, his HBO specials through the nineteen-eighties, all required viewing, were still filled with comedy based on fairly simple things: minor daily foibles, the strange ways words are used, the safest elements of the shared culture. I watched those hours with the hope that one of Carlin’s famous routines might turn up. I wanted to be reminded of the difference between baseball and football.
I’m not entirely sure how I was able to watch Carlin’s 1992 special, Jammin’ in New York. I was in college at the time, making cable television the first indulgence jettisoned when money got tight. I must have been splurging. However I got my eyes and ears on it, the show was a revelation. Carlin attacked his topics with a level of pointed commentary that I didn’t really associate with his prior work, even though it had always been marked by a certain amount of acidic cynicism. I wasn’t mistaken. The man himself saw this special as a turning point and thusly ranked it as his finest televised hour. One year after the blindered patriotism of the Gulf War, Carlin started the special with an extended rant taking apart the U.S. culture of perpetual war-making, marked less by punchlines than observations so resonantly truthful and challenging that the laughs emerged from the sheer audacity of what he was saying. A listing of the multiple failings of the nation’s industries and governmental programs was followed by Carlin aptly, fearlessly noting:
But we can bomb the shit out of your country, all right….Especially if your country is full of brown people. Oh, we like that, don’t we? Thats our hobby. That’s our new job in the world: bombing brown people. Iraq, Panama, Grenada, Libya. You got some brown people in your country, tell ’em to watch the fuck out, or we’ll goddamn bomb them!
It was true then, and it hasn’t changed one iota. Previously, Carlin often stayed away from the topical because he was leery of anything that might make his material seem dated. By going straight at the direst news of the day, he lit upon his most timeless observations.
Amazing as that opening was, it was Carlin’s closer that fully rocked me, in part because it spun the politics in an unexpected way, demolishing a sacred tenet of the left just as assuredly as the fevered militarization targeted in the earlier routine was a plank of the right that couldn’t be challenged. It’s easy to laugh and cheer when the comic is landing blows to the puffed up beliefs of political adversaries. The affect is altogether different when the hypocrisies of one’s own views are illuminated. On the special’s accompanying comedy album, it is called “The Planet is Fine.” Stemming from one his patented deconstructions of faultily chosen language, Carlin exposes the ways in which the cries to “Save the Earth” are the height of hubris and self-aggrandizement, largely because it obscures that self-preservation is the true goal. It is less heroism than desperation. None of this ultimately made me doubt my own meager efforts at responsible environmental stewardship, but I does cause me to think about my ultimate goal in sorting out the recyclables in a different way, one defined by humility instead of righteousness.
The resonance and purpose I now found in Carlin’s comedy was immense. In his posthumously published autobiography, Last Words, Carlin summed up the transformation: “I was beginning to realize something: I had a powerful new tool in my tool kit, though I’ve only made sparing use of it since. Getting laughs all the time wasn’t my only responsibility. My responsibility was to engage the audience’s minds for ninety minutes.” Previously, I considered comedy a desirable diversion. Carlin was the first to expand my perspective, letting me see that I had the potential to be so much more.
Previous entries in this series can be found by clicking on the “Laughing Matters” tag.