The New Clarion

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George Carlin

February 28th, 2011 by Myrhaf · 2 Comments · Culture

I had more respect for George Carlin before I read his autobiography, Last Words, than after. The more you get to know about the man, the less you like him.

He was irrational all his life. As a youth he was a juvenile delinquent. He had the bad luck to go to a progressive elementary school, which he calls wonderful, one of the first to experiment with John Dewey’s ideas. He started a lifelong pot habit as a child. He dropped out after ninth grade. He was kicked out of the Air Force. He and his wife were alcoholics in an abusive relationship (until, to their credit, they got sober with the help of AA). A great deal of his wealth was snorted up his nose. He evaded his financial affairs and ended up in 20 years of trouble with the IRS.

And he was perhaps the greatest stand-up comedian of all time. Go figure! He started back in the 1960’s wearing a suit and tie and doing very funny bits like the Indian Sergeant and Al Sleet the hippie weatherman.

But he was not satisfied just being funny in a conventional way. It wasn’t him — nothing conventional was him. As he put it, he did something few Americans do: think for himself. He began to embrace the counterculture. The turning point was when he took LSD in 1969.

Dropping acid was a profound turning point for me, a seminal experience. I make no apologies for it. More people should do acid. It should be sold over the counter. Acid finally moved me from one place to the other; allowed change to take place — change that had been rumbling underground all the time, but which I still needed to have happen to me rather than initiate…. Suddenly all the conflict that had been tormenting me between the alternative values and straight values began to resolve.

He ditched the suit and tie, grew his hair long and began saying the seven words you can’t say on television. This started an evolution in his art that lasted until his death in 2008. By the late ’80s he wasn’t just trying to be funny, he was exploring in monologues what he really believed about everything from America to God.

He had a few good ideas: he was an atheist and dubious about environmentalism. For those stands alone, you have to give him a lot of credit. He did indeed think for himself, and the keepers of conventional wisdom on the left and right will never forgive him.

The rest of his ideas run from disastrous to ugly. He actually started as a right-winger who admired McCarthy. Then a liberal radio colleague took him aside and set him straight. Carlin realized that he stood for the little guy, not the greedy capitalist pigs, and became a Democrat. Yeah, for a guy who thought for himself, he was pretty much an idiot.

Although he would eventually lose confidence in all politicians, he never lost his basic left-wing orientation to politics. He had nothing but scorn for America, and said Americans have no rights — elections exist just to make people think they have rights. He thought private property was a bad thing because it made people individuals instead of members of a tribe. Back in some golden age before capitalism, all men shared property in this mythical tribal existence. It’s Rousseauian collectivism — and utter idiocy. God save us from entertainers whose ignorance doesn’t stop them from blabbing their opinions.

Worse than his puerile leftism, Carlin was a misanthrope. He hated mankind.

I no longer identify with my species. I haven’t for a long time. I identify more with carbon atoms. I don’t feel comfortable or safe on this planet. From the standpoint of my work and peace of mind, the safest thing, the thing that gives me most comfort, is to identify with the atoms and the stars and simply contemplate the folly of my fellow species members. I can divorce myself from the pain of it all…

My job is to watch the ludicrous dance down here from the humor and entertainment it provides and drop in every now and then to show my former species how fucked up they are.

Years ago I began to recede past Jupiter and its moons, out to the Oort cloud of trillions of comets…

Like the Joker, Carlin loved anarchy. In 2001 he was working on an HBO special to be titled “I Kinda Like It When a Lot of People Die.”

As I played out the piece onstage a character began to emerge who wasn’t just an advocate of death on a massive scale but a real lover of it…

What was great was that now I could be the clinical sociopath, play his glee at all the carnage, enjoy it, not just suggest it. And, by getting them to go along with my glee and laugh at it, driving home that this was something deep down in our psyche. That was confirmed by hearing this certain laughter of complicity from the audience, a knowing, accepting laughter.

Carlin is not just laughing at man’s foibles or moments of weakness here; he is making a cynical statement about man’s nature, a nature he sees as depraved. The events of September 11, 2001 killed the bit, and the special was renamed “Complaints and Grievances.”

Does cynicism and hatred for mankind make the best satirists? When you look at Jonathan Swift and George Carlin, you think it does. It’s enough to make me agree with Ayn Rand that the negative orientation of satire — condemning the bad — is not a healthy state of mind. Satire should be used as a seasoning, not a main course. How much more psychologically healthy it is to spend a life looking for the best within us.

UPDATE: Slight revision.

2 Comments so far ↓

  • L-C

    Though my sense of humor is crude at times, I mostly prefer clean stand-up, such as certain routines by Brian Regan and Jim Gaffigan (as modern examples).

    George Carlin seems like he could’ve done much better with his sense of independence. Though he of course predated him, from watching Carlin’s later shows he appears a bit like a Penn Jillette gone wrong in terms of ideas and sentiments.

  • Inspector

    Satire’s a legitimate profession, especially in this day and age. But you have a very good point.

    I think every field has its own particular pitfalls that are most prevalent due to the nature of the work.

    For people who work in law enforcement, it’s to see the world as more full of criminals than it likely is. For rock stars it’s drug overdoses.

    And for satirists, it’s cynicism and misanthropy.

    Consider it a professional vice.