I KNEW GEORGE CARLIN. I saw him exactly one week before he checked out. And I can tell you that George Carlin was no Tim Russert. There has been no long line of dignitaries, pols, power brokers, media bigwigs and other assorted bloviating fools and hucksters lining up to eulogize him. There’s been no scrum of the high and mighty publicly blubbering about what a warm and generous soul he was. There was no hour after hour of uninterrupted “news” coverage on CNN about the death of America’s most fearless social critic.
And, frankly, if Carlin were to learn that any of these jokers indeed had the gumption to actually show up to pay him their final respects, he would most certainly awake from the dead and cut one last fart right in their faces. Or he’d simply pop right up and out of the box, stare them in the eye and let loose with a full-throated version of his favorite line: “Blow me!”
Carlin’s own background overlapped much of Russert’s. Both were working-class Irish boys raised in the Catholic-run hatcheries of New York. But there was one big difference between the two: Russert was a courtesan to the powerful. Carlin, a sworn antagonist, hated, reviled and verbally tortured them. Russert idealized and commercially packaged his parochial heritage. Carlin spent his entire adult life rebelling against it. Just one more reason why you could learn more about the world from five minutes of any random Carlin routine than from watching five years of Meet the Press.
Long before packs of half-witted wankers invented shock jock radio and potty mouth talk, it was Carlin (following the path of Lenny Bruce) who — at great personal and career risk — directly confronted the puritanical and suffocating strictures of America’s electronic media. And it was about a lot more than him, in 1978, defiantly broadcasting what came to be known as the Seven Dirty Words: Shit, Piss, Fuck, Cunt, Cocksucker, Motherfucker and Tits.
Much more than a clown or comedian, Carlin was a dazzling performance artist who mastered the English language, harnessed its power and then deployed his verbal torrents to strip away the layers of deceptions, denials and lies that bolster the system — and often sustain our own personal lives.
I am privileged to have seen what was one of his last few performances, the weekend before his death. From front-row center at the Orleans in Vegas, I saw a Carlin still razor-sharp. He was absolutely relentless, and hilarious, in his merry savaging of all things religious and superstitious. He railed, wonderfully, against what he called the “bulllll-shiittt” of the American business ethic, the perpetual hustle, come-on and sales pitch that hums as the constant white noise of our existence.
I also count myself lucky to have been able — back in 2001 — to have done an extended interview with him. I want to share this portion of it:
COOPER: How cynical or pessimistic are you about politics, in general?
CARLIN: I’m certainly a skeptic. I always quibble with people. I like to split hairs. And I quibble with people who say, “Well, you’re cynical.” And I know there’s a second and third definition of cynical where my stuff fits. But, to me, the cynics are the ones in the boardrooms with the reports from the focus groups. And the belief that there’s a man in the sky watching us, watching everything we do, is so ingrained: First thing they do is tell you there’s an invisible man in the sky who’s going to march you down to a burning place if he doesn’t like you. If they can get you to believe that, it’s all over. Before you’re 6 years old, they’ve got you thinking that, they’ve got you forever on anything else they want. There’s no real education. It’s an indoctrination, training little producers of goods who will also be consumers of goods. Some will be on the producer side, and more will be on the consumer side. But you’re all being trained to be a part of this big circle of goods being pumped out and everyone buying them and everyone going to work to help make more of them for other people to buy.
I’ve given up on the whole human species. I think a big, good-sized comet is exactly what this species needs. You know, the poor dinosaurs were walking around eating leaves, and they were completely wiped out. Let the insects have a go. You know, I don’t think they’ll come up with sneakers with lights in them, or DustBusters, or Salad Shooters, or snot candy.
But a comet, say a big Arizona-sized comet smashing somewhere into the Pacific Ocean, would be pretty bad for business, wouldn’t it?
It would be terrible, and it would be wonderful. Just to see it all, you know. I only wish there were some way I could live out on the moon and watch it all on CNN. And just see the whole thing happen, see the big splash. Or have it hit, land and this big cloud erupt. That would be fun to see. I’m just a fan of big disasters. And that is as big as they get. Let ’em go. I just want to describe the mess.
But, you know, life is dual. If you’ll scratch a cynic, you’ll find a disappointed idealist. And the fire never goes out completely. And that part of me that made my mother say “You have a lovely nature” is very true.
THOSE LAST COUPLE OF LINES are quite revealing. Yes, Carlin vaunted himself as a raging misanthrope, a zealous cheerleader for humanity’s obsessive self-destructiveness. But all that rage was but a symptom of a severely betrayed optimism and hope. Carlin wanted to see the best in people, but people sure made that hard to do.
That’s about all in the way of classic obit-speak I want to say about an intellect who was one of the most influential in my own maturation. To say anything more, especially anything maudlin or saccharine, would be not only disrespectful but also way beside the point. George Carlin knew there was no afterlife, and that’s why he lived every one of his days so damn ferociously, still staging 80 or 90 road performances per year at age 71. His pleasure came from rippin’ everyone a new one a couple of times a week — not from imagining some moment when he would be reunited with his dreaded family somewhere up in the sky.
Here was a guy who advocated plowing up the dead and “recycling” their remains. I’ve no doubt that his final wishes included something like being ground up into dog food.
So, George, every time I pop open a can of Alpo, I promise to pause for a moment, reflect on all the crap that goes into that gruel, and to think fondly of you.
Now back to regular programming.