HBO recently presented a great two-part documentary, George Carlin’s American Dream. He started as a conventional, clean-cut comic in the 1960s, and evolved into a counterculture icon in the 1970s. He continued performing until shortly before his death in 2008.
This post is another in my What I’m Reading series.
Mr. Carlin really came to fame for his routine, “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” which he first performed in 1972. (FYI, the offending words are “shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits.”) He was arrested seven times for performing it, but the big deal was that it became the basis of a, pardon my language, shitty US Supreme Court decision, that upheld the Federal Communication Commission rule against material that is not obscene but is merely “indecent” (which presumably is protected by the First Amendment). The real pisser is that the rule is still in effect today. It applies only to broadcasts regulated by the FCC, so people can say whatever they damn well please in other media.
This routine was typical of much of his work in that it was a serious work of social criticism, not merely titillation or mindless comedy. As his career progressed, it became increasingly important to him that he write material that reflected his distinctive perspective.
Although much of his criticism was directed at traditional, conservative views – his routine about abortion could have been done this year – he criticized liberals too, as in this piece ripping environmentalists.
Mostly, however, he was against things that don’t make sense but people accept them without recognizing (what he saw as) the folly. Perhaps the clearest example is his religion is bullshit bit about the “invisible man” in the sky with a list of ten things he does not want you to do.
In some interviews, he said he was against authority, but he sometimes qualified it as being against arbitrary authority. So it was really institutionalized arbitrariness that he opposed.
Toward the end of his life, his comedy took on a darker mood. He said that he didn’t care anymore. But I don’t think that was it. His rants were full of as much emotion as ever. He called himself a “disappointed idealist,” which sounds more accurate. His critiques always seemed intended to help people see the world as it is and fix our problems.
Fortunately, much of his work has been recorded and is available on YouTube.
For more details about his life and career, check out his Wikipedia page.
His daughter, Kelly Carlin, was an executive producer of the documentary and obviously contributed a lot of material about his personal life. It touchingly portrays his bittersweet first marriage. Early in his career, he and Brenda fell madly in love, and she essentially was his staff. As he became more successful, he hired professionals, leaving Brenda at home. She developed a serious drinking problem, and he abused cocaine and was emotionally abusive to her. Fortunately, they both overcame these demons and fell back in love. He did some of his best work after that.
Take a look.