This Wednesday afternoon a group of George Carlin fans will converge on a street corner in Morningside Heights here in New York City to dedicate a street to the iconic comedian. Carlin, who died in 2008, still resonates with comedians and comedy fans as much as at any time when he was alive.
To merely get the city to consider naming a street in the neighborhood where he grew up after George Carlin, I had to demonstrate his importance to that particular community. But, it was what George Carlin meant to the comedy, comedy fans and comedy practitioners that is what the street sign is really a symbol of.
George Carlin did not invent the art of stand-up comedy. He was one of a handful of amazingly talented people whose efforts helped define what it is that we today, call stand-up comedy. Sure he was funny. Who isn’t? Just being funny is not enough to earn the title as one of the two or three greatest comics of all time.
A restless inquisitive nature is what I believe separated George Carlin from his contemporaries, making his body of work far superior to his competitors. George Carlin had a lifelong love of learning and questioned everything. He studied the complexities of the English language and the perplexities of religious faith. Possibly the first observational comic, the underlying theme of Carlin’s work was inquisition.
It was because George Carlin asked questions that we sought answers. He attacked the status quo and he pilloried the powers that be. He studied our use of language and the way that words are manipulated to manipulate the populace.
Comedy at its best, as George Carlin practiced it, holds a mirror up to society in a harsh light. It highlights our flaws and foibles. Unlike other art form that strive to achieve the same result, comedy is more effective because it delivers its message in a much more palatable form. As the song from Mary Poppins explains, “A spoon full of sugar helps the medicine go down.”
The genius of George Carlin is that he was able to get a much needed message to an otherwise oftentimes, apathetic populace without them realizing that their opinions were being shaped and changed.
Take for example the so often sited routing “Seven Words.” At first blush in this routine George Carlin seems to revel in finding all of the ways that he can work these “forbidden words” into his routine. He states them with a musical cadence and then brings them out one by one to be examined, dissected and reveled in.
The routine seems, while hilarious, a comedic exercise. The performer taking to the stage to see just how many times he can use these “forbidden words” in a bit and get away with it. How many ways can he curse? How long can he revel in these “bad words”?
For the audience it is titillating to hear a man stand on stage saying “those words.” It is hilarious and as a result the bit is legendary. But the genius of George Carlin comes when you get past the titillation and shock value. When you listen to the message, you see that he is making a statement about our society, what we value and what we view as shameful. He shows us the hypocrisy where in some contexts these very words are socially acceptable and at other times they are verboten.
George Carlin’s legacy is that of a social critic, a philosopher and a comedian. He thought outside the box and through humor, shaped public discourse and opinion. He lectured but never judged his audience. He poked holes in what we held sacred and questioned what we believed.
George Carlin was one of the greatest minds of the last century and I’d wager he’ll be one of the greatest minds of this century as well. His legacy lives on in the comedians who work each night trying to follow in his footsteps. Thanks to George no topic is out of bounds, no language is off limits. Thoughts are expressed freely and the audience is all the better for it.