Monday, June 23, 2008


Funnily enough, when I first heard of George Carlin's death, one line of his flashed through my head almost immediately. Surprisingly, it wasn't a line from Carlin's best known "Seven Words" routine. It was this line (and I'm probably not getting it exact): "If he's the undisputed heavyweight champion, then what's all the fighting about?"

I thought at first that this one line would come flooding to the surface of my mind at the news of Carlin's death. But after thinking about it at length, it now seems appropriate. Carlin was the beneficiary of many great comedic influences, blending the physical, direct comic communication of a Danny Kaye or an Ernie Kovacs with the darker, more abstruse social satire of Lenny Bruce, and somehow managing to out-funny all of them with a brand of comedy that was both accessible, without being dumbed down.

Of course, what Carlin brought to the equation was an amazing facility with words. And I don't mean simply in the sense he was glib. Nor do I mean to suggest that it was a matter of mere scholarship. Carlin understood that the world around us was built not out of a connective tissue of iron or stone or flesh or wood or concrete or bone but from language. More importantly, he was blessed with a keen and penetrating mind that was unnaturally attuned to decoding language. I suppose then, that the reason this one line wormed its way into my head is because it was a very clear example of what Carlin did best: examine the way in which the world was designed and expose the fraudulencies buried underneath.

The essential definition of comedy is the juxtaposition of a less-than ideal situation against a commonly understood ideal. The distance between the two is where the humor lies. A man slips on a banana peel, and we laugh, because ideally, he should not have slipped. What elevated Carlin, and made him unique even beyond his gift for language, is that he never simply revealed the butt of the joke and left it there - he was forever bringing his audience back to the ideal, because that was where the truth lay. A man slipping on a banana peel is funny, but the truth is that a man should be able to walk down the street unharmed. And with that same gift for language that he continually used to decode the universe and reveal its iniquities, he effortlessly communicated his point of view to an audience in a way that they could clearly grasp the truth for themselves. And that is why Carlin, at his best, didn't simply leave you entertained - he left you feeling a million miles tall and full of power.

I wonder if it is possible for everyone to tune themselves in to the frequencies that Carlin was picking up from the world around him. If so, maybe it's possible that we could come to have a better understanding of the rot that Carlin saw, all around him, and do a better job rooting it out and confronting it. It seems to me that if you began each morning and ended each day thinking on this one line of Carlin's - "If he's the undisputed heavyweight champion, then what's all the fighting about?"...repeating it, even, as a sort of daily mantra - it might be possible to slowly, if imperfectly, rewire our own minds and train our eyes to look for all the cracks in the foundation that Carlin saw.

Carlin once said: "If we could just find out who’s in charge, we could kill him." Well. I'm game!

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