Monday, June 23, 2008

George Carlin – Occupation: Exquisite Fool

Even in this age of over-the-top celebrity worship, which is all the more irritating because so many of today’s celebrities are an incarnate homáge to mediocrity, there are still some artists/ entertainers/ Stars who feel like personal loved ones and when they die, it is very much a death in the family. I felt that way about John Lennon and Kurt Vonnegut and Richard Pryor, and I feel that way about George Carlin. I loved him dearly and I’m heartbroken that he’s gone.

Some of the public comments about his death have noted that George Carlin was, with Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, the Holy Trinity of American Comedy. Indeed. Like Bruce and Pryor, Carlin had a uniquely spectacular comic voice that used goofy humor, intellectual humor, shock and awe to speak the truth, express our shared rage, and embody our sorrow. I’m so grateful that in addition to his many albums, there are his 14 HBO specials, which comprise a priceless body of recorded work that spans his stand-up career from the late 1970s to this past April.

I was up in the middle of the night last night and when I checked my email at going on 4:00 this morning, there was a New York Times Alert waiting for me, saying that George Carlin had died from heart failure on Sunday evening in a California hospital at age 71. My mother was 71 when she died from a heart attack 13 years ago. That was a life-altering event. This one has left me feeling sad and anxious and rather disoriented all day. I never got back to sleep. I went right to the full obituary and posted a comment, then re-posted it here in the Tower. I’ve been online all day, reading obituaries, interviews, talk-show transcripts and public comments from around the country and around the world.

George Carlin played a major role in shaping the mindset for many of my generation. From the first to the end he was smart and sharp and a master of wordplay. He was totally cool, always the hipster (never a hippy, he was straighter than that). He was a fascinating blend of innocent, infantile, cynical and incensed. “Scratch any cynic and you’ll find a disappointed idealist,” he once said. He voiced the unthinkable, the unspeakable, the sage, the silly. He was not timely (he rejected timely, said it didn’t have enough shelf life), he was pertinent; not political so much as sociological. He didn’t want the burdens of leadership (he had burdens enough of his own) but he accepted the responsibilities that come with knowing what’s in people’s hearts and saying it out loud.

I visited George Carlin’s Web site, which hadn’t been updated yet, so his calendar of events came up as “Upcoming Carlin Appearances as of June 23, 2008” and listed club dates from July through December. What a melancholy “life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans” moment it was, seeing that. On the home page, there’s a crawl of Carlin quotes, some funny, some cute, some profound:

Those who dance are considered insane by those who can’t hear the music.

I almost don’t feel the way I do.

Some nights the wolves are silent and only the moon howls.

We’re all fucked. It helps to remember that.

Another Carlin quote I found (I can’t remember if it was in an obituary or a review of one of his comedy specials) said this: “I don’t have a stake in this adventure now — the cultural, historical adventure of America and the biological adventure of this species on the planet. I don't care what happens to this country. There’s no changing the way this planet is headed. So I kind of watch it as entertainment.” I feel that way so much of the time, but bigmouth that I am, it’s hard even for me to say that.

I’ve heard it said that when loved ones die, we lose the witnesses to our lives. We’ve just lost one of the greatest witnesses of our time.

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