George Carlin: An American Icon
by Daniel J. Durand
I think most people would balk when told about the subject of my paper. I know that in conversation, when I mention George Carlin, the first thing out of someone's mouth is inevitably “He's so filthy! I just don't tolerate that kind of nonsense.” I find that to be very sad, because to close themselves off from such a brilliant talent, someone who was so much more than a string of sex jokes, is a real tragedy. And all because he doesn't come wrapped up in a neat, clean package.
The thing about George Carlin is that he's hard to fit into a stereotype. He's just George. When he wrote, when he performed, he did more than just make people laugh- he put himself on display. Carlin's rants about the English language, politics, everyday taboos, those were all really things he had thought about before getting in the spotlight, not some party's set of “core values” to be taken in and regurgitated back out, spreading themselves like a virus amongst the psyche of a million people. When Carlin said something, it was something.
People don't seem to realize that our lives are filled with a lot of nonsense. It's useless, contradictory nonsense that gets in the way of happiness. Instead of just being, rather than following our hearts and minds and souls, we instead collect ourselves with some other identity- religion, politics, table manners, these are only some of the more obvious examples. After a while, we begin to resent those outside of our own realm, those who do not follow the same rules or obligations as us. These people are to be brought alongside, made to think the same way as us, eliminated, or merely tolerated.
We create messages, gain publicity, do everything we can to put these groups further into the eye of the public, recruiting, parading, competing with the opposite groups. We fabricate the answers to the questions all people ask, build a place for ourselves to belong. All of this to avoid the pain in knowing that each one of us is alone, unique and capable by ourselves.
Carlin simply didn't do that. He attacked every (or if not every, he sure made a stab at most) common thought in our society, and not out of spite, but because that's who he was! No matter what, Carlin stayed true to himself, and not these groups that seek to collect people for their own ends. That's why I chose him for my paper, that's why I own all of his books, and that ought to be enough justification for anyone. I am so very tired of people who mangle and bastardize their own talents just to fit them into the realm of “acceptable”, and so many authors do this every day with books that are written to prove a point and not simply because the author enjoys writing.
Now that I've explained all of that, we can get on to the background information. Carlin was born in New York on May 12, 1937, to a drink-loving father and conservative, social climbing mother. He had an older, often abused half-brother, Patrick, from his father's previous marriage. After things between his parents went cold, the Carlin boys were raised by their mother, who would try to groom them to be upstanding members of a very Catholic society. This caused Patrick to rebel, eventually joining up with the Air Force and convincing his idolizing younger brother to do the same.
Carlin had always been the class clown in school, but a stint as a radio DJ during his time in the Air Force was really what got the ball rolling on his entertaining career. After being discharged (he was called an “unproductive airman”), Carlin moved to Boston, where he continued to work as a DJ until he was fired. He then moved to Fort Worth, where he began working with Jack Burns. The two comedians rocked the airwaves until they decided they needed to move on to something bigger. Burns and Carlin packed their bags and left for Hollywood.
An important change occurred while Carlin worked with Burns. Any inkling of a Conservative, right-wing perspective left him entirely as he shrugged off his Catholic roots and embraced a more Liberal attitude- politically “crossing the street” as he put it. Now, as I mentioned, Carlin stayed true to himself. Although it seems a tendency of the young to suddenly break loose and seek freedom, often changing their views on certain things, in his autobiography Carlin never leads to any suspicion that his motives were anything other than personal. He was legitimately tired of Conservative ideas like patriotism, the military-industrial complex, and a blind hold on religious ideology. This lead to much of his anti-establishment style humor.
Burns and Carlin continued to gain popularity and began to travel around the country before eventually breaking up in Chicago. It was during one of their acts, however, that Carlin met his future wife, Brenda. The couple clicked instantly, and before long they were engaged. They married on June 3, 1961.
Carlin began touring the country solo, staying mostly around Chicago. He and Brenda traveled together and were “a very good team”, as Carlin wrote in his autobiography. Then, roughly a year after they were married, Brenda became pregnant and went home to her parents to have the baby while George stayed on tour. The baby was born soon after, a girl they named Kelly. Eventually Carlin decided to make a stand in New York rather than travel from place to place, hoping to gain a bit of stability.
The Cafe Au Go Go became this stability. The Go Go was at the time the center of entertainment in New York, and they offered Carlin a sort of freelance, semi-regular position doing stand-up. Near this time in Carlin's career, Lenny Bruce, a close friend of Carlin and his wife, was arrested several times for public obscenity. It soon became apparent that most of the arrests were being carried out by Irish Catholics who had an ax to grind with Bruce for his ridiculing of the Catholic church. This drove a spike between Carlin and many of the neighborhood children he had grown up with, some of whom had helped with the arrests.
The time at the Go Go spawned Carlin's famous “Indian Sergeant” routine, his first “TV act”, which led to his spot on The Merv Griffin Show and later The Mike Douglas Show , which he hated, as he felt it kept him bottled up. Carlin bounced around different television shows for a while, becoming a regular on Kraft Summer Music Hall, where he came up with the “Al Sleet: Hippy-Dippy Weatherman” skit before switching to acting, something he had wanted to do since he was a boy. Unfortunately, his acting career became less than stellar in his own eyes, and so he went back to TV.
Carlin started to feel stale. In the late '60s, his comedic material hadn't really changed too much, and he began to feel like he was slipping, not doing what he wanted to do, being held back by the mainstream and not being too creative anymore. He started to rebel against this, ditching the suit and tie and letting his hair grow out, falling in more with the hippie counter-culture. Again, he thought he was going in the right direction, and for himself rather than just following the crowd. His appearance and looser, liberated humor began to draw criticism, costing him many job offers. He was fired from a particular club in Vegas for saying “ass”, and critics considered him a wash-out.
Carlin went from success, being one of the shining stars of his field, to the lowest of the low, forgotten and unwanted by the people who had helped him get into the success in the first place. He could have kept his hair short, dressed nice and stayed on television; but he didn't because he wasn't happy doing it. At the time, it cost him his career, all the fame and fortune he had built up over the years. Mainstream comedy had turned it's back on him.
He kept going anyway, still doing shows and releasing comedy albums. He was fired once more in Vegas, again for using mild obscenities, this time in a gag about double-meanings of certain four-letter words. This very event formed part of the basis for what is arguably Carlin's most famous routine, the “Seven Dirty Words”.
At the Playboy club in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin, an audience turned to an angry mob when Carlin poked fun at Vietnam, Nixon, and poverty. The club refused to pay him. Carlin drove to Hugh Hefner's mansion, hoping to get some understanding (he knew Hefner personally) from someone who had supported his type of humor in the past. He got none.
Broken, disillusioned, and rejected, Carlin and his family were forced to move to a low-rent apartment (and later a very seedy part of L.A.) after the money ran out and they could no longer afford their Beverly Hills home. However, in 1971, his comedy albums began to grow astronomically in popularity. Over the next couple of years, Carlin began his climb back to the top. People (especially college-aged people) began to accept him again. In 1972 Carlin played Carnegie Hall, receiving a standing ovation for the same routines that had gotten him fired in the past. It seemed as though Carlin had finally found the right audience.
The old criticism hadn't died, though. Carlin was arrested for public obscenity in Milwaukee after performing his “Seven Dirty Words”. The court case was thrown out by the judge, who laughed at the material, but a later radio airing of the same sketch in New York caused the broadcast station to be fined by the FCC. This was ultimately brought to the Supreme Court, who set legal precedent on what was considered obscene in broadcasting and resulting in many stations airing potentially volatile material late at night when children would be asleep.
In 1975, Carlin hosted the first Saturday Night Live . Carlin kept producing comedy albums, and performed two HBO specials in the latter half of the '70s. Movies became an option again, and Carlin tried his hand at acting a second time in the movie Car Wash . Unfortunately, Carlin also experienced a second downturn, as new, younger comedians (many inspired by Carlin) began to emerge, competing with Carlin's image as a sort of old-timer. His material began to stagnate once again, and people started to forget about him.
A new manager and one heart-attack later, Carlin came back from obscurity and blew the '80s wide open. He was finally able to shake the misconceived image of the aged hippie, now making fun of both sides of politics, Liberal and Conservative alike. He played Carnegie Hall a second time in 1982, and his career kept on going, with more HBO specials and movies like Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure . Carlin wrote his first book in 1984, entitled “Sometimes a Little Brain Damage Can Help”.
Carlin kept going strong into the nineties with The George Carlin Show , and his role as Mr. Conductor on the children s' television show Shining Time Station (which was the first place I ever saw him). The nineties also marked the death of Carlin's wife Brenda, and his second book, “Brain Droppings ”. By the year 2000, Carlin was firmly established. He had broken away from the mainstream and succeeded at it. Over the next few years, Carlin married comedy writer Sally Wade, appeared in three more HBO specials, and wrote two more books, “Napalm and Silly Putty ”, and “When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?”, before his death in June of 2008.
Now, as the reader can see, the majority of this paper has been biography, which was not necessarily the original purpose. However, I thought it would be important to grasp the life of this man, if for nothing else than to show how his life affected his writing. Carlin wrote a total of six books (I only mentioned four, because the last two were posthumous releases, one being “Watch My Language ”, and the other was his autobiography, “Last Words ”), five of which were towards the end of his career. These books, while containing original material, were also filled with parts of his routine going back to the '60s.
To truly judge Carlin's writing, you would of course have to read his books. But, to validate my arguments in the beginning of this essay, I have selected a few quotes from some of his writing. This first citation is the end result of his attempt to modify the Ten Commandments, which says a lot about his outlook on religion;
THOU SHALT ALWAYS BE HONEST AND FAITHFUL, ESPECIALLY TO THE PROVIDER OF THY NOOKIE.
THOU SHALT TRY REAL HARD NOT TO KILL ANYONE, UNLESS, OF COURSE, THEY PRAY TO A DIFFERENT INVISIBLE AVENGER THAN THE ONE YOU PRAY TO.”
(“When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops” , pages 17-18)
This may be a result of thoughts brought on by his Catholic upbringing, or later events in his life such as the series of events that revolved around his friend Lenny Bruce. Carlin eventually became somewhat of an atheist, and made jokes about worshiping the sun, or Joe Pesci. He did not seem to have much use for religion.
Another one of Carlin's pet subjects was words, word usage, and the English language. He loved pointing out the discrepancies, the trivial bits of language that we fix so much meaning to, yet are meaningless. As much as I would love to, I cannot print his “Seven Dirty Words” here, so instead, here's some of his other word-plays...
Anticlimax: What my uncle was good at.
Chess: The piece movement.
Outspoken: When you lose a debate.
Beer nuts: The official disease of Milwaukee.
Cotton balls: The final stage of beer nuts.
Cap pistol: A small gun that can be hidden in your hat.
(“Brain Droppings” pages 63-64)
These have a point in common with the religious aspects of Carlin's material- faulty logic is the center of the joke. Cap pistol is a perfect example of this, as you could draw that conclusion fairly easily. In reality, “caps” are little paper gunpowder capsules. Cap refers to two different things. Logically, both can't be correct, right? George's Second Commandment works the same way: Religion tells us that to kill another human being is murder, and a sin, and yet we have the Crusades. It contradicts itself.
The final major point of Carlin's humor was a true distaste for political correctness. This ties in to the other two points I've made so far, as Carlin saw political correctness as merely another way for the establishment to control people- the establishment being anyone seeking to control. My final example;
“A Detroit couple is suing Campbell's soups, claiming a bowl of alphabet soup spelled out an obscene message to their children. They state that at first the little letters floated around in a circle, and then formed the words suck my noodle .
A man wearing a Have a Nice Day button was killed yesterday by a man who works at night.
The Bureau of Indian Affairs has announced they have located another Mohican. Accordingly, all the books are being recalled and will be changed to read: The Next to the Last of the Mohicans .” (“Napalm and Silly Putty” pages 92-93)
To recap, Carlin is an American comedian, but he is also an American author, and one I hope to emulate. He wrote what he thought, what he believed, not what some movement told him to write. Carlin's entire life and career followed that same pattern, and although the books he wrote came at the latter part of it all, I think that proves their value; they hold the final conclusions of a man who thought as he thought.
Carlin, George. Brain Droppings. New York: Hyperion, 1998
Napalm and Silly Putty. New York: Hyperion, 2001
Last Words. New York: Free Press, 2009
When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?. New York: Hyperion, 2004