George Carlin: Great American Philosopher
George Carlin, May 12, 1937 to June 22, 2008
George Carlin died Sunday. He didn’t depart the world, pass away, or pass on. We didn’t lose him, no, we’re pretty sure where he is. Its not that George didn’t make it, or George couldn’t be here today, or George is no longer with us. George is dead.
I was first made aware of George Carlin at the age 13, during a car ride to a mathematics competition with my 8th grade teacher and my best friend. My friend and I were two of our teacher’s favorite students, and he was our favorite teacher. He had one quality that no other teacher in our experience possessed, a sense of humor. This was a conservative, Catholic grade school. We wore uniforms, went to church every Wednesday, learned about Jesus in class, and occasionally had nuns as teachers and faculty. We were told that some things led to heaven, and some things led to hell. A lot of the stuff we found funny and liked to joke about was stuff that led to hell.
Our teacher put in the George Carlin tape “A Place for My Stuff,” on the 2-hour car-ride to the math competition, and within minutes, seconds, probably, my friend and I were completely entranced. After we listened to several hilarious, yet harmless sketches about the absurdity of the names of vegetables (kumquat? succotash?), the irritating overuse of the word “nice,” and the marvelous piece of anthropological deconstruction that is the album’s title track, we sensed our teacher becoming anxious. He moved to pull the tape out of the player, but we strenuously objected. I don’t remember the details of the exchange that led to the decision to keep the tape in, but I think they involved us all coming to the unspoken realization that we had passed a certain threshold. Carlin’s foul language alone may have been enough to get my teacher fired and possibly brought up on criminal charges. At the very least, it could have led to an ugly and uncomfortable scene involving a room full of parents, priests, and school officials, all circled around a portable tape player, George Carlin’s voice saying, “Have you ever noticed, most of these anti-abortion chicks…” and so on. After delivering a sworn oath to never speak of the tape or its content to anyone, not friends, parents, teachers, or priests, we listened on.
That was my initiation, and ever since then George Carlin became a figure I observed with passive interest, so that whenever his face popped onto the television screen, the channel surfing would come to halt. I always knew he would have something hilarious and fascinating to say, some new absurdity to call to my attention, some blatant hypocrisy to point out.
A few weeks ago, I was suddenly possessed with a renewed interest in George Carlin’s work. I spent several hours going over You Tube and Google videos that included old audio clips, full-length HBO specials, and televised interviews. Perhaps I was experiencing a vague sense of cultural hopelessness, a feeling that all was not right in the world and there was nothing I or anyone could do about it, that led me to seek a little solace in his comedy. I don’t know, but somehow Carlin popped onto my computer screen and I became, once again, entranced (while laughing so hard tears streamed down my cheeks).
I have thought about George Carlin at least once a day for the last month, and it felt incredibly strange to read of his sudden death last Sunday. He had just gained a new level of relevance in my life, and I had the feeling that he should gain a new level of relevance in all our lives, that now, more than ever, he was a man that needed to be listened to.
And now, George Carlin is dead, which is sad and all, but it also means there is going to be a huge, periodic burst of interest in the media and in the “public consciousness” in Carlin’s life and work. Dying is, after all, from a marketing standpoint, one of the greatest publicity moves an artist can pull off (see John Lennon, Kurt Cobain, Franz Kafka, Vincent Van Gogh, and Jesus). He croaked, and now there is going to be a whole slew of “Best of” Albums, HBO Specials, book sales, biographies, and on and on. I find this all very exiting, and I’m sure Carlin would find it exciting as well, if he happened to be in a position to care (and not, you know, dead).
I am not a George Carlin expert, I know very little about the details of his personal life or the intricacies of his off-stage personality. My perception of Carlin is fashioned, almost completely, on his stand-up material, his on-stage persona - a bitter, angry, nihilistic, misanthropic, vulgar old man; but above that, a staunch realist, a fearless social commentator, and a mad professor of linguistics.
Below the toilet humor, there is a rich philosophy. It is the philosophy of the “one man against the world,” the modern counterpart to the nameless beetle-man of Dostoyevski’s “Notes From the Underground.” In it, you will find no shred of optimism, no trace of hope. It is a point of view that many of us do not agree with, but it is a point of view that cannot be written off. It is a way of thinking that must be considered, it must be faced in all its vulgar detail, it must be experienced subjectively, as one uncomfortable step in the path of developing a greater understanding of the world and our place in it.
The Philosophy of George Carlin
The Human Condition:
Human existence is, essentially, a cosmic joke. Humanity, as a whole, is not something to be admired, it is something to be mocked. Human beings are the most ridiculous animals in existence. Despite our capacity for knowledge, we live our lives in willful ignorance. Despite our capability to reason, in the short time we have existed, we have done more damage to ourselves and our environment than any other known species. Humanity has passed its unimpressive apex of achievement, and is now well into the decline that will inevitably lead to its extinction.
The main function of government is to control a population. Governments are not interested in preserving freedoms or protecting or enhancing the general welfare of their citizens. The United States Government, as a whole, is a corporate-controlled, criminally minded institution that seeks only to promote the welfare of the ruling class. Voting, and the democratic process in general, is a waste of time as it is all based on the fallacious premise that elected officials are public representatives rather than corporate employees.
Religion is a tool for control and exploitation. There is no factual basis for any widely held religious belief. Organized religions promote violence, ignorance and intolerance, while simultaneously acquiring enormous material wealth. Religious beliefs have little positive influence in human behavior, especially due to the fact that it is quite natural for Religious Organizations and their followers to promote beliefs and behaviors that are inconsistent, irrational, and at times, paradoxical.
Language is a dynamic, evolving, culturally created phenomenon. As such, it can serve as an excellent gauge of the overall state of a cultural mentality. In American culture, there is a trend toward increasingly euphemistic language that seems to create a false sense of reality by dissociating the signifier(word) from the signified (the thing the word describes). Example: The phrase “developmentally challenged” is often used in place of “retarded.” What was once called “The Department of War” is now called “The Department of Defense.” (My examples, not Carlin’s)
Environmentalism is, as a whole, a pointless and arrogant human fixation. It is in our nature to destroy other forms of life in the process of destroying ourselves. Eventually, the earth and its environment, which form an organism of sorts with natural selection acting as a built-in cleaning mechanism, will correct the mild skin infection of humanity.
Nothing is ever going to change, f—k hope.