George Carlin appeared in a number of movies. The last one I saw him in was “Jersey Boys,” directed by Kevin Smith, who is himself something of an iconoclast, and like Carlin, a young man with Catholic roots.
Carlin was not much of an actor. That’s because he was performing material written by other people and playing fictional characters. George Carlin was best when he was playing himself, and that was on stage doing live comedy.
We needed Carlin, not because he was funny and irreverent, but because, in addition to being both of the above, he had something to say. A common clown can tell off-color jokes about “boobs” and “farts.” Ironically, the most conservative audiences respond to dirty little jokes so long as they are confined to double-entendres.
In Lake George years ago, I happened to see an act by some old geezer named Hurricane Hattie. Her act was rife with four-letter words. The audience howled at the sight of a cussing maternal figure. It was pretty lame comedy for an audience consisting mostly of men and women who wore double knits. It seemed clear they thought they were involved in something risqué when it was clear their excursions were little more than common naughtiness. We may descend from Puritans, but we have always loved off-color stuff. Abe Lincoln regaled friends at the country store and on his law circuit with ribald tales.
Americans have always loved naughty.
Carlin began by playing to these audiences, but then, as he confessed in an HBO routine, “It’s Bad for You,” he began to see the light.
“I was doing superficial comedy entertaining people who really didn’t care: Businessmen, people in nightclubs, conservative people — it finally dawned on me that I was in the wrong place, doing the wrong things for the wrong people.”
Like his hero, Lenny Bruce, Carlin had something to say about what he perceived as the hypocrisies within our culture. Bruce had no problem with authorities when he performed skits in which he used the “f” word. But when he did a routine about Jesus and Moses entering Manhattan through Spanish Harlem, asking Cardinal Spellman and Bishop Sheen why St. Pat’s had stained-glass windows at five grand a square inch while unfortunates lived in poverty, the law shut him down on the pretense of obscenity.
Suddenly, swearing became indecent.
Possessing the ability to make people laugh is a rare quality, but rarer yet is the comic who entertains and stings at the same time, reminding us of our follies. Sometimes, those slings and arrows hit targets we hold dear, especially when they underscore political, religious and sexual hypocrisy. The usual response is “Hey, let’s not get serious,” but as Carlin seems to have known all along, comedy can be serious stuff. There’s a tradition that goes back though Molière, straight back to the ancient Greeks.
Artist of the profane
Carlin was no Molière or Aristophanes, but he was a special, profane artist who ironically worked from a Catholic sensibility. He reacted strongly to that old morality concept that the body is “the near occasion of sin.” Sensing a contradiction in that edict, he made his intentions clear when he observed: “There’s an idea that the human body is somehow evil and bad and there are parts of it that are especially evil and bad, and we should be ashamed. Fear, guilt and shame are built into the attitude forward sex and the body. It’s reflected in these taboos that we have.”
Carlin wanted to help free us from fear and guilt-including taboos. Prancing about on the stage with almost balletic abandon, he looked like a high priest of comedy. He was, in his own way, a preacher, and he was anything but superficial.
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