What can be said when your childhood icons pass? That thought came to mind on the way into work when I heard on the electric radio that George Carlin is dead.
I remember watching the first episode of “Saturday Night Live”, and the host of that premiere episode was George Carlin. He was funny, he was sharp, he was on the cutting edge of what is now called observational humor.
What really caught the ear was his instinct for language. Who can forget the “Seven Words”?
But Carlin was more than that.
He is one of the few comedians who completely reworks himself in the middle of a successful career to become a different kind of comic. Carlin began as your basic tell a joke kind of guy…the inheritor of Borscht Belt comedians. But as detailed in Comedy at the Edge, during the late 1960’s he realized his true instincts were not with his generation but of that generation that was slighly younger and wanting to change society…you know, the Baby Boomers. So Carlin restructured himself and became the observational comedian that we came to know.
An interesting aspect of the changeover was the way he found a unique comic voice that mixed the Borscht Belt joke technique with observational humor. Jokes have to be old a certain way to work…say something out of order, out of sequence, or use the wrong word, and impact is lost and the bit ruined. Observational humor is a bit different. A comedian can talk about a situation six different times to six different audiences and still be funny because they are drawing on a generally shared sense of something to get their laughs. Example-no matter how you lead up to it, a guy stands up to give a speech with his fly down…well, that circumstance is going to be funny almost any way you approach it.
Carlin took a middle path…he took that thing we were all aware of, pursued it from a different angle-like an observational comedian-but used specific language to make the routine sing-like the old style joke teller. Watch the Baseball/Football routine below, especially the conclusion, and think how precise the language has to be to get the best reaction.
Another way he was different is that Carlin never sought to be anything beyond a comedian. He never became a stadium concert stud ( as did Steve Martin) or tv star (Jerry Seinfeld) or movie star (Eddie Murphy). He was a comedian who loved language and analyzing how folks did things. Be it absurd, funny, or outrageous, he talked about us and how we did things.
Sometimes the language use is not purely analytical, but just fun…
George Carlin-you will be missed…and in honor of his memory, I will relate a true story about my father, his love for language, and a word that got struck from the 7 words list…and more or less in Dad’s words.
“I was serving in Europe during the War. It was Februrary of 1945, I was walking across the med camp I was based at (imagine a 500 bed MASH unit), and a buzz bomb hit the camp. The concussion blew me ass over teakettle about forty feet backwards, not unlike the ways bodies always went flying during those A-team explosions on television.
I struggeld to my feet and I found myself next to a supply truck. Cawling out from underneathy of it was an African-American driver who apparently dove underneath his truck at the first yell of “incoming”.
He looked at me and said “Damn! Those Motherf**king Motherf**kers done Motherf**ked us!”
My father then looked at me and said, “Isn’t that amazing? He used the same word three times in one sentence, and it was a different part of speech each time!”
I can easily imagine George Carlin telling that story, but I imagine he would have omitted the asterisks…and he may have added the word back to his list if only for its versatility.
George Carlin, R.I.P. You will be missed.
Other Links relating to Brother Carlin: