George Carlin: The Triumph of Bullshit
by John Kendall Hawkins
"We shall never understand one another until we reduce the language to seven words."
"-Kahlil Gibran, Sand and Foam
There's a new two-part series streaming on HBO well worth a watch: George Carlin's American Dream. I was expecting an extended display of his comedy wares, but it wasn't that, and I wasn't disappointed. The series is about his life. His families. His cultural background, economic status. How his comedy developed from the Sixties onward, during the most turbulent time in America, when, as the Bard from Duluth, "revolution was in the air." Context.
Context is everything in comedy. George explained how it worked when he did perhaps his most famous gag: "The Seven Words You Can't Say." Words are beyond good and evil, and depend on context for their value and interpretation. We all seem to agree on that, and one could argue that context is the white knight that emerged from the laundry cleaning of the Canon that postmodernism has stuck down our throats. That was a gag. I didn't mean anything. Don't cancel me just yet. Okay, that was more Don Rickles than George Carlin, but the latter had a point when he excoriated political correctness, the love/hate child of the post-mod dialectic.
For much of his teenage and adult life George Carlin saw America for what it really was behind the glitter that was in everything -- bullshit. Most people lead lives of noisy desperation, once electricity kicked in. Thoreau would have been a nude fish during the night in jail he spent to protest how The Man had his plebs over the barrel, singing domestic sweatshop blues disguised as a gig economy. Carlin's was a gag economy. Get it? It's all bullshit.
He had them not only laughing in their seats, but crying the cleansing tears of hamartia. He was like Aristophenes among the frogs that way. Or was it the clouds? The one where Socrates does stand-up he called the Apology, and was roundly booed offstage, and was condemned to death for trying to enlighten the schoolies with treasonous deconstruction tricks. It was an ideal democracy in Athens, but led by Jimmy Jones types. You know, the Kool-Acid Test types, bells in the hair. Socrates said f*ck It, tell Asclepius he's a co*k and I owe him one, give me the hemlock and move the f*ck off. Bullshit, his final word. You can't make 'em think.
One of the things I enjoyed the most about the series was the generous inclusion of Carlin's families. We learn about his genetic make-up, him detailing how his Irish Catholic mom and dad had that characteristic linguistic cleverness we've all come to love and admire -- except for the "colored" kids on the yellow school bus going through Southie on any given morn in the segregation 80s in Beantown, where a molasses factory once exploded like a fat wet fart and deluged the olde towne -- yes, cleverness, and tales of the devil's own at work, merry as a leprechaun under the spell of a drink, chasing away snakes and Orangemen in the foggy morning coming down, usually Sunday, when ol' Maggie kicked them in the head.
In short, his folks were funny and mean, often displaying untender signs of domestic intranquiity. But they taught him the soul of stand-up. George tells us,
Dad was a natural comedian with a line of sh*t that wouldn't quit, and he was an after dinner speaker. He won the Dale Carnegie Speaker's contest over 600 and something other entrants. My mother could tell stories. They both did character voices when they would tell you an anecdote.
We see these traits prodigiously displayed throughout George's career -- the stage stamina, the storytelling gift, the characters and their twists, logic and expression.
Separation, but no divorce. Abortion never mentioned. All under the rubric of Catholicism. Patriarchal. Mother Mary in her wisdom place. If Dad wanted to sit around drinking Thunderbolt all day in Londonderry with his fellow gods, hating on the Brits, that was his prerogative. Mary would just have to suck it up and become a charwoman. Then U2 came along and liberated souls and Ma became ethereal like Enya overnight, and Harrison Ford in Patriot Games showed how brutal it could be, and the accords were signed.
So, Carlin's Mom stopped throwing objets d'art (er, knicknacks) and got away from Dad, and she raised the lad, along with his brother, Patrick, in a new majesty of struggling stability and irenic squalor. George got confirmed by priests, but chose not to become a choir boy, choosing a life on a different lam instead -- to stand-up and deliver comedy: It's all bullshit. And we laughed so hard we cried tears, we cried a river, and the river led us to the sea, and the sea parted and led us through, for a few drink hours, to the promised land of mirth and merriment before some schmuck yelled Closing Time and we went back to Maggie on the farm, or to some other iteration of the Titicut Follies so many call lives.
And especially cool were the interspersed interview snippets of George's brother, Patrick, and his daughter, Kelly. At one stage, Carlin's success in the saturation glitzpool of Los Angeles starting to erode his marriage and worldview, he brings out older Patrick to keep him honest and rooted in his childhood upper west side lower middle class White Harlem vibe. Patrick is a real "stand-up" guy, one who lavishes his brother's legacy with genuine praise, the kind of brother you'd die for. He recalls for us the break up of the family and the violence involved, in one incident, where the father chases after the mother who's absconded with the kids and gets found:
She went out the window on to the fire escape and my old man tried to tear the f*cking door off the hinges. And we jumped into my uncle's car and he drives us up here to the Catskills where we hid out. And we were vagabonds for about two or three years until she found an apartment and we established a little -- what she'd call it -- our little home. After their separation. Catholics didn't get divorced.
Many Carlin aficionados would agree that such banging down the door could describe his style up there on stage. Why can't I get through to you?
But the real treat of these familial interviews is Kelly, Carlin's daughter. Tender and insightful, she loquaciously explains the family life, especially the marriage between her mom and George which started out so idyllic -- they, Brenda and George, just loved each other profoundly -- and she watches it come apart with his growing success as a comedian that required him to be on the road, like Willy Loman, selling gags door-to-door, leaving them behind, Brenda frustrated by her own lack of growth as a person. Kelly doesn't gloss over:
I remember the pressure of going to school and having to pretend like everything was fine when it really, really wasn't. There was violence in the house. Mom was a very aggressive, horribly angry drunk. And my dad also had his father's anger and rage in him. And so I had the therapist's phone number and would call him at 2 a.m.. They're ready to kill each other. What do I do?
George was clearly repeating the trauma of his own childhood and setting up the next generation -- Kelly -- for said trauma. It would come back to haunt him to the end.
Brenda, too, is well represented by the film, which is even-handed in every way. Her love for him was real; her support was enthusiastic and often long-suffering. George learned late, almost too late, that her life mattered, too. Stay-at-home boredom, as much as anything, contributed to an emerging period of boozing while he was away, and her shadow side (h/t Jung) sometimes took over when George was home and it got violent. More so, after Carlin brought home his cocaine habit and discovered it was transferable. They tried to get around the ostensible source of their tensions -- his road life, her unsatisfying homemaker life -- and go off on "vacation" together, but they brought their crutches. Kelly describes the scene:
It's awful, but some of us probably wish we'd thought of Kelly's idea. Hey, why don't they do that in Ukraine. One guy's off the vodka, the other off the graft. Peace.
George's early influences are developed in the storyline. His early straight schtick with his partner in comedy, Jack Burns, that was more doofy-goof than the acerbic wit he flashed later alone. We hear of his fondness for Danny Kaye, Jerry Lewis, Jonathan Winters, the Marx Broters, Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce. Black comedians, Richard Pryor, and Flip Wilson, big in the 70s, who was a significant booster just as Carlin was in danger of being hooked off stage by the obscenity police. Wilson invited Carlin to put his act on vinyl, where his records became a huge hit. He appears to have been one of those rare gateway errants (coughs) who went from marijuana to LSD to cocaine, with each stage representing a mini-paradigm shift in his life and career, going from straight to counterculture to acerbic.
Carlin was in trouble for his aforementioned gag about "The Seven Words You Can't Say On TV." It was like he felt compelled to out-do Lenny Bruce, who had made a reputation out of foulmouthedness and "obscenity." (Remember how it made a comeback with Warren Beatty in Bullworth?) And by today's standards, those 7 words -- sh*t, p*iss, f*ck, c*nt, c*cks*cker m*therf*cker and t*ts -- are almost anachronistic. (Bizarrely, you can now hear Carlin say these words on YouTube, but they are censored in closed-caption, as we need to protect the deaf. But I'll tell you: You've never been flipped off until you've been flipped off by a deaf person. Ouch.) In 1972, Carlin got arrested for uttering profanity "that will infect your soul, curve your spine and keep the country from winning the war.... during a Milwaukee concert." He later told The Vidette,
The idea of the material is to show the seven words you can't say on television," Carlin said. "Out of 400,000 words in the English language, there are seven words you couldn't use on the air. And yet, they're merely words. So I used them in explaining that and in making fun of that ironic situation.
Later, the routine was played on a NYC radio station and banned, leading to a lawsuit that reached the Supreme Court. Its banning was upheld, the Justices accepting that a radio station had a right (even an obligation) to protect children from unfiltered words. Then rap came along and some people felt we need to be protected from the children's words. Hell, some people want to shut Greta up.
The only word of real negatory word of consequence today is the N-word. Nobody can say it, the N-word, but everybody does, suggesting that racism is the last battle we face before we succumb to anthropogenic extinction. But it comes down to context, as Carlin says. If you're Black you can say the N-word, like the Miles Davis album Tribute to Jack Johnson, where the boxer goes, "I'm an N-word and they'll never let me forget it. I'm an N-word alright, and I'll never let them forget it." Of course, there's a school of thought that says the N-word means Black. But it's the opposite of White, so its utterance needs to be suppressed -- except by them who are Black. I'm pretty sure that's a thumbnail sketch of CRT at work. Isn't it?
I always thought of Carlin as akin to Socrates, if the latter had been a funny guy, instead of an ugly gadfly who had a righteous hair across his ass for the thinking that supposedly supported the demos in their cracy. Carlin has been accused of being a nihilist, especially near the end when he would exclaim that he didn't care anymore; he was just going to watch the world as if it were a berserk circus full of killer clowns and tightwire freaks. In one of his last performances he may have taken his confrontational -- banging down the door like dad -- approach a little too far for some in the audience who came to be shaken and stirred but not thrown a goddamn cartoon flight of stairs. And his routine titled, "I Kinda Like It When A Lotta People Die," performed not long before the events of 9/11, hit a raw nerve:
f*ck it, he seems to say, we whine and do nothing, and, besides, who doesn't like spectacle? Remember Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery," where the mother's fine with stoning others to death, but whinges when her number comes up and her kids get busy with throwing the first rocks? (Hell, in the opening of Shirley, about Jackson's life, a young woman finishing a read of "The Lottery" in the New Yorker is so turned on by the ending that she drags her husband by the horn into the train's luggage room and has him get her rocks off, and, damn, she's already pregnant!) If Carlin is a nihilist, what the f*ck are the rest of us? Instead, he confronts the hypocrisy of moral vacuity. Nobody really seems to give sh*t. We're bound loosely to sanity. Obscenity?
One of the dearest bits of the film is his explanation of his humor that is dropped in here and there. It is a reminder of where some of the most uproarious comedy comes from. Richard Pryor could make people cry with laughter over the existential angst of being Black in a crazy motherfuckin white world like nobody else. Stand-up Woody Allen could bring similar results about the other diasporic sense humor among American Jews ("I came and told my mother I was dating a goy girl, and she accepted it calmly, went over to the oven, turned on the gas, and stuck her head in.") We thank Pryor and Allen for that glimpse. Carlin is similar that way. It recalls the thing Nietzsche once said about Shakespeare: "What the man must have suffered to find it so necessary to be such a clown." They suffer for us -- like Jesus. Remember that stand-up guy?
Despite Carlin's positive nihilism (whaddya think Buddhism is? Just because we purloin "mindfulness" doesn't mean it's not about nothing, like Seinfeld.) After his wife, Brenda died (when he arrived at the hospital she was dead, but a tear was on her cheek that he dabbed up and saved to the end of his life), he found a second wife, Sally Wade, who reciprocated his mad love for her. Later, she put out a volume chronicling their 10 years together, The George Carlin Letters: The Permanent Courtship of Sally Wade.
In general, Carlin had a One and Many formula when it came to people. They he was a stage performer (which didn't stop him from bracing the audience for what's to come by saying f*ck You to open a show), he preferred individuals over masses. Again, like Nietzsche, who observed that 'Madness is something rare in individuals "- but in groups, parties, peoples, and ages, it is the rule,' Carlin saw the collapse of decency and soulfulness in groups. In an interview with Charlie Rose, he explains further:
It's circling the drain time for humans, he tells us.
George Carlin has also published a bestseller full of his gags, anecdotes and humorous observations, titled, Brain Droppings (available for viewing and downloading for free at the Internet Archive, the online public library). His HBO specials are also available for streaming. George Carlin was awarded the Mark Twain prize for American humor just a few days before his death. Here is Jon Stewart telling us of Carlin's value:
Kelly, his daughter, visiting him on his deathbed, tells us his last word was to her was "Sorry." He came to lament sacrificing his home life with Brenda and Kelly, risking it all to snark and snarl and try to wake people up. He wished he'd been there for her instead.
George Carlin on:
And here is a trailer for the new series: