Caustic Carlin never mellowed with age

June 23, 2008|By McClatchy News

They say we mellow as we age. Not George Carlin.

Carlin, who died Sunday of a heart attack at age 71, got tougher, nastier, more ruthless, but in many ways more brilliant with the passing years.

The odd thing is that he started out as a pretty traditional comic, first as half of the Wright Brothers and later as Al Sleet the Hippy Dippy Weatherman.

In a 1995 interview, he explained to me how the '50s marked a turning point for him.

"Prior to that, it was all mother-in-law, crabgrass jokes, very superficial, and the Jewish Catskills stuff, all pulling stuff out of the same bag, very superficial and very nervous about sexual jokes," Carlin said.


Then came a wave of revolutionaries with punch lines, guys such as Lenny Bruce, Dick Gregory and Richard Pryor.

"It became more of a daring art ... where you challenged the audience, where you looked for the line and tried to step across the line."

I saw Carlin perform many times, and he rarely stepped across the line. He usually preferred to bulldoze the line.

I saw him do bits on abortion, suicide, crippled children and a ranking of natural disasters for entertainment value. He sometimes dived into scatology. No bodily emission was beyond detailed analysis.

Carlin was as much a social critic as a comedian, and as a social critic, he stood apart from many of our core social values. He thought religion and patriotism were a hustle. At one point, he edited the Ten Commandments down to two: "Thou shalt always be honest and faithful, especially to the provider of thy nookie," and "Thou shall try real hard not to kill anyone, unless, of course, they pray to a different invisible avenger than the one you pray to."

As a social critic, Carlin distanced himself from the global train wreck. For him, human misery and perfidy were ripe fodder for ridicule and critique. That could make for brilliant commentary, but it didn't always make him lovable.

There were times when he seemed more interested in confronting his audience than in entertaining them. I once saw him vaporize a mild heckler with a wildly profane rant that ended with telling the interrupter that he hoped he'd get locked in a burning car with his wife and kids. That tantrum sucked the air out of the room and left the audience stunned. Of course, it also meant that hecklers didn't mess with Carlin.

One of the ironic aspects of the Carlin saga is that the famous obscenity arrest at Milwaukee's Summerfest actually reflected the gentler side of his comedy. Carlin's 1972 arrest at Summerfest, for his bit about the "Seven Words You Can't Say on Television," was a landmark in Carlin's career and in modern comedy.

The words may have been naughty, but that was just Carlin playing with the vagaries of the mother tongue. He could be brilliant on language. Consider some of his favorite oxymorons: business ethics, resident alien, plastic glass, uninvited guest and non-dairy creamer.

Fans saw less of it in recent years, but there always was a gentle corner in his comedy. He was the station conductor in the children's TV series "Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends." One of his last movie credits was Disney's animated feature "Cars." One of his most famous bits is a whimsical comparison of the terminology of baseball and football.

People occasionally ask me who my favorite celebrity interviews have been. I'm not sure I have just one, but Carlin would certainly be in the top three or four. He was quotable, and he had the ability to think critically about things the rest of us take for granted.

But there was also a regular-guy aspect to him. I remember talking to him about being a sports fan, and how silly it was to invest yourself emotionally in the fortunes of a bunch of disinterested strangers. His solution was classic Carlin: He would only root for his teams when they were doing well. When times were tough, he moved on to other things.

That was Carlin: smart, analytic, but also detached.

George Carlin could be offensive. He could even be nasty. He was absolutely never dull or dim.

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