When I awoke Monday morning and heard George Carlin had died, I had a piece all written out in my mind:
George Carlin. Heart Attack. He was 71.
Kevin beat me to it, so I tossed it on the heap and moved on.
But this morning, the Boston Herald has a tribute to Carlin. In brief, Joe Fitzgerald says as great as he was, he would have been greater had he simply toned down the profanity.
Well, with all due respect to Mr. Fitzgerald, fuck that shit.
When I was growing up, I had almost no social skills. I was lucky, though; I discovered standup comics, and learned a hell of a lot about interacting with people — and thinking — from them. In particular, three of the Masters shaped my way of thinking.
First was Robin Williams. He taught me how to think quickly, on my feet, and respond first and think afterwards. He also taught me that by changing my voice tone and pitch, I could slip into different personas and say things that I normally would never say — and get away with it.
Then there was Steven Wright. His incredibly bizarre perspective on the world showed me how to look at things sideways, to take how everyone else sees things and give it a good twist, to challenge the customary perceptions and draw my own connections and conclusions — and share them.
And then, finally, there was George Carlin.
As strange as it may sound, Carlin was a huge influence on my language. When I was younger, I absolutely avoided cussing. Then, for a short while, I went through a very potty-mouthed phase. Then I discovered Carlin.
From him, I learned that swearing is neither something to utterly avoid or utterly embrace. Those words are very powerful, very potent, and should be used with care. They should be saved for special occasions, used only deliberately. They should not be tossed off casually; the overuse of them dilutes their power, and there are times when we really, really need that. We have grown far too inured to swearing, both in hearing and uttering them.
Carlin’s lesson extended far beyond cuss words. He had a love of the English language, and loved words and phrases. The best part of his act was, in my opinion, when he would just play with them, twisting and combining and exploring every nuance out of the words we took for granted every day. “Get on the plane.” “Fuck you, I’m getting IN the plane!” “Why do we park in the driveway, and drive on the parkway?” “You can prick your finger, but you can’t finger your prick.” (On TV, of course.)
I had a friend who claimed that he had “given” Carlin a line: “Why do we say ‘take a shit?’ You don’t take it, you leave it!” I never got proof that my friend was indeed the source of that idea, but I heard Carlin use it — and expand on it. “‘I’ve gotta take a shit, Bob.’ ‘Well, don’t take any of mine. I only have three left, and the weekend’s coming up.'”
In his later years, Carlin grew bitter and angry, and let his politics (which I absolutely do not share) and fury dominate his performances. He still was brilliant, but he let his genius be obscured by his rants.
Like me, Carlin didn’t have any faith in a supreme being. But where mine is expressed as a benign agnosticism (I don’t know, and I won’t challenge anyone else’s beliefs unless they assail mine), he was openly and hostilely atheistic.
Well, he’s got his answer now. And I’m willing to bet that he’s probably not in a better place.
Unless, of course, God needs a class clown.
Rest in peace, George.
In your memory, I’m going to go jump on some sofa cushions and free some captive farts.