Saturday, June 22, 2013

Remembering George Carlin

"If you have selfish, ignorant citizens, you're going to get selfish, ignorant leaders."

George Carlin (1937–2008)

Five years ago today, George Carlin died of heart failure at the age of 71.

He was my favorite comedian — still is — and I still laugh when I hear his recordings.

And I marvel at his wisdom. It remains relevant, be it five years after his death or 40 years after it was put on a record.

That is the special gift of artists. Perhaps they paint or sculpt or perhaps they are comedians or actors or musicians — or writers like myself. The best do things that make deep impressions on us and continue to do so — even long after they are gone.

For me, George Carlin was such an artist.

At times, it almost seems as if there has never been a time when I did not know his name, but I know that isn't true. As nearly as I can remember, I first heard of him when I was in sixth grade. Some of my friends' parents (or older siblings) had his early comedy albums, and they had memorized some of his routines. They couldn't wait to share them with me, and I couldn't stop laughing when they did.

(The only comedy album my parents had was one by Bob Newhart. It was funny, but Newhart was never as funny as Carlin.)

I laughed even more when I heard the albums. I'm listening to one as I write this, and I have to stop writing now and then because it's too hard to write when I'm laughing so hard. I know what's coming — I've listened to them so often over the years that I have the material on many of his albums memorized — but they're still funny.

I expect Carlin to keep me laughing for the rest of my life.

Like any great artist, Carlin had certain themes to which he returned, time and time again.

He often ranted about language (which, as a journalist, I appreciate — and I often wonder if his routines, in some way, served to steer me in that direction). I could appreciate it when he complained about the pomposity of language, how it was often designed to conceal things.

"You can't be afraid of words that speak the truth," he said. "I don't like words that hide the truth. I don't like words that conceal reality. I don't like euphemisms or euphemistic language. And American English is loaded with euphemisms."

And Carlin wouldn't stop after an observation like that. He delivered with both barrels.

"Sometime during my life," he said, "toilet paper became bathroom tissue. I wasn't notified of this. No one asked me if I agreed with it. It just happened. Toilet paper became bathroom tissue.

"Sneakers became running shoes. False teeth became dental appliances. Medicine became medication. Information became directory assistance. The dump became the landfill. Car crashes became automobile accidents. Partly cloudy became partly sunny. Motels became motor lodges. House trailers became mobile homes. Used cars became previously owned transportation. Room service became guest room dining. Constipation became occasional irregularity."

See what I mean?

Carlin had some choice words to say about things like religion, politics and several subjects that usually aren't mentioned in polite company. But it was his routines on language that I liked the best.

Like his most famous routine — "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television." In recent years, I have heard a few of those words on television, which is something I think would have amused Carlin. Perhaps it did. A word or two from that list had already gained a certain amount of TV acceptance by the time of his death.

Nevertheless, I think he was spot on about some of those words. I doubt that they will ever be permissible on network television (cable is another matter) — at least, not in my lifetime.

The movies, of course, are another matter, and Carlin did appear in a couple of movies. I saw one — "Dogma" — which came out in 1999. Carlin (who was brought up a Catholic) played a Catholic cardinal who was busy promoting a new pro–Catholicism campaign — Catholicism Wow! — with a more modern version of Jesus (Buddy Christ) as its representative.

I can only imagine how Carlin responded when the part was offered to him.

Carlin always seemed to be busy with something. On Oct. 11, 1975, he was the very first host of Saturday Night Live.

I know it is hard for a lot of people in the 21st century to believe, but, for about a decade before the debut of Saturday Night Live, NBC aired reruns of Johnny Carson late on weekend nights. But Carson decided he didn't want to do that. He wanted to hold the taped shows to run during the week whenever he took time off.

That alone was kind of a stunning development. Originally, Carson preferred to have guest hosts (of which Carlin was one) to fill in for him when he took his vacations. He wanted the show to be fresh in those days.

NBC ran promotions for the new show, featuring Carlin, for weeks — and, when the show made its debut, it was an immediate smash hit. Part of that was undoubtedly due to the talented ensemble cast (the Not–Ready–for–Prime–Time Players), but I always felt that at least part of it was because of Carlin's popularity.

In October 1975, I don't think anyone knew the names of those who would become regulars on the show — but darn near everyone knew who Carlin was, and I believed that a lot of people who tuned in that night did so because Carlin was the host. I know that is the reason why I tuned in.

I don't recall if Carlin ever hosted SNL again. But he lent the show his fame in its first program, which gave it instant credibility. And, once people watched it and began to become familiar with people who would soon be household names (i.e., John Belushi, Chevy Chase, Dan Aykroyd), they became regular viewers.

SNL has now been on the air for nearly 40 years. It is conceivable it would not have lasted past its first night if Carlin had not been the host.

His influence truly knew no restrictions.