The comedian George Carlin should be remembered for his silly humor, not his politics.
The comedian George Carlin died yesteday at the age of 71. To the general public, he was known more for controversies over obscenity in his act than for his comedy—his "Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television" monologue led to a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court decision affirming that the FCC could regulate obscenity and punish broadcasters for presenting offensive language during hours when children might be listening.
Influenced strongly by the intellectually and socially ambitious comedian Lenny Bruce, who fancied himself a brilliant satirist, Carlin decided early on to make himself into a similarly aggressive social commentator, with a particular emphasis on ridiculing all things bourgeois, as Bruce had done. As AP notes:
Carlin started his career on the traditional nightclub circuit in a coat and tie, pairing with [Jack] Burns to spoof TV game shows, news and movies. Perhaps in spite of the outlaw soul, ‘‘George was fairly conservative when I met him,’’ said Burns, describing himself as the more left-leaning of the two. It was a degree of separation that would reverse when they came upon Lenny Bruce, the original shock comic, in the early ’60s.
‘‘We were working in Chicago, and we went to see Lenny, and we were both blown away,’’ Burns said, recalling the moment as the beginning of the end for their collaboration if not their close friendship. ‘‘It was an epiphany for George. The comedy we were doing at the time wasn’t exactly groundbreaking, and George knew then that he wanted to go in a different direction.’’
That direction would make Carlin as much a social commentator and philosopher as comedian, a position he would relish through the years.
Carlin’s social commentary came from a left-wing atheist perspective perfectly attuned to the cynical spirit of the 1960s and all but guaranteed to appeal to the nation’s critics, who were monolithically leftist themselves. Carlin’s greatest bugaboo was religion, in particular an ignorant and absurd caricature of Christianity. The AP story quotes Carlin on his point of view, in a statement he made in 2004:
‘‘The whole problem with this idea of obscenity and indecency, and all of these things—bad language and whatever—it’s all caused by one basic thing, and that is: religious superstition,’’ Carlin said in a 2004 interview. ‘‘There’s an idea that the human body is somehow evil and bad and there are parts of it that are especially evil and bad, and we should be ashamed. Fear, guilt and shame are built into the attitude toward sex and the body…. It’s reflected in these prohibitions and these taboos that we have.’’
When he downplayed his pretensions toward being a philosopher, satirist, and political thinker, Carlin was quite funny. His humor started out simply silly, pointing out odd contradictions in modern life, and that was always his best vein of humor.
It is for that legacy, not his political activism and ignorant antireligious prejudice, that Carlin should be remembered—for his humor will last after the political issues are long dead.