Forgive them, George, they know not what they doOkay, this is a shocker: George Carlin has died. Heart failure. He was 71.

I find it fascinating that every obit running — including the one that’s airing on the CBC as I type these very words — uses the phrase “counterculture” to describe his style. Carlin wasn’t a counterculture comic; yeah, he admitted to using pot way before it was fashionable, and he had that stupid ponytail, but I’m not entirely sure that qualifies.

I mean, no one called the Smothers brothers counterculture comics, but they were just as subversive, in their way, as Carlin. He was an observant satirist who had no choice but to point out the foibles of the culture of which he was very much a part. (Is Lewis Black a counterculture comic, because he’s similarly irascible and eloquent?)

Oh, but Carlin worked blue at a time when comedians just didn’t do that. (This, probably, is why the Smothers brothers got a pass, at least for a while.) Carlin’s act was all about seeking out the boundaries of language and behavior, and leading his audience to understanding them. The “Seven Words” bit is hailed for pushing the envelope of obscenity in American culture; in fact, it was the first time anyone pointed out the envelope was there in the first place.

I saw him perform at the Ontario Place Forum — remember that? — in 1992. The audience wanted to hear him do his earlier material rather than the newer stuff, but Carlin didn’t want to rehash old jokes: “It’s all about what’s happening now, folks.” You have to respect that.

In the last decade or so, he fell into a little bit of a rut, engaging in repetitive wordplay and easy cultural baiting — I blame the success of his books, which let him indulge in his love of long, silly lists to the detriment of everything else — but he never quite lost his taste for absurdity. Here, from a 1999 radio interview, is a bit that seems appropriate for today:

“We can’t really discuss euphemisms if we don’t mention that final taboo, death. It used to be when an old person died, the undertaker put him in a coffin and sent flowers to the funeral home, where they held a wake. Then, after the funeral, they drove the dead person in a hearse to the cemetery, and his body was buried in a grave.

Now, when a senior citizen passes away, the mortician places him in a burial container and we send floral tributes to the slumber room, where the grief coordinator supervises the viewing. After the memorial service, the funeral coach transports the departed to the garden of rememberance where his remains are interred in his final resting place.”

Fair point, George. Your floral tributes are forthcoming.

2 thoughts on “Carlin”

  1. A “burial container”? It’s called a coffin – a big, overpriced box that comes in various styles with optional internal fabric no one will ever see except for the brief viewing allowed by the family prior to its interring in an even costlier plot of soil, marked by a similarly costly slab of marble. (The expenses are exponentially smaller if it’s a cremation box, but it’s still a lulu for the family of the dead dude or dudette.)

    Carlin’s gift was breaking down social hang-ups, and once you got past the thrill in hearing taboo words for the first time on a commercial recording (a thrill now part of long gone era), you recognized the clever satire at work and play. As teens listening to “The Seven Words” on a camping trip (well, more like kids in a furnished barn loft), most of us picked up how silly people could be, and still are, irrespective of whatever technological advancements, because learned behaviour and social taboos take far longer to change and mature.

    Carlin’s wit sort of morphed into social activism during his final appearances on Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show, and then rants, which wasn’t what his older fans may have wanted to hear, but during his lengthy career, the gravel-voiced guy with the ponytail made a mark on North American culture, and he certainly expanded the use of taboo words beyond mere insults, perhaps increasing their depth to evoke a bit of social history, having us reflect on societal idiocies, and allowing us to add a bit of extra verbal oomph by calling so-and-so an utter shithead at a snotty social event.

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