Shit, Piss, Fuck, Cunt, Cocksucker, Motherfucker, and Tits

23Jun08

My first philosophy professor in my freshman year was a guy named Michael A. Fox. I don’t think he used the middle initial to distinguish himself from sitcom actor Michael J. Fox so much as to end year after year of constantly hearing speculation as to what his middle name was and how funny it would be if it started with J, as though no one had ever thought of that before. (Interestingly, Michael J. Fox’s real middle name is Andrew, but he used the middle initial J professionally because he didn’t want teen magazines running headlines like “Michael, A Fox!”) The other interesting thing about Michael A. Fox is that he was originally known as an advocate of scientific experimentation on animals. Then he did something brave: He changed his mind. After years of engaging opponents in debate, he listened hard to what they had to say and was inevitably dragged toward the conclusion that they were right, and he was wrong. It’s practically unheard of for an academic philosopher, but he courageously reversed his position, publicly repudiating his previous work and becoming an animal rights advocate and a vegetarian to boot.

George Carlin was a philosopher too. He didn’t write papers for academic journals, but he was one nonetheless because we’re all philosophers. Anyone, even a three-year-old child, who asks a philosophical question such as “Is there a God?” is to some degree a philosopher. It’s just that some engage in philosophy more deeply than others, having a deeper love of wisdom (which is, of course, what the word “philosophy” means). George Carlin was a lover of wisdom. He asked questions such as whether there was a God (“No,” he decided), and he made those questions central to his comedy.

And like my philosophy professor, Carlin had his own moment on the road to Damascus, though as a lapsed Catholic, maybe he wouldn’t have put it that way. As a kid, he wanted to be like Danny Kaye (which is not to say that he wanted to be dogged by persistent rumours of a homosexual affair with Sir Laurence Olivier). Carlin wanted to be a clean-cut, crowd-pleasing mainstream comedian, and he did just that, becoming a frequent performer and guest host on the Tonight Show. But in the late sixties, he changed his mind. He realized he wasn’t happy doing what he was doing. He grew out his hair and beard, started wearing jeans and earrings, and built a controversial new act in performances at hippie coffeehouses. He courted career suicide because he had to be true to himself, and he became a counterculture hero.

Previously, I’ve claimed not to respect Carlin a whole lot. I didn’t like that he didn’t vote, but just sat out of the political process in favour of simply looking on from the sidelines and laughing, as though he was above it all. I thought his fuck-The-Man, there-is-no-God kind of material made him seem a bit like the world’s oldest cynical teenager. I thought he relied on funny faces a little too much. And he wore a little ponytail, for God’s sake. (Well, I suppose it wasn’t for God’s sake that he wore it, but it certainly wasn’t for good taste’s.)

But I’ve been re-evaluating my opinion of Carlin, and there is a lot that I did respect about him. The man was obsessed with language, meticulously choosing each word for maximum effectiveness and eschewing euphemism in some famous routines that would have made George Orwell proud. He also showed, as Louis CK notes, an admirable commitment to perpetually discarding even well-received old material and honing new routines throughout his career. He was like a shark, ever moving, ever ready to sink his teeth into new prey. That’s much appreciated in a comedy world where Dana Carvey just released a new HBO special in which he’s still pulling out his stale impressions of George H.W. Bush and Ross Perot.

And I respect that he changed his mind. Moreover, it still annoys me that he didn’t vote, but I recognize that the love of truth that led him to address controversial issues in his act may have, from time to time, changed some other minds. In his own way, he was a part of the process, and he made a difference.

Only days before his death, It was announced that Carlin was to receive the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. Probably because it’s awarded by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, the Mark Twain Prize usually goes to a performer, but that still seems a little odd to me. I’d have thought Will Rogers might have been a better namesake for the prize, since he was a humour columnist, but also a public speaker and actor. After all, while Mark Twain was a lecturer, he was primarily known as an author. Yet, the only winner of the award known primarily as a writer is playwright Neil Simon. 2005 recipient Steve Martin has written a couple of well-received books, but he’s scarcely better known as an author than he is as a banjo player (though he and Twain are both noted for favouring white suits). But Carlin used his wit to raise controversial issues and challenged the establishment in a way that would have made the author of Huckleberry Finn proud, and he’s an utterly deserving winner. (It’s worth noting that despair at the state of humanity led Carlin’s work, like Twain’s, to become increasingly dark and misanthropic in his later years. Carlin openly became a cheerleader for the eradication of the human race, echoing the themes of Twain’s black and savage The Mysterious Stranger.)

So, I’ve just put him up there with a proud George Orwell and Mark Twain. I’ll add a third: Hunter S. Thompson, who also ruthlessly tore into the political establishment. I’ve never quite forgiven Thompson for checking out just when it seemed we needed him most, in the middle of a presidency even worse than that of his despised nemesis, Richard Nixon. As a new, more hopeful political era finally seems to be dawning, I’m grateful to Carlin that he hung on this long. He was an honest man and a fine role model in a country whose current leaders are remarkable for their refusal to show the moral courage to change their minds, no matter how wrong the harsh light of reality shows them to have been (they call that flip-flopping). He was an important, dirty-mouthed voice, and we’re going to miss him.



4 Responses to “Shit, Piss, Fuck, Cunt, Cocksucker, Motherfucker, and Tits”

  1. 1 Marlene

    I always loved that he was the narrator to “Thomas and Friends”.

  2. 2 Candace

    I really, really love this post. What a wonderful, thoughtful tribute. I’m glad you came around in the end.

    Also, I wish I hadn’t opened this at work.

  3. Really, really great. I was planning a thoughtful Carlin tribute for my Friday column, but I’ll just link to yours instead.

  4. 4 Chance

    That was really well written and thoughtful. Well said, sir1


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