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George Carlin: Philosopher, Poet, Preacher

Few comedians have aimed for the mind over the funny bone (while still reaching both) quite like George Carlin has.

“There is no God. None, Not One, Never Was. No God. Sorry”.

— George Carlin, Napalm & Silly Putty (p.254)

Has there been a stand-up comedian more subversive for more years than George Carlin? Has there been one who has challenged audiences to think and re-think (their) fundamental beliefs about the fundamental issues of existence than him? For Carlin, the designation “stand-up comedian” is both delimiting and inadequate, for his act draws upon philosophy, poetry, and cultural analysis in ways his comedic peers rarely have. With Carlin as its principle trailblazer, stand-up between the ’60s and the ’00s broadened as a genre so much, that that which preceded his reign now seems only a distant—and more dull—antecedent species.

Unlike in academia or politics, stand-up is the great leveler where the marginalized and ostracized can enact revenge fantasies by combining truth with imagination via the language of the common folk.

Relaying a baton passed from Mark Twain to H.L. Mencken to Lenny Bruce, Carlin made critical comedy a mainstay of the modern world, a staple and methodology of cultural dissent, and a form by which young generation after generation could learn to rebel against their elders. Along the way he both tapped into and represented two subcultural strains of social subversion: hippy and punk.

Driven by an imperative to question authority, Carlin—both young and old—embodied the eternal youth spirit, the willful outsider, and the unruly id. Critic James Sullivan calls him a “reflexive contrarian”, who, “If he spotted a sacred cow… went cow-tipping” (Seven Dirty Words: The Life and Crimes of George Carlin. Philadelphia, PA: Da Capo Press, 2010. p.2). Dennis Blair, a comedian who often opened for him during the ’90s, compares Carlin to John Lennon because both never stood still or settled artistically, instead growing more eclectic and acerbic with age. Jello Biafra, front-man for the Dead Kennedys, recognizes a growing “punk attitude” in Carlin’s later years, adding, “he had an instinctive knowledge of how persuasion, propaganda, and influence work, from all directions, by all parties.” (Sullivan p.220)

Like Twain with Huck Finn, Carlin used his outsider alienation to peek inside society and expose the hypocrisy, exploitation, (self)-delusion, injustice, stupidity, and absurdity therein. Nowhere did he find these more on parade than in religion which, alongside materialism, became the principle target for his raging satire from the late ’80s until his death in 2008. In religion the comedian found a topic with which he could challenge (and often upset) his audience’s core convictions and assumptions. Moreover, he could do so by applying his semiotic inquiries to the language and iconography of religious faiths, unmasking the power-brokers by decoding their intentions through careful exposition and logic. Few comedians have aimed more for the mind over the funny bone (while still reaching both) than Carlin.

In his book, Conversations on the Edge of the Apocalypse (New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2005), David Jay Brown interviews various mavericks “who dare to question authority and think for themselves” (p.2). Here, Carlin is featured alongside various prominent philosophers, scientists, and writers. He speaks of the importance of logic and rationality, not only to his own belief system, but to how he approaches others’. “Comedy is [a recitation] of grievances”, he argues, and, as such, often “untouchable ideas” must be engaged (189).

Among the historically “untouched” have been the “priests” and “traders” that distract us from our real selves and from the real ways societies operate. Religion strikes to the heart of Carlin’s dichotomous vision of life, one that sees institutions as the active enemies of individuals. As such, religion functions as a symbol of organizational or group think, both anathemas to this independent loner.

With an intellectual curiosity that could have led him into academia, and a zest for social justice more aligned with political activism, Carlin chose stand-up comedy as his medium. Indeed, despite occasional forays into TV and film acting, he would always return to stand-up. Why? The answer surely lies in the stark authenticity that the form both provides and demands.

Comedians may exaggerate, dramatize, and even purposefully deceive in their skits, but they still essentially draw upon core truths as they see them. Critical comedy, as practiced by the likes of Lenny Bruce, Bill Hicks, Bill Maher, Ricky Gervais, and Carlin, is a no bullshit zone, a forum where reason takes down superstitions, logic deconstructs mythologies, and humor permits the ensuing assaults to be conducted using raw, often brutal rhetoric. Unlike in academia or politics, stand-up is the great leveler where the marginalized and ostracized can enact revenge fantasies by combining truth with imagination via the language of the common folk. For a working-class Irish-American raised on the streets of Harlem, this was Carlin’s ideal forum.

The straight talking wit of stand-up is equally important as it applies to communicating with audiences. Carlin has never been disingenuous about his purposes; he wanted to reach and teach, as he says, “to engage the audience’s mind” (George Carlin [with Tony Hendra]. Last Words. New York: Thorndike Press. p.431). To this end, Carlin understood the power of humor as a rhetorical device. Less beholden to restraint and manners than most communication channels, stand-up employs humor not only to strip bare its subject matter but its audience, too. Carlin explains that “laughter is a moment when we are completely ourselves,” when “people’s defenses go up and that’s when you can slip in a good idea” (Brown. p.192).

Like the fools and clowns of old, comedians can reach out and touch in ways few other genre practitioners can. The significance of this power and legacy is not lost on Carlin. In the foreword to his Napalm & Silly Putty (New York: Hyperion, 2001) book, he includes a letter written to him by a Professor of English at the University of Arkansas. In it the Professor speaks to the power of comedy, of how “laughter opens and frees from rigid perceptions”. He then comments upon the “sacred” role tricksters and clowns have played in so many native traditions (foreword).

This alignment of the stand-up comedian with the spiritual may seem somewhat ironic considering how Carlin, Bruce, and others dedicated so much of their careers to debunking supernatural notions. Yet, as antagonistic as humorists and the religious may sometimes be, their functional interconnectedness refuses to disappear. Just as Bill Hicks and Sam Kineson adopted (and parodied) the performance methods of preachers, so many preachers today have relaxed their traditional discomfort with humorists, instead examining them and borrowing from their rhetorical arsenal.

Besides their fundamental differences in beliefs and perspectives, the arts of stand-up and preaching share striking similarities. Both concentrate power, control, and purpose on a stage within a singular being whose task it is to convince and win over audiences; both rely upon techniques of timing, voice, inflection, and body language in order to connect and communicate; both seek to inspire joy and release, using both mental and emotional appeals simultaneously; both are teachers whose “sermons” must be carefully constructed and paced in order to rouse spirits and earn validation. It is thus not surprising that “punchline preachers” are increasingly appearing in pulpits, nor that Carlin, the premier anti-theist of his trade, should describe himself as a “social critic, philosopher, evangelist”. (Last Words p.268)

For Carlin religion was not just an issue of veracity. A maltheist in the Christopher Hitchens mould, he opposed the very notion of a god or gods. Moreover, in its institutions and practices, religion, he saw, did more harm than good. Rebutting the Moral Majority arbiters of the Reagan era, he opined, “More harm has been done to the collective human psyche by religion than by all the fucking and cocksucking since the dawn of time” (PositiveAtheism.org). Increasingly liberated as he grew older, late period Carlin displayed little restraint in speaking as he saw it. “I prefer seeing things the way they are, not the way some people wish they were”, he explains (Sullivan. p.5). Like a jester at the royal court, Carlin dedicated himself to the roles of the truth-teller and myth-buster, whatever the backlash may be.

And backlash there was—often to his great delight—such as when Walmart banned his 2004 book, When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? (New York: Hyperion), the title of which managed to offend all three major Abrahamic religions, while the cover lampooned the Last Supper. During this period even some of Carlin’s comedic peers felt that he was going too far, that he was sacrificing comedy for social comment and vitriol. For some he appeared to be traveling the same path that his hero Lenny Bruce had—into bitterness and self-parody. Unmoved, Carlin trusted that his material was sufficiently convincing to bring audiences along; and if his assaults on anyone’s faith were deemed bigoted, so be it. “Intellectually if you accept it, intellectually I have every right to question that choice you made”, he rationalized. (Progressive.org).

To reduce Carlin’s anti-theist sketches to mere provocation, however, would be to reduce him to the level of an Andrew Dice Clay. Contrarily, this work was carefully crafted and its harsh delivery deliberate. Despite boasting that his stand-up was “vulgar” rather than “fine” art, it was self-consciously artistic and required much research and revision to reach his own rigorous demands of linguistic specificity and intellectual delving (“Hard Laughs“, the New York Times).

The comedian has often spoken of his method as talking about the familiar in unfamiliar ways. “If I can find a new direction into an old subject, that’s what you’re up there for,” he says (Brown. p.192). Using understatement, exaggeration, excessive details, and incongruous reversals, Carlin sought to disrupt audiences’ socially normalized ideological thought processes. To achieve this, one has to infiltrate the institutional mindset and disarm it by catching people off-guard with critical humor. He speaks of the “laughter of complicity”, that “satire is taking on the mentality of your enemy… and taking it to extremes in an ingenious way” (Last Words p.455).

One can envisage these techniques and purposes employed on stage from the following skit about God and the Ten Commandments included in the Napalm & Silly Putty book: “And if you do any of these ten things he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to remain and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry, forever and ever, till the end of time… But he loves you! He loves you, and he needs money!” (p.28). And for those that hear anger or cynicism in such passages, Carlin prefers the term “sympathetic contempt” (Braindroppings. New York: Hyperion, 1997. p.xii).

If not angry, Carlin’s later work is certainly as dark as either he or his art form would get. Some titles of his later HBO specials are You Are All Diseased (1999), Complaints and Grievances (2001), Life is Worth Losing (2005), and It’s Bad For Ya (2008), hardly indicators of inspirational uplift, yet in their honesty, insight, and bleak irony, these latter works show a master at his trade, mocking religion (and other institutions) from all angles and perspectives: On three out of four Americans believing in angels? “I say if you’re going to go for the angel bullshit you might as well go for the zombie package as well” (You Are All Diseased). On sexual puritanism? “If God had intended us not to masturbate he would’ve made our arms shorter”. On spiritual advisors like Billy Graham? “What kind of advice could some drone who has devoted his life to the self-deception of religion possibly give about your spirit?” (When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops. p.21). On athletes who point to the sky after scoring? “[God]’s not impressed with spiritual grandstanding; it embarrasses him” (p.220).

In his longer “hunks” the comedian displays his developmental skills, such as when he compares God with UFOs in “They Came From the Sky”. “There is every bit as much evidence for the existence of UFOs as there is for the existence of God. Probably far more”, he begins (p.12). “Granted, the world of UFO-belief has its share of kooks, nuts and fringe people, but have you ever listened to some of these religious true-believers?” he continues (p.12).

Then his attention turns to the media coverage of the two phenomena and how one is accepted as “received truth” and the other seen “laughingly and dismissed out of hand” (p.13). With verbal flourish, the comedian concludes the bit by suggesting how Good Friday might be covered by an unbiased media: “Today is Good Friday, observed worldwide by Jesus buffs as the day on which the popular, bearded cultural figure, sometimes referred to as The Messiah, was allegedly crucified and—according to legend—died for mankind’s so-called sins. Today… this dead ‘savior’—who also, by the way, claimed to be the son of a sky-dwelling, invisible being known as God—mysteriously ‘rose from the dead’” (p.13).

The practice of semiology is also at work in Carlin’s take on the often outlandish customs and costumes within religions. Prima facie, they appear to serve little practical purpose; nonetheless, they function to create a dominant and domineering mystique by which institutional control over the “flock” can be maintained and symbolically validated. In “Takin’ Off Yer Hat” from a section entitled “American Bullshit”, Carlin playfully documents the multitude of head garments worn by the leaders of various churches, as well as the regulations of when and how hats should or should not be worn by the parishioners. This is “kid’s stuff”, Carlin concludes, but his larger point is that habits (sic) such as swearing on The Bible in court surreptitiously operate to re-iterate and re-indoctrinate the hierarchy of institutional authority within society (It’s Bad For Ya).

Oftentimes Carlin will veer into the realms of the absurd in order to bring the light of laughter into his dark musings. If God has a divine plan and “[His] will be done” then why pray in the first place? he asks (Napalm & Silly Putty. p.252). And evaluating God’s job performance (“war, disease, death, destruction, hunger, filth, poverty, torture, crime, corruption, and the Ice Capades”), Carlin suggests replacing him with someone more capable, someone who can get things done—like Joe Pesci! (p.250). The sun, too, would be a much better choice for a “higher” power, he argues: “First of all, I can see the sun” and “It never tells me I’m unworthy”; furthermore, “No one asks for money” (p. 251). Fueling these farcical bits is a satirical bite that seeks to strip religion of its arbitrary powers and aura, exposing it for what it really is (to him): demeaning, insulting, and manipulative.

As outspoken and forthright as Carlin became in his final years, he remained ever the reluctant spokesperson, always retreating into the position of resolute soloist when asked to forefront or join the contemporary “new” atheist movement. Even on matters of the existence of God, the comedian rejected the tags of atheist and agnostic, settling merely for “puzzled” (Sullivan. p.221) and “I don’t know” (Brown. p.206). Talking to David Jay Brown, he adds, “I’m satisfied not knowing, because it allows me to be filled with speculation, and imagination, about all the possibilities” (p.200). Ever the artist and professional, his skeptical stance was essentially good for his act!

Likewise in the comedic world, despite blazing a trail of religion-based satire now traversed upon by the likes of Doug Stanhope, Jim Jefferies, Julia Sweeney, Ricky Gervais, Bill Maher, Lewis Black, Sara Silverman, Louis CK, Eddie Izzard, and Dave Foley—amongst others—Carlin refused to be aligned with them or with their adaptations on his themes. Eschewing any appearance of group-speak or semblance of institutional accommodation, he pithily concludes in his 2009 autobiography, Last Words, “the ideal grouping for human beings is one” (p.491).