News

With the death of George Carlin, cerebral comedy just took a big hit

Roger Moore
The Orlando Sentinel (MCT)

Wonder if he got "the two-minute warning"?

George Carlin's fans know what I'm talking about. It's part of a routine he did in the '70s, about the possibility of getting notice that you're about to die ... a voice inside your head that goes, "TWO MINUTES. Get your (Bleep) together."

His spirit's probably lurking beneath my car, chewing off the timing belt for censoring him like that, but hey, this ain't HBO.

There have been a few showbiz folks I've had chats with over the years who seem to have cheated death, so much so that it was worth making that the whole subject of the interview. Jerry Lewis was one. And he's still going. George Carlin was another. Here's a piece I wrote about him, before an Orlando appearance, after several health scares that ate up the late 1990s.

"Put these words on George Carlin's tombstone.

'Too hip for the room.'

Second choice?

'Gee, he was just here a minute ago.'"

Carlin, one of the funniest men in stand-up comedy history, from his "hippy dippy weather man" antics of the '60s to his eminence grise appearances in recent comedy documentaries such as "The Aristocrats," died of heart failure Sunday night. He was 71.

Yo, NBC-MSNBC, Fox et al. If Tim Russert was worth a weekend's orgy of obits and tributes, what do you do with a guy like Carlin, a true innovator, a force in popular culture like no other in stand-up comedy history? A month's coverage? He'll probably come back and haunt your airwaves if you do, but still, a little perspective here.

The stand-up's stand-up, a funny man in person, on stage or on the phone (Carlin reacted hilariously to an Orlando Sentinel fire alarm that went off, mid-chat, in our last interview. "Jesus, is that you? Is it time?") he evolved from a comic who did "bits" to a free-form ranter, with a lot of "Didya ever notice" in between.

Carlin said the "seven words you can never say" and created an FCC radio scandal, pretty much perfected scatology as a source of stage humor (and then moved on), spent a lot of time blasting religion, politics, anorexia and all manner of political correctness and American sensititivites. Amusingly, he lived long enough to see those seven words turn up on TV, and not just on cable, and enter American mainstream discourse.

He all but invented the stand-up comedy TV special for HBO, helped launch "Saturday Night Live," graced more than a few movies ("Cars," "Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey," "Prince of Tides," "Outrageous Fortune") often playing a hippie. In fact, when we think of "hippies," the whole "Hey man, cool man, how's your old lady, man?" shtick, their benign place in American culture, comes straight from Carlin. He owned up to that in movies (he was the hippie microbus in "Cars," on TV (running a health-food commune in "The Simpsons").

I remember the older kids at Boy Scout camp in the '70s all had portions of his stand-up bits memorized, my first exposure to the dude ... the "seven dirty words," the nuances in meaning in the way one says one of those seven dirty words (starts with an "s"), his classic ode to (long) hair.

"My wife bought some hair at a fair, to use as a spare. Did I despair? Au contraire. Spare hair is fair."

His comparison of baseball to football? Classic, as well. Go read it.

I sensed a bitterness in the work the last time I talked with him in 2000. His outrage at the world seemed to have hardened him a bit. But his ability to find that outrage funny never wavered.

The dirtiest word in his dirty-word-happy Web site www.georgecarlin.com?

"Religion," he said from his Los Angeles home. "Because it's one of the worst things that ever happened to the human heart and the human mind. ... To surrender all the reason and potential of the human mind to a man in the sky who exists just to punish you seems very primitive to me."

A lot of Carlin's views on religion - he was raised a Catholic - fit neatly into his role as a cynical cardinal in the recent religious satire "Dogma."

"I always like taking a good, clean shot at the Catholic Church, and that movie certainly was that," he said with a chuckle.

Cool dude. Just cool. We'll miss you, man.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

'We're Not Here to Entertain' Is Not Here to Break the Cycle of Punk's Failures

Even as it irritates me, Kevin Mattson's We're Not Here to Entertain is worth reading because it has so much direct relevance to American punks operating today.

Film

Uncensored 'Native Son' (1951) Is True to Richard Wright's Work

Compared to the two film versions of Native Son in more recent times, the 1951 version more acutely captures the race-driven existential dread at the heart of Richard Wright's masterwork.

Music

3 Pairs of Boots Celebrate Wandering on "Everywhere I Go" (premiere)

3 Pairs of Boots are releasing Long Rider in January 2021. The record demonstrates the pair's unmistakable chemistry and honing of their Americana-driven sound, as evidenced by the single, "Everywhere I Go".

Books

'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.

Music

Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".

Music

PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor
Film

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.

Music

Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.

Music

Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.

Music

Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.

Music

Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.

Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.