Although I grew up listening to snippets of Richard Pryor, Sam Kinison, Eddie Murphy, and the oft-overrated Andy Kaufman, it was George Carlin who was my first real introduction to stand-up comedy. Oddly, my first memory of Carlin was hearing a joke concerning an "unwilling sperm recipient" that severely offended my father. Again, it was just a snippet on the radio, played between some boring talk-show segments while my dad was driving me home from school.
Fast forward a few years and The Jerky Boys are a huge hit. For whatever reason, it was during this time that my friend and I decided to really get into comedy routines. We had gone to the record store and purchased some albums. What he picked is lost within my memory, but I plucked Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics out from the not-too-wonderful selection.
Imagine my surprise when I went home to listen to it... and heard the very joke that had offended my dad.
George Carlin was, by definition, no angel. The man cursed and cussed his way into American pop culture. He criticized religion and firmly held his atheist beliefs. Perhaps his definining "fuck you" moment to the world was his appearance as a Cardinal in Kevin Smith's Dogma. Whatever the man had to say, he said. Whatever the man had to show, he showed. And, boy, did it piss a helluva a lot of people off.
But there's clearly one aspect of Mr. Carlin that everyone, even his enemies, had to respect. His insight into the human condition was above and beyond the average person's, and it is very possible that he was the only 20th Century comedian who truly "got it."
To him, nothing was clearly black and white. All things were good and evil, including good and evil. There were schisms to everything. Mankind, itself, is a dichotomy. One need only to listen to Carlin's routines to pick this out. The disgusting was beautiful (there's a famous blowjob joke that comes to mind), and the beautiful was disgusting. You probably remember the many instances of Carlin as the grumpy old man with a lot to say, but do you remember Carlin as the kind, gentle "Mr. Conductor" on PBS' Shining Time Station? A dichotomy, indeed.
A favorite thing of his to do was to analyze the English language, and, by proxy, language in general. We've all heard of his "Seven Dirty Words," but many are unfamiliar with his near obsessive breakdowns of euphemisms and what he called "two-way words" (i.e. prick).
It was because of this last curious hobby that George Carlin is a hero to me. Through his political and chastising commentary, he displayed that he knew the power of words. He knew they could shape politics, religion, and other world perspectives. He knew words could start and stop wars, better society, and destroy civilization.
And he also knew that, in the end, words were just words. Empty, abstract; with no natural relevance. They were just there. There, because mankind created them. Created, ultimately perhaps, so that George Carlin could make us think... and make us laugh.
* This is the first part of what will hopefully be a nine-part entry in the River of Mnemosyne challenge that's happening over at The ...
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