This is incredibly difficult.
Not difficult to believe, no. Not by a longshot. Anyone who’d seen Carlin interviewed or performing during the last few years can’t be surprised by this news – the man, after all, called his (as it turns out) next-to-last HBO Comedy Special “Life is Worth Losing.”
The difficult part is finding a way to say what I want to say about the man WITHOUT dipping into sentimentality, piety or (worst of all) psuedo-spirituality. He’d HATE that. The best way I can think of is to stay on-topic.
Of the artists and entertainers who’ve influenced my worldview and my own manner of self-expression, I don’t think any of them were a STRONGER and more tangible influence than Carlin. Watching his HBO specials, introduced to them by my parents, were the first time I ever really got the notion of how hugely important and beneficial it could be to truly UNDERSTAND language.
Carlin was part of an explosion of new-breed comedians that came up in the 60s and 70s, his influence often compared to that of Richard Pryor. He “broke through” largely on the strength of his seminal work, the infamous “seven words you can’t say” routine. It was packed with shock-value and attention-grabbing sarcasm, but at it’s core it was the first shot of what would become the bedrock of his art: Language-analysis as comedy. He would get onstage and not ONLY pontificate hillariously on all manner of subjects taboo and mundane – but also take his own material apart piece-by-piece; exploring the meaning of words, their use and misuses and (best of all) what the MISUSE of a word had to say about the mindset and even AGENDA of the person misusing it. For me, this was a revelation: Words weren’t just powerful – they could be WEAPONS. Properly mastered, studied and respected, language itself could be a sort of mental/verbal martial-art… one could literally tear an opponent’s argument apart or even turn it against him simply by knowing the weapons – the WORDS -more completely than he did.
Just about the whole of modern “topical” comedy and satire can trace itself back to him – had there never been a George Carlin, there would be no Daily Show, no Colbert Report, no any of that. But he never rested on his laurels, and never seemed to grow content. Most comedians, hell… most ENTERTAINERS, period, who start out “edgy” tend ton soften as years go on – he never did. It seemed as though the longer George Carlin spent among humanity, the more aspects of it he found to infuriate and disgust him… and the more ways he found to turn his fury and disgust into humorous release. Most people who are “radical” in youth come to change their mind about “the establishment” once THEY ARE the establishment – he never did. The comic who’d slammed ‘the man’ and the Vietnam war in his youth would in old age slam grown-up ‘liberals’ for changing “shell shock” into “operational exhaustion” as a way of marginalizing and ignoring Vietnam veterans.
I will miss him. I will miss being able to hear his take on the events of the day. We will now not have the chance to hear what the Last Angry Man of comedy has to say about Barack Obama’s bullshit-dripping idealistic self-help stump speeches, or John McCain’s “is-he-effing-kidding??” ressurection of “victory with honor.” We haven’t just lost a comedian, we’ve lost one of the greatest American philosophers of the 20th Century.