When I was a teenager, my parents kindly (and, I think, wisely) overlooked my obsession with his standup, which I bought and listened to over and over with my friends behind my bedroom's close door. Carlin was so damn smart, and so brave about "freedom of speech," and also so open about "bad" language and sex. He displayed a frank honesty about those topics that felt unjustly forbidden in my buttoned-down, white suburban world.
Carlin was a genius when it came to language, in terms of a jaw-dropping delivery of beautifully chosen and arranged words, but also in terms of pointing out things about language itself. He studied words themselves throughout his career, and much of his routine consisted of reports on his latest findings (as in his most famous routine, "The Seven Words You Can't Say on Television"--that link is VERY Not Safe for Work, of course, as is the video below).
Carlin's routines often seemed to spin off into absurdity, but if my friends and I listened seriously through our laughter, and through our delighted shock over the swearing and the sex talk, we realized that he always had a serious point to make. I'm not certain what his politics were, but listening to him was my first extensive experience with a "radical." While he often seemed angry at the absurdities of life, what he was really angry about, much of the time, was injustice. As he aged his persona seemed to get increasingly bitter and cranky, but I always thought that his disgust was with so much absurd injustice out there.
From what I remember, George Carlin didn't talk about his own whiteness, which would've really been something to hear. But he did talk insightfully about white people, and the absurdity of some of the things they do.
I'll miss you, George. You were a real credit to your race.
Update: Amy Goodman's good-bye to Carlin is probably the best one I've read:
Funny Man in an Unfunny World
by Amy Goodman
The world lost one of its great comedians this week with the death at age 71 of George Carlin. Carlin had a career as a stand-up comic that spanned a half-century, in which he continually broke new ground, targeting those in power with his wit and genius. He impacted our culture, our media and our nation with a stream of material that skewered institutions of the left and right, from government to business and the church. He released 22 comedy albums, earning him five Emmy nominations and winning four Grammys. He was the first guest host of “Saturday Night Live,” in 1975, and appeared on “The Tonight Show” 130 times. He starred in 14 HBO specials and authored three best-selling books. He also left an indelible mark on the radio station where I got my start in broadcast journalism, Pacifica station WBAI 99.5 FM in New York City.
On Oct. 30, 1973, WBAI broadcast Carlin’s “Filthy Words” routine. Carlin wrote on his Web site, georgecarlin.com: “Lone professional moralist complains to FCC which issues a Declaratory Order against station. Station goes to court.” That court battle would last five years, end at the U.S. Supreme Court and set the standard for broadcast indecency laws that are hotly debated to this day. It was neither accident nor coincidence that this iconoclastic comic would have some of his most controversial material broadcast over Pacifica Radio’s WBAI. The Pacifica Network was founded in Berkeley, Calif., in 1949, with KPFA as the first truly listener-sponsored radio station.
Back then, radio was so overwhelmingly commercial that Pacifica founder Lew Hill and others found it worthless. As Hill wrote in his “Theory of Listener Sponsored Radio,” “If we want an improvement in radio, the basic situation of broadcasting must be such that artists and thinkers have a place to work — with freedom.”
On July 3, 1978, the Supreme Court ruled that the Federal Communications Commission could punish WBAI for its broadcast of Carlin’s routine, arguing that words relating to sex or excretion (i.e., piss) when children might be listening were prohibited. Supreme Court Justices William Brennan and Thurgood Marshall dissented, noting the court’s “depressing inability to appreciate that in our land of cultural pluralism, there are many who think, act, and talk differently from the Members of this Court, and who do not share their fragile sensibilities.” Remarkably, 30 years later, the same issues are before a decidedly more conservative Supreme Court.
Recent episodes of “fleeting expletives” from the mouths of celebrities like Bono, Cher and Nicole Richie have prompted the FCC to seek enhanced power to punish broadcasters. George Carlin pointed out what in our society was truly indecent: the behavior of the powerful.
Yes, he spiced his delivery with expletives. He was angry. He, like Pacifica, gave voice to essential, dissident perspectives that have been almost entirely blocked from mainstream media. He said: “We were founded on a very basic double standard. This country was founded by slave owners who wanted to be free. Am I right? A group of slave owners who wanted to be free, so they killed a lot of white English people in order to continue owning their black African people, so they could wipe out the rest of the red Indian people and move west and steal the rest of the land from the brown Mexican people, giving them a place to take off and drop their nuclear weapons on the yellow Japanese people. You know what the motto of this country ought to be? You give us a color, we’ll wipe it out.”
His prolific output will continue to inspire for generations to come.
Amy Goodman is the host of “Democracy Now!,” a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 700 stations in North America.