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Remembering George Carlin (1937-2008) – OpEd

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Conceived, in his own words, in a hotel room in New York city in August 1936, George Carlin will go down in history as possibly the greatest standup comedian of all times, simply for his ability to capture a wide range of human experience, his insights into how we use language in daily life and his virulent attack on human beings who are a complete disaster as a species. 

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Strangely, what T. S. Eliot in his Preface, says of Dr. Matthew O’Connor from the novel Nightwood by Djuna Barnes, describes George Carlin. Eliot says of the doctor, “that together with his egotism and swagger…he has also a desperate disinterestedness and a deep humility…His humility…is what throughout gives him his helpless power among the helpless. His monologues, brilliant and witty in themselves as they are, are not dictated by an indifference to other human beings, but on the contrary by a hypersensitive awareness of them…But most of the time he is talking to drown the still small wailing and whining of humanity, to make more supportable its shame and less ignoble its misery.” 

Intelligent, sensitive and gifted men and women go through a certain kind of pain which is more like an ache, at their inability to change the world. It’s a pain that comes out of anger and helplessness from having to look at what is happening right in front of their eyes and yet be able to do nothing about it. Deep down it’s an attempt to hide pity or compassion and turn it into something bearable, merely as an excuse to pass time. Time of course will pass and things will come to an end. That won’t reduce the pain but it will simply bring an end to the person going through that life-long anguish of being a witness to stupidity and needless cruelty. That’s how we need to understand George Carlin’s life as a stand-up comedian: “he is talking to drown the still small wailing and whining of humanity, to make more supportable its shame and less ignoble its misery.” 

Creative artists are anarchists, by definition. I don’t think that they could be political in an unequivocal sense of the term. This applies to politically committed writers such as Bertolt Brecht and Nazim Hikmet as well. When their commitments are absolute and unwavering, it’s usually because the creative part too is pretty mediocre in my view. Carlin is a comedian with a political sensibility; not a political activist with a comic instinct. The creative part is about seeing human beings for what they are: “My comedy is about being very dissatisfied with my fellow humans and with the people in this country. Basically I think the human species is a failed species.” 

The reasons for the failure are both political and ethical. Carlin explains what that failure is, in one of his performances: 

“This is a moral question, not rhetorical, I am looking for the answer: what is the moral difference between cutting off one guy’s head, or two, or three, of five or ten – and dropping a big bomb on a hospital and killing a whole bunch of sick kids…When you get right down to it, when you get right down to it, human beings are nothing more than ordinary jungle beasts. Savages.” 

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The violence of the past few centuries has adequately demonstrated that human nature has not evolved through the centuries, which is why we continue to be “semi-civilized beasts,” despite the advancements in science and technology. There is no metaphysics involved in this view that people are “nothing more than ordinary jungle beasts.” However, politics and ethics are involved because once they attain power, the same people who were at the receiving end, will do everything possible to dehumanize the others, given half the chance. 

This is the underlying logic to Carlin’s point which is that groups will take away everything that is good and unique about the individual; and people are members of one group or the other; they end up going against their individual rationality and submit themselves to the worst kinds of excesses, only to satisfy the craving to belong, to be a part of something greater than oneself. The truth of course is that there is nothing more than one’s own self. What then is the position of the creative artist who must retain his individuality at all costs! Carlin thus makes his point: 

“Stand-up comedy is a low art, it’s a vulgar art, it’s the art of the people, but it’s an art. It has to do with interpreting the world as you see it and then writing something and then delivering it verbally. And I found a very liberating position for myself as an artist. And that was I sort of gave up on the human race and gave up on the American dream and culture and nation and decided that I didn’t care about the outcome…”

This is not pessimism but out and out rejection of any superficial expectation that people are going to get better at some point in the near future. Pasolini famously said that, “rejection is the shaping force of society.” By rejecting false panaceas and refusing to fall into the trap that people will learn from their mistakes; or that the powerful will have a change of heart; by rejecting this kind of wishful thinking, Carlin is able to forcefully present his own counter argument to what he sees and interprets as an artist.

This doesn’t make Carlin less political as an artist who is critical of established patterns of behavior that prevent people from moving forward. His relentless attack on anything and everything that comes in the way of individual freedom and honest self-evaluation is the essence of his comedy. From white patriarchy to the modern state, to education, economy, food, American foreign policy, the fact that we don’t pay attention to the language we use, parenting and of course religion, Carlin ventures into whatever looks like double standards and uncovers it before his audience. Take, his piece on the police, for instance:

“I’d rather spend 16 hours stuck in an elevator with a couple of crooks than even say hello to a fxxxxx’ policeman. You don’t help the police. They’re not on your side. Don’t you understand this sxxx yet? They work for the state. They’ll plant fake evidence. They’ll put a loaded gun in the hands of an unarmed man they’ve shot to death. They harass minorities, they brutalize people, they deny people their rights and they lie about it all in court all the time, they perjure themselves routinely…”

It is hard to deny that this is how the police operate in most parts of the world. Despite the fact that he is talking to a predominantly white audience, his work is premised on how people behave and act in varied circumstances and therefore is global in more than one sense. 

Although I am from India, I recognize the things in what Carlin says as relevant to my social and political circumstances. As a performer, he is connecting to a local audience, but his vision is universal, because it is meant to liberate people from their stupidity, cowardice and cynicism. More so, Carlin’s criticism is directed at the wealthy, exploiting classes and the passive middle classes who take everything lying down without even a whimper of protest. His sympathies, needless to say, are clearly with the poor and the voiceless.

Stand-up comedy is a powerful sub-genre that can be used to liberate the masses for one simple reason which is that on-stage live performers have a dramatic effect which might not be the same as with film stars on a screen. On-stage performers have to connect with the audience; it’s almost as if they enter the minds of the onlookers and check for the results. Carlin brings out the potential of the sub-genre to explore almost all facets of human nature. 

When Carlin says, “you know, you can say what you want about America. And I say I love this place. I wouldn’t have it any other way, wouldn’t live in any other time in history in any other place,” I think he is quite aware that he would not be himself in any other country except the United States. I personally cannot think of a country where he could say and do whatever he accomplished as a creative artist, except in the United States. For all his vitriolic attacks on the American dream “that you have to be asleep to believe in,” it is the social and political democracy that is quintessentially American, which has nurtured the genius of George Carlin. America’s claims to greatness is not because of Silicon Valley, NASA or Hollywood; if America must be great, it is because a visionary like George Carlin with an “hypersensitive awareness” of what is happening around him, can thrive and produce a distinct kind of comedy exposing social and political ills, and still find acceptance within a section of the mainstream order.

Prakash Kona

Prakash Kona is a writer, teacher and researcher who lives in Hyderabad, India. He is Professor at the Department of English Literature, The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU), Hyderabad.

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