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The Strange Afterlife of George Carlin


In the closing monologue from a recent episode of his HBO talk show, Bill Maher cataloged a series of social conditions that he suggested were hampering stand-up comedy and imperiling free speech: cancel culture, a perceived increase of sensitivity on college campuses, and Will Smith slapping Chris Rock on the Oscars.

Near the top of his remarks, Maher invoked the comedian George Carlin, a private hero whose iconoclastic spirit, he looked as if it would consider, could never thrive in such a thin-skinned and overly entitled era. “Oh, George,” he said, “it’s a superb thing you’re dead.”

Carlin, the cantankerous, longhaired sage who used his withering insight and gleefully profane vocabulary to take aim at American hypocrisy, died in 2008. But within the years since, it may feel like he never really left us.

On an almost each day basis, parts of Carlin’s routines rise to the surface of our discourse, and he’s embraced by individuals who span the political spectrum — they could rarely agree with one another, but they’re certain that Carlin would agree with them.

Carlin’s rueful 1996 routine about conservatives’ opposition to abortion (“they’ll do anything for the unborn, but when you’re born, you’re on your personal”) became a newly viral phenomenon and was shown on a recent broadcast of the MSNBC program “eleventh Hour.” A video clip of a Carlin bit about how Americans are ravenous for war (“so we’re good at it, and it’s a superb thing we’re — we’re not excellent at the rest anymore!”) has been tweeted by Representative Ilhan Omar, Democrat of Minnesota. On the right-wing website Breitbart, Carlin has been cited as an authority on bipartisanship (“the word bipartisan often means some larger-than-usual deception is being carried out”) and hailed as a rebel who didn’t acquiesce to authority.

Carlin is a venerated figure in his chosen field who unites performers as disparate as Joe Rogan and Jim Gaffigan, but he’s also someone whose influence transcends comedy. He’s a touchstone shared by the psychologist Steven Pinker, the rapper and actor Ice Cube and folks on social media who equate the pandemic with George Orwell novels. Carlin’s indignant voice feels so unattainable to duplicate that quotes he never said and entire essays he didn’t write are sometimes wrongly attributed to him.

There’s a wierd afterlife that Carlin enjoys, not only as a comic book but in addition as an ethical compass. Few of us care in quite the identical way if our decisions in life would meet the approval of Johnny Carson or Andy Kaufman.

That Carlin’s work endures long after him is just not only a testament to his talents; it’s an indication that his frustrations, which he expressed humorously but felt authentically, still resonate with audiences, and that the injustices he identified in American society persist to at the present time.

“There’s something about his righteous aggravation — it’s a rare standpoint, and it’s rare that it’s a natural standpoint,” said Marc Maron, the comedian and podcaster. “It’s not something you’ll be able to pretend to make occur. Aggravation is just not all the time funny.”

And Carlin’s routines, particularly from his splenetic, late-period specials, have hardly lost their punch. It’s still bracing to listen to the bitter wordplay in his lament: “It’s called the American dream because you’ve got to be asleep to consider it.”

When he spoke, “you mostly felt such as you were hearing the reality, or his truth,” said the comedian Bill Burr. “He was providing you with the reality of what he felt, which most of us don’t do. It’s refreshing to hearken to one other human being let you know exactly how they feel, even when it’s 180 degrees faraway from what you agree with.”

But the sturdiness of Carlin’s material may be dangerous, too. Dislocated from the time and circumstances that inspired his work, the arguments he delivered may be made to serve purposes he didn’t intend.

As those that were closest to him have learned, when he’s unable to advocate for himself, he may be made to seem to be he supported any opinion in any respect.

“It’s a each day battle for me,” said Kelly Carlin, the comedian’s daughter. “At first I used to be like, I’ll be the interpreter and tell them what I believe he meant. After which it was like, this is just not my job. It’s like attempting to ward off a tidal wave sometimes.”

The continuing relevance of Carlin’s material is partly a results of how he learned to compose and refine it over a profession that spanned nearly 50 years.

As he explained in a 1997 interview on “The Chris Rock Show,” he essentially saw himself as a playful provocateur. “I wish to hassle people,” he said, adding that he tried to determine “where the road is drawn, after which deliberately cross it and drag the audience with you. And have them joyful that you just did it.”

Carlin is well-known for pivoting from a strait-laced, suit-and-tie approach to standup within the late Sixties and early ’70s and for immersing himself within the counterculture that shaped his personal politics.

But a recent two-part HBO documentary, “George Carlin’s American Dream,” which shall be shown May 20 and 21, illustrates how his skilled trajectory consisted of diverse ups and downs — multiple efforts to rediscover his voice and refine his material when his personal radar detected he was out of step with the times.

“He would try this every decade or so,” said Judd Apatow, the comedian and filmmaker who directed the documentary with Michael Bonfiglio. “In the meanwhile when it appeared like he was out of gas, he would suddenly recharge and reinvent himself.”

As he evolved from a fast-talking parodist of TV and radio to a rhetorical bomb-tosser, Carlin had a set of standards that remained consistent. “He had deep core values that were good,” Bonfiglio said: “Care for other people. Care for the planet. There was a way of fairness and rooting for the underdog. Those would shine through, even in his darkest stuff.”

But over the many years, as Carlin watched America’s retreat from Vietnam and its entrance into wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as corporate power grew more intractable and environmental catastrophe felt unavoidable, his feelings of bitter disappointment flooded into his routines.

At times, Maron said, “his anger became more pronounced than his ability to talk funny inside it.” But in every hourlong set he performed, Maron added, “there can be one bit that was value your complete special.”

Carlin’s personal politics were readily identifiable. Kelly Carlin said her father was “99 percent progressive” and that he raised her in a fashion that today could be contemptuously dismissed as woke.

“He taught me from Day 1 that the Black and brown people have all the time been oppressed, horribly and systematically, by the owners of wealth,” she said. “He had a pure disdain and loathing for white men in America.”

That leftist bent was unmistakable in Carlin’s standup, too: He railed against police violence, championed prison reform and environmentalism and condemned organized religion.

But he was also critical of Democrats and “guilty white liberals,” while he endorsed other ideas that conservatives supported. He despised euphemism and the policing of language, reviled what he called “the continued puss-ification of the American male” and rebuked his countrymen who would “trade away a bit of their freedom for the sensation — the illusion — of security.”

Using language that may later be echoed by Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump, Carlin observed in a 2005 routine that the interwoven systems of American economy and government weren’t designed to make sure the prosperity of the common citizen: “It’s a giant club and also you ain’t in it,” he said.

“The table is tilted, folks,” Carlin added. “The sport is rigged.”

Carlin didn’t hesitate to criticize presidents by name — Bill Clinton and George W. Bush amongst them — but, more often, he spoke in broader terms and addressed institutional failings.

“There have been other court jesters before Carlin and alongside Carlin, but Carlin was more powerful and dangerous to the king,” said Journey Gunderson, the manager director of the National Comedy Center, which is home to greater than 25,000 items from Carlin’s archives.

What gave him his potency, Gunderson said, was that he turned his standup “right into a call to motion.” Carlin, she said, “taught everyone where to seek out the facility that they’ve and encouraged them to make use of it.”

“It requires a scholarship to understand Lenny Bruce,” Maron said. “You’ve got to sort through plenty of very dated impressions and news stories. Whereas George was all the time making things totally accessible.”

(Even in her father’s later years, Kelly Carlin said, if he had an idea for a topical joke, somewhat than put it in his act, he would share them with people just like the broadcaster Keith Olbermann, who was then the host of “Countdown” on MSNBC. Olbermann confirmed this, saying that Carlin sent him “a few one-liners about Bush” and a sports joke he keeps framed on his wall.)

For probably the most part, Carlin left behind no protégés or appointed successors. When he died, nobody else could say they spoke on his behalf. And while the generations of stand-ups which have followed can have a sincere reverence for him, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re fluent within the jokes he told.

“Plenty of us know that you just’re purported to say Carlin is an influence, but I don’t think a variety of us can back that up,” the comedian Nikki Glaser said.

A scarcity of familiarity with Carlin’s words, his history and his values can result in misapprehension when his arguments are stretched to suit present-day conditions he didn’t live to see.

Several times in the course of the pandemic, Carlin has drawn attention for a routine from his 1999 special, “You Are All Diseased,” wherein he mischievously suggests that a childhood spent swimming within the polluted Hudson River was the rationale he didn’t catch polio.

(“In my neighborhood, nobody ever got polio,” he fulminates. “Nobody, ever. You understand why? ’Cause we swam in raw sewage. It strengthened our immune systems. The polio never had a prayer.”)

As Kelly Carlin explained, some viewers concluded — wrongly — that her father would have opposed coronavirus vaccines.

“Everyone’s like, see? George Carlin would have been anti-vaccination,” she said. “And I’m like, no. My dad was pro-science, pro-rational considering, pro-evidence-based medicine. The person was a heart patient for 30 years. When he was a child and the polio vaccine became available, he got the polio vaccine.”

Though she generally tries to avoid intervening in these sorts of disputes, Kelly Carlin has used her social media to correct this reading. “I felt it was necessary that folks not use him to undermine what we would have liked to do to get through this virus,” she said.

On other modern-day topics wherein George Carlin surely would have had an incendiary but clarifying tackle — the Trump and Biden presidencies, social media, Elon Musk or the Marvel Cinematic Universe — irrespective of how much we would want to know his thoughts, he stays frustratingly out of reach. Kelly Carlin said she could understand why audiences might long for her father’s particular brand of unvarnished honesty at this moment.

“I believe we’re in a time of exponential uncertainty as a species,” she said. “He’s a person who looked forward and said, ‘This is just not going to finish well.’ He saw the chaos coming.”

And Carlin stays almost universally admired as a free-speech pioneer: He was arrested in 1972 for a performance of “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” and that very same routine would later play a key role when the federal government asserted its power to control the published of indecent content.

Due to that status, Carlin is continuously summoned in contemporary debates over how comedians select to make use of their platforms. When controversy engulfed Dave Chappelle’s 2021 special “The Closer,” which was criticized as transphobic and prompted walkouts at Netflix, Carlin’s name was invoked, although nobody may very well be certain what position he may need taken: Would he have criticized Chappelle as intolerant or defended his right to specific himself?

In efforts to divine his opinion, some Carlin fans pointed to a 1990 interview he gave to Larry King, when he expressed his misgivings concerning the crude standup of Andrew Dice Clay: “His targets are underdogs, and comedy has traditionally picked on power — individuals who abuse their power,” Carlin said on the time.

Kelly Carlin said her father “all the time took the stand that more speech is best than less speech” and would have supported Chappelle’s right to perform the special. But, she added, “if you happen to’re a comedian, you’ve got to be funny.”

“In case you’re going to take the audience over the road, you’ve got to construct things in a way that they’re willingly crossing it with you,” she said. “Did Dave Chappelle try this for everyone? Clearly not.”

Even so, Kelly Carlin said, “is it dangerous when a culture desires to shut people down for speech? I believe my dad would say that’s dangerous.”

Like his friend and forerunner Lenny Bruce, who was arrested and convicted on obscenity charges (and who later received a posthumous pardon), George Carlin was battling the state’s power to discourage and punish his expression.

Maron contended that free-speech conflicts have shifted since Carlin’s era in such a way that it doesn’t make sense to tug Carlin back into them.

“That fight was already won,” Maron said. “What’s occurring now is just not that fight.” Today, he said, we live “in a world where anybody can really say what they need, whether anyone believes that or not.”

While Carlin would still probably be dissatisfied with the state of free speech today, Maron said, his barbs would have been geared toward “the company occupation” of discourse, with digital monoliths like Google, Facebook and Twitter “dictating how culture thrives and is consumed.”

And if a comedian wants to assert freedom of speech while using words that others deem hateful, Maron said, “you’ll be able to say all of them you wish — you’re probably just going to be hanging around individuals who enjoy that sort of stuff. If that’s the corporate you need to keep, do what you gotta do.”

Without Carlin’s humanistic spirit to guide it, contemporary standup can sometimes feel like a ruthless place. “There’s this fearlessness in comedy now that’s so fake,” Glaser said. “There’s a lot sleight of hand and so many illusions happening onstage to trick an audience that you just’re being brave.”

“There was never a cruelty to Carlin,” she said. “He all the time seemed full of empathy.”

Gunderson, of the National Comedy Center, described Carlin as “a frontrunner who didn’t wish to hold all the facility.” The last word lesson he had for us, she said, is that we’ve got “the unlimited right to challenge the whole lot, to never stop considering critically about any source of power or any institution” — even Carlin himself.

Kelly Carlin cautioned that we must always not be too beholden to any of the messages in her father’s stand-up: After all George Carlin believed in much of what he said onstage, but what mattered most to him was that audiences learned to think for themselves. He never desired to be anyone’s role model and was never a snug joiner of causes.

“The moment anyone gets in a bunch, gets together for meetings and puts on armbands, he immediately didn’t want that,” she said.

If George Carlin were around now to answer the questions we’ve got for him, “he would have schooled us on each side and provide you with a third-way truth that may have blown our minds,” she said. “But not solved anything. He was never seeking to solve the culture wars or solve America’s problems. He was all the time looking to point out off what he’d been desirous about at home.”

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