Monday, June 23, 2008

Beyond FAREWELL: George Carlin: Another Icon Gone

While George Carlin’s colorful history is well-documented, I remain most impressed by his colorful language. Yes, his seven-dirty-words stint always cracked me up (my favorites, though, were his bits about driving, the one when he had no idea—until he stopped, got out for whatever reason, then got back in the car and turned on the ignition—how much STUFF he’d had cranked on; and the one about the guy with the blinker driving around the world to the left, that sort of thing; such original takes combined with his New York accent, his fast-paced gestures, his extreme facial expressions just killed me), but I was always most impressed by his use and obvious love of the language.

NPR’s Terry Gross rebroadcast excerpts from George Carlin interviews from 1990 and 2004 this morning. The stories he told of growing up in 1940s Harlem in an Irish neighborhood lodged between an academic community that included Columbia and various interdenominational churches and seminaries and the multicultural, mixed-race street-smart part of town revealed how he was first exposed to highly original uses of slang and off-color language, and how he appreciated the brilliance that fueled such creativity. He also spoke of his grandfather, who wrote out the entire works of Shakespeare in longhand during his lifetime simply for the joy of it. Of his mother, who encouraged her son not only to go to the dictionary to learn the meaning of words that were new to him, but to discuss with her the words’ origins, various meanings, and practical applications. A day after reading up on the word “peruse” with her, he brought in the paper to her and asked if she’d like to “peruse” it for a while. “Perhaps I’ll give it a cursory glance,” she replied, sending him right back to the dictionary.

So yes, George Carlin will always be remembered for his tough-guy attitude, his in-your-face comedy, his refusal to back down in the face of white-corporate male-dominated right-wing hypocrisy. But I’ll always remember him as a young boy growing up in the paradoxes of a Catholic Irish neighborhood full of kids in a wedge of Harlem, carrying with him a literary sensibility that would compel him not only to become a famous, award-winning comedian with a police record who inspired a controversial Supreme Court case that still leads to heated discussions of the First Amendment, but to a guy who relished experimenting with the way words work.

“There are an awful lot of taboos,” Carlin is quoted in another NPR piece. “I just enjoy squashing them and stepping on them and peeling them apart and trying to expose them to people. For some reason, it makes me happy.” Thanks to his immense, unique ability to power those tendencies with an evident love of language, his comical exposure of so many truths at their bare-bone levels made lots of others happy, too.

Photo from a 2007 wittyphantom post about a George Carlin essay that ends: “Life is not measured by the number of breaths we take, but by the moments that take our breath away.”

7 Comments:

Blogger Rebecca Burgess said...

Yet again Karen, wonderful post. It is an understatement when I say this American original will be mourned for a long time to come.

2:55 PM  
Blogger Sustenance Scout said...

He definitely was an original who'll be missed, Rebecca.

Hope you're having a fun summer with your crew. :)

4:08 PM  
Blogger Lisa said...

George Carlin was always special to me and he'd been even more so in the last couple of years. His facial expressions and sense of humor were always uncannily similar those of my father, who was the same age and also an Irish Catholic kid from Boston. I'm going to miss him.

8:45 PM  
Blogger debra said...

George Carlin understood free speech and was willing to stand up for his principles.

7:28 PM  
Blogger Mary Ann said...

I enjoyed him but had forgotten some of his stories until reading your post. Thanks for reminding me how great he was.

8:52 PM  
Blogger Sustenance Scout said...

Debra, he certainly did! Thanks to your note I finally found my way to your terrific blog.

Mary Ann, so glad I could help! :) George Carlin routines were favorites among my high school friends so some of them are pretty much ingrained in my brain. :) Not a bad thing at all; those memories are some of my favorites. K.

3:55 PM  
Blogger Sustenance Scout said...

Lisa, something just reminded me of the poignancy of your comment about George Carlin reminding you of your dad. Sorry I didn't reply earlier. I wonder if you dad ever saw the resemblance? K.

4:01 PM  

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