Beyond FAREWELL: George Carlin: Another Icon Gone
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.”