When I heard that George Carlin had died, one of the first thoughts I had was how he had, in his own way, lived a life devoted to the “word,” i.e. the comedic word, and the truth, at least as Carlin saw it.
Carlin changed comedy and brought a massive amount of laughter into this world. Time magazine has a good recollection of Carlin’s contribution. I admired Carlin and relished his incredible insights into the nature of human existence. He made me laugh and he taught me a lot about how to think differently from the status quo. He was the embodiment of Dickinson’s advice to “tell it slant.” He’d recently been nominated- and will receive posthumously- the Mark Twain Award, and that’s an appropriate recognition. In every respect, Carlin was a worthy imitator and successor to Twain. In these safe and politically correct times, that’s worth an award.
Really, in his own way, Carlin was a great humanist. He didn’t just make comedy; he took comedy from the nature and foibles and follies of human existence. View people have ever been able to see below the surface with Carlin’s incredible powers of ironic observation, and even fewer have been as skillful at telling the truth. Carlin was perpetually amazed at what was their to see and hear from the human comedy, and he was committed to making those discoveries known.
For example, go to Youtube and find Carlin’s routine on materialism, which is profoundly labeled “Stuff,” and you’ll be edified, I promise. (That’s the Christian-ese word for positively influenced by the truth.) While Carlin’s routines are often too profane for most Christians, they contain always keen, sometimes breathtaking examples of observation and ironic truth-telling.
What strikes me as continually ironic is that Carlin and other comedians have become the truth-tellers of our time, while many Christians, especially in their official capacities as official religious spokespersons, have become the embodiment of truth avoidance and truth obscuration. Or, if you’d like to get on the more cynical bus with me and the Ecclesiastes Band, we’re more known for being liars about the human journey than we are for telling the truth. In that sense, I can say a hardy Thank God for George Carlin, who wasn’t afraid to tell it like it was, even if it totally overturned the tables so nicely arranged by the orderers of society and the custodian of decent thought.
Carlin embodied Shakespeare’s ideal of the fool. (See King Lear for details.) The Fool was a truthteller wrapped in the costume of a clown. Because you had agreed to submit to his agenda of laughter, you opened yourself up to his agenda of truth. One of the first conversations between Lear and his fool includes a death threat, but the Fool is not intimidated, and soon Lear is begging his Fool to continue being the one person who will tell him the painful, but precious, truth.
Carlin was often plunged into controversy of his own making. He saw the hypocrisy of assigning shock value and criminal consequences to words and he played the trump card of the “7 Words You Can’t Say” routine and changed the culture. I know there are plenty of Christians who equate the Golden Age of morality with a lack of profanity, but I’ll have to differ on that one a bit. Behind Carlin’s crusade to use offensive words was another agenda: an understanding of words with social, political, racial and religious significance that were also dangerous to the status quo. Word control was a form of oppression, and Carlin was the liberator in Fool’s clothing. Christians should be verry careful before they side with the thought/word police. What you gonna do when they come for you?
Yes, Carlin took aim at God and religion for most of his career, and if you can’t laugh at the truth of what he was saying, then I wonder what the truth means to you. Carlin was a clown, critic and prophet unafraid to point out the contradictions and embarrassments of religion that most people prefer to ignore. He was raised Catholic and I heard him give genuine, heartfelt thanks for his Catholic school education in a recent interview, a gift he assigned to the Catholic teachers at his school and a gift he appreciated throughout his life. I have a feeling that Carlin was not so much of an unbeliever in God as he was a servant of the truth, and that put him on the side of the infidels most of the time, because too many religious people find untruth and lack of truth to be useful allies.
But how many people do you know whose abhorrence of religion isn’t because of what religion confesses to believe as much as how religious people conduct themselves and their place in the world? While I reject the hysteria of the New Atheists, I find myself frequently standing with Carlin as he assesses religious hypocrisy.
Yes, Carlin was an unbeliever, but there is a lot of nonsense not worthy of belief these days, and a person who loves the truth should stand with the prophets and say so, whoever they are.
I’m not for making atheists our spiritual mentors or encouraging more pastors to do stand-up, but I am for saying thanks to George Carlin for showing many of us what it is like to use words with truthful, playful, revealing power. To say thanks to George Carlin for showing us how to think differently and to really see what’s right there in front of us all the time. To say thanks to George Carlin for making us take responsibility for our manipulations of power by manipulating words in a way that puts the other person down. And thank you to George Carlin for all the many, many insightful, humane, wonderful laughs.