When I was in my late teens, going through an extended patch of misery that lasted several years, a birthday gift from my sister made everything worse. It was kindly intended, of course, by definition, it being a present. She bought me two tickets, very good seats, to see George Carlin at the Providence Performing Arts Center. This was the Reagan era, the mid 1980s.
The thing was, I did not live in Providence. I lived 40 minutes away. I didn’t drive at the time (and still don’t drive. Got a problem with that? Fuck you). And none of my friends were available to drive me there even with the lure of a free ticket. And from the outset, though I certainly thanked her, I tried to give the tickets back to her — couldn’t use them. She wouldn’t take them back, and became, as was and is her wont, shrill, nagging, ugly, pressuring me that I’d better attend this concert that she’d paid all this money for. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out an angle. Finally, I zeroed in on my older brother (a family man with a 9 to 5 job and 6 children) and though I hated doing it, bothered him relentlessly until he brought me to the show in order to shut her up. He finally gave in after saying no 50 times, and brought me there. We had a miserable time, allowing ourselves to stop scowling and chuckle perhaps once or twice. I resented both siblings; and they were both pissed at me. HAPPY BIRTHDAY!
The capper, of course? I don’t give a shit about George Carlin. Never liked him, and he never remotely impressed me. One of my closest friends was a George Carlin fanatic, but I merely smiled with tepid toleration at his frequent recitations of his record albums. I guess maybe that’s why my sister assumed that I liked him? And this whole story would have been a pleasanter one if that friend had been available and he would have enjoyed the concert and given me a lift and so on and so forth but he was not available. It also would have been a different story if the tickets had been to see someone I actually loved and cared about like, oh, Steve Martin or Andy Kaufman. But, for whatever reason, I was given this dubious “gift” of free tickets that I didn’t want and never asked for, but would need to humiliate myself in order to redeem, while not enjoying even one second of the experience. “Happy birthday! Please accept this coupon for Shit on a Shingle for Two! To redeem it, all you need to do is crawl on your belly through a cesspool! Why aren’t you thanking me?!?”
But like I say, this isn’t why I’m not a George Carlin fan, it’s just the final turn of the screw. This incident wasn’t Carlin’s fault. As I said, I ALREADY didn’t warm up to his comedy. I’m afraid this may alienate the affection of many a reader, but it can’t be helped. And I’ve naturally mentioned Carlin a couple of dozen times on this blog, and Judd Apatow is coming out with a new biographical film on him in a few days, so it seemed like the time to record my feelings, even if I can only grope toward what the animus is. The feeling I have is very similar to the one I have toward Bruce Springsteen (writ down here), and it’s interesting to me that friends who are fans of the one are usually fans of the other. To oversimplify: liberal working class dudes. I am technically one of their number in fundamental ways, but defy each of those categories in other ways, and don’t like categories anyway. What especially seems to fuel my antipathy towards Carlin in the current age is the ridiculous extent to which his pedestrian, mundane, and often downright childish quotes and observations are treated like the Cosmic Wisdom of Confucius and spread throughout social media. I find nothing wise, insightful, original, or even quotable in 99.99% of anything that ever came out of the guy’s mouth.
I saw the word “prescient” used with reference to him on Twitter just now (he’s trending today, of course; why should today be any different?). There’s been a lot of that lately. I mean, come on. “Prescient”? No more than millions of other people who have had negative things to say about the greed and power-hunger of conservatives over the past half century. I mean, I guess Carlin had long hair and a beard while he said it, and used profanity, but at the level of content? I remain, and always have been super unimpressed. He says nothing many, many others haven’t said and said MUCH better. You’ve heard the phrase “rapier wit”? That is PRECISELY what George Carlin does not possess. In fact, what I see mostly quoted from him is boorish, crudely expressed stuff on the order of “Republicans are turkeys” or “conservatives are stupid”. Sure, maybe it makes you feel good to say that, but a) it’s not uniformly or intrinsically true, and b) isn’t the more salient point that they are not KIND, rather than they’re not smart? Why crow about how dumb they are, especially using those exact words? You know who you sound like when you resort to a brickbat that inexact? That’s right. THEM. You sound like Donald Trump. Hey! Calling stupid people stupid! What a fountain of wit! You’re the funniest guy in the elementary school bathroom! And as for “prescience”? What did he foresee precisely? Not this, surely. No one foresaw this particular hellscape. Did he joke about the fact that Americans lack character and we probably wouldn’t rise above it? Gee whiz, he clearly had a crystal ball!
By the way, I’m not for a minute saying that I DISAGREE with most of Carlin’s assessments. In fact, I have a confession. There was a time during the darkest days of the Trump administration when I actually found myself thinking “I miss George Carlin”. Carlin died in 2008. I missed him in that moment mostly because, ye Gods, it would be nice to have even one more powerful and persuasive ally in this fight. I actually liked Carlin best in conversation on talk shows. Liked what he had to say as a person. But when it comes to his actual stand-up material. Yeesh. I liked his PERFORMANCE, I guess. He made funny faces. But the way he WROTE…how does that impress anyone? In my recent binge-watching of early SNL I referred to a couple of days ago….Carlin guest hosted the very first episode. And he did that routine about the differences between football and baseball. And I realized that the laughs were all in his delivery, the faces he was making, and the intonation of his voice. The actual observations kind of dissolve like sand if you don’t SAY them that way. And you realize that it’s just some bullshit that you have to be high to laugh at. “That’s so true, man!” I think that’s true of most of his material.
Now, a valid complaint about this post is that it is a one-sided rant (and I assure you that, in accordance with my usual M.O., I will never publish your comments or rebuttals). But is it one sided? From my perspective, this post is like a tiny, piping reaction to an overwhelming tidal wave of overly generous lionization that has taken place over the past half century. You want your say? Let that be your say; this post has been more than amply PRE-rebutted. You’ve HAD your say for 50 goddamn years, and my rebuttal, til now has consisted of “Yeah, yeah, George Carlin, great, very nice”. At some point I may do something more biographical on Carlin (haha, this one being mighty deficient in actual information, I’ll admit) but I reckon in the short term you can get that stuff from the Apatow film, which premieres on HBO on May 20.
Lord, even the title of the film raises my hackles. George Carlin’s American Dream. I’m assuming it comes from that loathsome quote of Carlin’s “It’s called the American Dream because you have to be asleep to believe in it” Excuse me? You have to be ASLEEP to believe in the American Dream? Without a good deal of qualification and explanation I find that quote to be risible and false in the extreme. It is, in the worst way, NIHILIST. Which means that ultimately Carlin WOULDN’T be an ally against Trump, because to be nihilist is to be cut from the same cloth that he is. You have to be asleep to believe in the American Dream? Go fuck yourself, Comedian Who Made Thousands and Thousands of Dollars (Probably Millions) Entertaining People in America!