June 23, 2008

RIP George Carlin

After ten days out of town and away from home, I expected to have a fairly calm start to my first day back in the office. And it was going well, too, until I heard a coworker exclaim,

"Oh my god, George Carlin died!"

It's one of those situations where you're sure you didn't hear what you thought you heard, so you look it up. And you're surprised, even then, when you find out it's true. George Carlin, among the greatest comedians of his or any generation, passed away last night in California. It comes, ironically enough, less than a week after it was announced that George would be presented with the Mark Twain prize at the Kennedy Center, and award given for lifetime achievement in humor.

And what a lifetime it was.

I've been a fan of standup for my entire life. It started with old Bill Cosby albums in my parents' living room (actual albums, on vinyl; if you're under 30 just ask your parents and they'll explain it). My family was among the early adopters of cable and, later, HBO, which in the early- to mid-1980s was nothing short of heaven for fans of standup. Early Robin Williams, Howie Mandel, Rodney Dangerfield and, of course, repeated doses of George Carlin. I was introduced to Carlin in his 1984 special Carlin on Campus, and have been addicted ever since. He had a significant influence on my sense of humor growing up, and with new specials appearing every couple of years throughout my adolescence, he was frequently quoted among my friends. He's as much a part of my life's soundtrack as any musical group, really, to the point where in making a compilation cd for a childhood friend several years ago, a well-remembered Carlin clip went between almost every song. I still have the bulk of several specials committed to memory.

All of this, of course, was well after George had already had a significant impact on our culture, coining the Seven Dirty Words and being part of a Supreme Court case on obscenity. I didn't know much about that stuff until much later. I just knew he was funny.

In recent years, I felt that George had shifted from doing poignant observational comedy to mostly doing angry screeds. The social commentary, which had been at least light-hearted in previous iterations had become much darker, more pessimistic. During a brief period when I was doing regular video postings, I put up YouTube clips of a couple of my favorite Carlin routines (a list that would take several postings and a couple of hours of video), in which I said that I missed funny George, that angry George just wasn't the same. But I'd take angry George over silent, never-to-be-heard-from-again George anytime.

So thanks, George, for making me laugh, and think, for more than half my life. I'll miss you, as will laugh-prone people everywhere. Say hi to Richard, Lenny, and the others for us; I'm sure they're glad to see you.

Postscript: the original version of the Post story above used a word that George would have howled at. At the end of the story, in the line about his family, it said that his first wife, Brenda, "predeceased him." They have since edited it, unfortunately, because I think he would have appreciated the choice of words immensely. It reminded me of this bit, in which George talks about the softening of language, and even about how they might describe his own passing. Ever since this first aired, I've never listened to the pre-boarding call at an airport the same way.

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