I’m a little too young to have been around for George Carlin’s body-switch from straight-man nightclub comic playing for crowds of businessmen to the black-clad ponytailed firebreather who turned in the Seven Dirty Words routine; that happened a few years before I was born, meaning I could only hear about it and experience it in the past tense, like some sort of bizarre history lesson.
By the time I got around to Carlin (via cassettes given to me by my parents, which was kind of awesome), I’d say, the terrifying-of-the-establishment bit he’d pulled off to such world-changing acclaim in the early 1970s was part of the comic past rather than the comic now, something that, it seemed to me, had achieved a post-mortem approval from the very people he set out to shock. That didn’t bother me, as that’s the nature of shock value: first it’s novel, then scary, then people write letters to the editor and try to plug their kids’ ears, and then a few minutes later that same person is either forgotten or trying in vain to top himself while forgetting what brought him there in the first place. Not so with Carlin.
Carlin never vanished, he never let the vast portion of his persona devoted to shock overwhelm the portion that was devoted to truth. He kept it up, continued touring, writing, recording. Just last week, the Kennedy Center announced he would receive this year’s Mark Twain Prize at the Kennedy Center in November, a lifetime humor achievement award first (and appropriately) given to Richard Pryor 10 years ago. He showed no signs of slowing down, past that what a weakened heart would allow.
The last time I saw Carlin, in 2004, he opened with a series of gags about something I can’t even try to gracefully ballet around in a family newspaper, or any newspaper, or any family (yet two years later, I discovered Carlin also narrates my son’s Thomas the Tank Engine shows and plays a small but memorable role in “Cars.”). But as he did, he threw that bit up in the air, grabbed it with both bands and somehow weaved it into 90 minutes of searing American comedy, a routine, if you can call it that, that touched on everything from religion to terrorism to war and, I remember, subtle, unpreachy hints that people should be sort of decent to each other. So a toast to an American classic who will be missed, but who, in a brilliant twist will live on in the history books.