Monday, June 23, 2008

An uncivil tongue

From Kolchak:

I saw George Carlin live only once. It wasn't his finest moment.

He spent a long time--what seemed like a half hour or more--playing with the microphone cord and waiting, perhaps, for creative lightning to strike. Or maybe he was waiting for the drugs to kick in. Or wear off. That was a long time ago, for both of us.

As you probably know already, Carlin died on June 22, of heart failure. He was 71.

Most of the news stories that I've seen today are leading with his involvement in the landmark obscenity case stemming from his routine, "Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television." I don't want to devalue that in any way (and I see that handdrummer has already posted about it) but I want to talk about the other way Carlin used language, to point out the absurdities in daily life. Most of the lines I'm going to use here are paraphrases, and I apologize for that in advance.

I'm not a sports guy and I'll never be one, but one of my favorite Carlin monologues is when he explained how baseball was pastoral and football was technological. It shows how something that looks like a trifle actually says something very real about the world. In baseball, you make an error. Everybody makes errors. In football, you pay a penalty. Football has to be played in a set time period. A baseball game can go on forever.

Carlin talked about how we all grow up to expect certain phrases to go together. You're probably not going to deposit your savings in Arnie's National Bank. And you're probably not going to hang out at the First National Bar and Grill.

I probably shouldn't admit this, but I remember a few of Carlin's earliest appearances on television, before his beard and his anger grew. He did a character he called the Hippy Dippy Weatherman, who delivered playful lines like: There was a freak accident out on Route 295 today. Two freaks in a VW hit three freaks in a van."

And wouldn't he have loved the phrase "heart failure"? I'm sorry, you failed. We're going to have to hold your aorta back a year.

As much fun as it is to recall punchlines, George Carlin did more than tell jokes. He had a way of looking at the world. And that's why he'll be remembered.

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