"Shit."

^This was the heartfelt and, I think you must agree, appropriate response to the news that George Carlin has died.

I don't think there is a single individual outside my family and friends (with the possible exception of Dean Smith) who comes close to the level of influence Carlin had upon me.  Not just because I happen to be so fluent in profanity that I'm often mistaken for a native, but because Carlin's incisive views on language and life helped me establish a love for something that's often given lip service, but just as often ignored when the going gets tough: honesty.

Carlin's shtick--if you want to call it that--wasn't making up absurdities (a la Stephen Wright) or embellishing childhood memories (a la Bill Cosby).  He had the imagination to do so, mind you, and sometimes did, as in his hilarious accounts of growing up Irish Catholic in New York City, or when he theorized that the perfect murder would involve picking one guy up and killing another guy with him:  "They both die and there's no murder weapon!"

Most of the time, though, his shtick was simply telling the truth. It was the privilege of jesters in medieval courts to state baldly things that the king would ordinarily find so offensive to his dignity that the speaker would find himself in an iron maiden or something, and Carlin seized upon that privilege with gusto.  In the late 60s, he grew his hair and began using profanity and referring to drugs in his act--and not because it was funnier that way (though it was), or because it was easier (he was fired from the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas, as he put it, "for saying 'shit' in a town where the big game is called 'crap,'" and was threatened by a mob at, of all places, the Playboy Club in Lake Geneva.)  He did it because he had realized that he was being dishonest in pretending to be a member of the Establishment, and his main beef with that Establishment was its hypocrisy.

So, it's 1972, and here I come, a nine-year-old boy, interested (as are all nine-year-old boys) in figuring out what the rules are, and how they can be fixed so that they don't apply to me as often.  My friend Bruce Crumpton has me over at his house one afternoon and he pulls out Carlin's 1970 album AM & FM, which features his groundbreaking routine "Shoot," in which he examines the myriad ways our language uses the word "shit."  At that point, I'd only been using the word for about two years (when I expressed my puzzlement over it in second grade, John Thebault cheerfully announced that it meant "Doodoo!"), and though I delighted in shocking my peers with occasional references to the Big S, I'd never really thought about where the word came from or what people used it for.  Carlin changed all that.  Of course, I also discovered how adults would laugh when I recited bits of his somewhat more innocuous "Eleven O'Clock News" and promptly memorized the whole thing.

When the fully-formed "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" appeared on Carlin's 1972 album Class Clown, I was ready to study and absorb every nuance.  I did.  What I couldn't articulate about it yet, however, is that the core of the bit, and in general the core of Carlin's comedy, was a diamond-hard dislike for hypocrisy.  For him, a society that focused on the existence of a word--a mere tool for conveying meaning--while ignoring the purposes and actions of the tool's user was being dishonest.  It was Carlin, not some teacher, not some literary theorist or critic, who taught me the concept of context.

And perhaps more important, what Carlin was teaching me was, bizarrely enough, exactly what I'd been taught by my parents, and presumably what I was being taught by the state of North Carolina, both in and out of the classroom: to say what you really believed, and to believe in what you say.  It's a belief that continues to be crucial to me today, working as I do at a school where the concept of personal honor is taken so seriously that a student can be dismissed for the simple act of lying.

In North Carolina, that belief is enshrined in a pretty prominent place:  the state motto, Esse quam videri.  It means "to be, rather than to seem."

Carlin didn't seem like a good guy to a lot of people.  He was hairy, and he cursed like a sailor, and he had a variety of drug problems over the years.  He was often angry, and some of his books and interviews later in his life made him come off as awfully bitter.

Well, big fuckin' deal.  So's my morning coffee.  And no matter what Carlin said, it was always laced with humor--a spoonful of sugar to help that bitter medicine go down.

So I raise my mug to you this morning, George.  Rest in peace.

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This page contains a single entry by Peter Cashwell published on June 23, 2008 8:13 AM.

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