George Carlin died the other day?and though I never actually met him, I miss him?
I don’t know if he translated across generations or if it mostly was his original fans (and there were a great many of them) that were his constant audience across the decades.
If you were introduced to him at the beginning of his career, as I was, then you have to be near or over 60?but maybe because of his HBO specials and the internet, etc., Carlin reached across some small portion of the generational divide.
His comedy/satire came to prominence soon after Lenny Bruce?s death, and George Carlin was almost a direct inheritor of Lenny Bruce’s revolution in “comedy”; comedy that was laugh out loud funny, but also, along with, and right after the beat generation, not so funny; dark, vicious, a straight, polished mirror held up to a twisted culture…
Carlin didn’t jump right off the cliff like Bruce did, but he often worked on the rim of the canyon. And like Bruce, Carlin (can I call him George? I think I will cause I’m beginning to sound like an academic or performance art critic? Also, I had a special, almost personal attachment to him that I will explain as I go on?).
So, George? He, like Lenny Bruce, loved the way words sounded?the way they flowed and soared and dipped, like birds or music? You could see George moving his arms, using body English (or Irish) to shape and float and launch the words? He reveled in the way words expressed nuance, thought, feeling?
Both men were interested in the origins of words, and the way they were used and misused?the way the one powerful word could express completely (even directly contradictory) thoughts, acts or feelings.
This fascination reached its peak in his famous monologue, “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television.?
If you’ve never heard it, you really ought to?it?s one of the great American gems of linguistic-cultural commentary. Like any gem, it?s got its flaws; there are moments when the routine is puerile and silly (an occupational risk of all satirists) but most of the time, George rises to the heights and stays there.
And these famous works–Shit, Piss, Cunt, Fuck, Cocksucker, Motherfucker and Tits (not sure if I have them in the right order) were, of course, offensive, horrible, a gross attack on all that was decent, and could never, never be uttered on the public airwaves, or printed in any newspaper.
He did this act first in the early seventies, and even though The Sixties had turned everything upside down, it was still something of a revolutionary moment in comedy/performance.
In 1973, Paul Gorman, one of WBAI-FM’s stars, played the whole 12-minute routine on the radio early one Saturday afternoon.
A man on Staten Island (seems appropriate) claimed that he was driving in his car at the time; and his 12-year-old son heard this offensive garbage! He was outraged, naturally, and complained, ultimately in an official way, to the FCC, who went after the Pacifica Foundation?Way?s parent organization. The Pacifica Foundation fought back and it wound up in the Supreme Court.
Who knows if the complainant was really outraged or even heard the broadcast at all, or was just a front man for some organization that was on the look-out for filth and slime and communism in all its many deceptive forms.
And if the man really was driving in his car, and truly had his son with him, did he listen to the whole 12 minute routine? And if it was so awful and very likely to turn his child into a sexual deviate or a murderer, why did he keep it on for the whole time? Maybe he just heard a minute and grabbed for the knob to it off.
I?d been a WBAI listener since 1966 and actually heard Paul Gorman play the Carlin routine on the air. I was amazed at what I heard, couldn?t believe he would take the chance. At the same time, I felt a kind of pride that I was in some revolutionary moment (even though I was “only” a listener). I was 28 when I heard the routine played on the air, and the Sixties, with WBAI at its genius, silly, culture-changing center, still carried some leftover power to transform?
That was 35 years ago? Many revolutions, (cultural and personal), have come and gone since then. I?ve had jobs, been married, had kids, gotten older and, intermittently, a little wiser?and I understand that my surge of elation on hearing the routine was many things; among them a real thrill at the expression of true free speech and also, a kind of left over teen-age “fuck you” from The Sixties.
Often, if you look at history, what was a perfect and urgently needed expression or deed at a certain time?later turned out to lead to something as chaotic and destructive as the thing it shattered or replaced.
Here?s George, doing this beautiful, revolutionary commentary on ?dirty? words and the restrictions and hypocrisy of society. Just hearing it was so liberating? And over time, the word decency barrier has more or less dissapeared. Not that network TV and regular radio stations aren?t still bound by the old rules?but even that is cracking apart with the relentless assault from cable TV, the internet, even Satellite radio where I now make my on-air home at Sirius.
But, now, long after the liberation, we have devolved into a world of constant profanity and pornography? Now we have cursing and insults and violence every minute, everywhere; words and images used like weapons in all public places– surrounding us so much that they seem to have desensitized us utterly; so much that Americans can hardly tell the difference between common sense or lunacy; simple, civil decency or blunt transgression on another person or society?s heart and soul.
And yet, and yet? those are words and images; the ultimate obscenities still lie in the great misuse of power, the perversion and criminal indifference exercised at the highest levels of government and business (is there a difference?). And what do we have but free speech to combat these people? ?Great work, Brownie.? ?Mission Accomplished!.? “Compassionate conservative.”
Now there’s some real 24 karat, pure obscenity.
In the end, though, as an old WBAI free-speecher, and despite the degeneration of language and society in general, I still feel a reverence for the audacity of George’s routine (aside from the fact that it was brilliant, funny and touching as well).
By the time the Supreme Court decided the case against Pacifica and WBAI?not to mention Free Speech, I was already the Assistant Manager of WBAI. We were always proud of our relationship to George?He even did a benefit concert for WBAI right after the decision at the Beacon Theater in Manhattan. So, my personal connection?
So much of what has followed on radio and television (think of the great works of genius that have appeared on HBO over the years?The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, Angels in America, etc.) that had or has any real value, owes something to George and his bravery in art.
I know, just for myself, part of feeling free enough to do all the stories I did on WBAI for decades?was partially because George did that routine and Paul Gorman played it on the air.
George Carlin? Bless you, my good man… Rest in Peace. And I hope all the cocksucking mother-fuckers that continue to try to impose their own fears and hatred on the rest of us, keep losing ground because of what you did for all of us.
– Mike Feder (New York City – June 26, 2008)