Two personae always seemed to be in uneasy coexistence during George Carlin's preposterously long and fertile comic career. Both George Carlins could amuse and both could be trenchant, but they came at their targets from wildly different angles.
Angry George was the bearded iconoclast of the 1970s who shot to heroic counterculture status by picking up Lenny Bruce's mantle as a scathing social critic. During the Vietnam War, Angry George left no hypocrisy unturned. He sprayed comic acid on whatever moved across the front page: religion, politics, feminism, sex, manners, environmentalism, drugs, death.
Gentle George trafficked in small things. He was the absurdist, the semanticist, the wordplay artist. Gentle George's most memorable works are tributes to Carlin's keen powers of observation and Swiftian ear for the English language. This side of Carlin produced "The Seven Words You Can Never Say on TV," "Baseball and Football" (his ingenious dissection of the differences between our national pastimes) and the more recent "Modern Man," Carlin's verbally acrobatic piece of spoken-word art.
"Seven Words," which remains accurate to this day (if you don't count cable), is one of the most famous "blue" comedy routines ever performed. Shocking though its subject matter was when it debuted in 1972, Carlin's treatment of the material is so relentlessly cheerful that it now seems almost impossible to be offended. Compare Carlin's riffs on profanity with any blunt-force "shock jock" or less-talented standup of the past few decades.
Carlin, who died Sunday night (June 22, 2008) in Los Angeles at 71, was at his least funny when he let his anger and natural anti-authority streak lapse into nihilism. Once, on a tour that came through Washington in the early 1990s, Carlin proposed that "anything could be funny," even rape. He then launched into a cringe-inducing monologue about female victimization. It could essentially be read as an attack on political correctness — a common theme for Carlin — but whatever it was, it wasn't funny in the least.
Then there was his genuine anger at other pastimes. Golf courses, he once suggested, should be turned over to homeless people (Carlin had a lifelong hatred of golf, having been fired once in Las Vegas after an audience of golfers complained about his cursing).
His subject matter ran the gamut of the sometimes socially verboten. In one of his HBO specials, Carlin's topics included yeast infections, autoerotic asphyxia, an all-suicide TV channel and revolting involuntary bodily functions.
It was fascinating to watch the nearly-70ish Carlin — wizened and weakened by years of heart trouble and a cocaine habit — pushing miles beyond the interplanetary boundaries of good taste. But so much of the material invited not laughter but a thunderstruck "wow" at the aggressiveness with which he pushed into darkness.
It was easier to love the Carlin who delighted in pointing out the absurdity of the trivial, and the simply absurd — the kind of humor that clearly inspired the likes of Jerry Seinfeld and Steven Wright.
There were Carlin's ever-growing list of oxymorons — "closed fist," "plastic glass," "holy war," "military intelligence" — and redundancies, such as "raw sewage" ("Do some people cook the stuff?").
As much as George Orwell, Carlin saw in language the power not just to obscure, but also to twist and pervert. "I can remember when I was young that poor people lived in slums," he once riffed. "Not anymore. These days, the economically disadvantaged occupy substandard housing in the inner cities. It's so much nicer for them."
And he once asserted: "If honesty were introduced into American life, everything would collapse."