Last February I complained on this blog that the news of John Updike's death took two weeks to filter through the grapevine here (they call it the "bamboo telegraph"). Those two weeks were nothing compared to the eighteen months it took for the news of George Carlin's death to reach me. I was astonished and more than a little puzzled that I could have missed it. But then I saw the date of his death: June 22, 2008. It happened to coincide with a catastrophe in the Philippines - Typhoon Frank, which killed thousands on land and at sea. I apostrophized the event in another post I called Tropical Depression. During the 9-day "brownout" that hit the Visayan province in which I live, all news was cut off, including the news of a ferry disaster that claimed hundreds of lives.
While the news of a psychotic like Michael Jackson rockets around the world within moments of his death and was known to every Filipino, the passing of a stand-up comic who made people think while they were laughing was passed off with a whisper. Because Carlin liked to talk so much about the English language, his humor was probably incomprehensible in a country that likes to pretend that English is a second language. And so I would like to impart a few words in that same language that I was not given a chance to write eighteen months ago.
Just prior to leaving the States in late 2007, I saw George Carlin in a brief clip from a recent concert and I noticed how his delivery sounded rather winded. He was beginning to sound as old as he looked, even though he was just 70.
I remember listening to his routines in the mid-1970s on Little David records* that my sister brought home. I identified completely with his jokes about growing up an Irish-Catholic and going to Catholic school, since I had done the same. I even saw how that same upbringing could have made him an atheist. He lived long enough to see some of his "seven words you can't say on television" become permissible, even if he cannot have been much impressed with their context.
He was constantly defending the English language from the insidious attack of euphemisms - those little white lies that are invented to disguise ugly truths. He demonstrated how they had been used to muffle the meaning of a condition that was originally known as "shell shock." Two syllables became four, with "battle fatigue" - but the meaning was disfigured. By now the meaning has been completely obscured by the term "post traumatic stress disorder," even if those who suffer from it feel the shock of the original term as terribly as ever.
He was kicked out of the Air Force in 1957 because of his irreverent insubordination on an armed forces radio show. Like me, it was difficult for Carlin to take the military seriously. I was just better at hiding it. He was pessimistic, even misanthropic, about man, about how he was capable of feeding everyone in the world but chose instead to put lights in the soles on toddler's shoes. The fact that he expressed that pessimism in his humor made his later routines somewhat disturbing. When he spoke about God, he reminded me of Robert Frost's "Forgive, oh Lord, my little jokes on Thee, and I'll forgive Thy great big one on me."
The loss of a celebrity, especially one who appeared so often in recordings and television, is a strange experience. I never met Carlin, but his many recordings and television appearances will survive. So the Carlin I knew is still around, to provide laughs for the rest of my life. Even if he is no longer around to continue his commentary on the American scene, that commentary will continue to resonate as long as laughter is precious in a world that provides precious few occasions for laughter.
*I remember when he hosted The Tonight Show once in the '70s and introduced a fellow artist from his label, Kenny Rankin, whose career I have also followed closely through the years.