Almost everybody remembers George Carlin’s comedy/satire bit about the seven words you can’t say on television, the “stuff” we can never quite leave behind and other rants about the foolishness rampant in American life.
Yet what remains when we think about the comedian’s long career was not so much the anger as the sheer joy in unearthing absurdities and teasing out their implications.
One obituary we read referred to him as a “counterculture hero,” but it is difficult to view somebody who logged 130 appearances on the “Tonight” show and did voiceovers for children’s shows as a figure of the counterculture — unless you see mainstream American society as unusually tolerant of subversive humor, even of comments that seem to call the very foundations of our society into question.
Come to think of it, that’s fairly true of American society, which is one of its more admirable qualities.
George Carlin managed to find a niche for himself because he was consistently entertaining and funny, even as he was upsetting conventional ways of looking at things.
Whether he was a socially conscious prophet we will leave to posterity. We found him irresistible in part because he was so fond of uncovering little inconsistencies — why do you drive on a parkway but park on a driveway? — in that rich, organically grown pastiche of attempts at communication we call the English language.
The probing for absurdities grew out of an overall fondness for the language, and, what was not necessarily always apparent, a fondness for the silly side of life.
Whatever anger he brought to his routines was tempered by an overriding affection for the often-contradictory and downright foolish antics of human beings.
George Carlin died of an apparent heart attack Sunday night at age 71. We have recordings and DVDs, of course, but we’ll miss his unique angle on the absurdities yet to come in our national life.