George Carlin treaded on taboos, captivated audiences with their own nature
George Carlin was a comedian who took pride in one particular concept – the power of words. Every joke he told had each word brilliantly placed and was spoken in his own unique cadence that would make your smile stretch as the joke went on. You knew when the punch line came that you would be belly-laughing at something that probably shouldn’t have even been discussed in the first place. But that’s what George Carlin was great at — getting us to see life through a different set of lenses and laugh at anything and everything that makes up humanity. Nothing was safe with him. He could take topics that were considered taboo and allow us a breather from being prim and proper ... to laugh at ourselves as human beings.
On June 22, I grabbed my cup of coffee and went downstairs to read the news and was saddened to see the headline, “George Carlin – Dead at 71.” I thought back to Sept. 22, 2001 when my dad and I saw George Carlin perform. We drove from Eau Claire to Fort Wayne, Indiana and back in one day because that was the closest he was touring to Eau Claire that year. We wanted to make sure we saw the man that allowed us to share so many laughs together before he passed away. It just so happened that a few years later he played in Eau Claire at the State Theatre – five minutes from my parents’ house – and we were sitting in the front row. Go figure.
When I was about 12 years old, I heard George Carlin for the first time knowing full-well my mother would not approve of what I was listening to. It wasn’t his content that shocked me or his use of profanity. It was his ability to get a message across to a large audience in the form of a joke and have everybody laughing when he wanted them to laugh. I watched him hold peoples’ attention not so much by what he was saying, but by how he was saying it.
We all know people who are great at getting their point across. They speak, you listen. And we all know people who are terrible at getting a point across. They are the people who tell a joke while stopping every other sentence to say, “Wait, how does this go again?” They are also the “well, I guess you had to be there” people. We also know people who pause after every couple of syllables to make it seem like everything they are saying is of utmost importance when the real fact of the matter is that you just want them to hurry the hell up with their rambling so you can get on with your life. George Carlin was of the first. He spoke, I listened.
In an interview I saw him give on TV several years back, he mentioned how rampant censorship is and that most people feel as though they need someone else to decide for them what they can or cannot say. They need someone else to decide for them what’s funny, and what’s not. When in reality, everyone has an innate ability to make a choice for themselves. In my opinion, George Carlin never set out to offend anybody as a comedian through the topics he discussed, but to make people think about how they really are. George Carlin taught me through his humor that it is the curious nature of people, regardless of what it is, to want to be able to see things, and hear things, and be a part of things to satisfy their unlimited interests in ... stuff. Think for yourself how many times you’ve purposefully watched the planes hit the World Trade Center towers and ask yourself why you had to see that more than once.
We all have our own boundaries as to what thoughts, words, images, or actions are taboo and we each have our own limit as to how close we allow ourselves to get to that boundary. When you cross those boundaries, does it make you a bad person or just a person who is trying to figure out what level of life you are comfortable with? George Carlin once said, ”I think it’s the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately.” And he did just that every time he set foot onstage.
Even though we never met, I personally feel a loss because the man who possessed that wit is no longer with us. I am happy to know that he went out when he was still well-known, that he could still memorize a 60-minute comedy set, that I was lucky enough to see him perform, and that before he passed he was informed that he would be receiving the 11th Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in November. The only thing that bothers me is that he didn’t go out the way he said he wanted to – sitting on a bus and spontaneously bursting into flames.