Work/Life: R.I.P. George Carlin

It has taken me all week to realize that George Carlin is dead. He was so cavalier about the subject (his final HBO special featured a long rant on his blithely crossing off the names of dead friends in his address book), that it’s hard to view the mere fact of his kicking the bucket as tragic; but the lack of his voice out there on the stage and in the world qualifies as a downer to say the least. I worked in comedy for many years, and though I never met George, he was the kind of guy you felt was speaking right to you anyway. And we live in a culture wherein a whole lot of people we never meet become part of who we are (for some, Martha Stewart, for others, George Carlin).

And George Carlin, perhaps more than anyone, was truly a work/life balance comedian. No matter what he screamed about, it was always in aid of cutting through the b.s. and getting us to see that we were mired in our own ridiculous picture of how things are supposed to go. And he skewered everything, including what we all do for a living. ("If crime fighters fight crime and firefighters fight fire, what do freedom fighters fight?") The fact that he went from buttoned-down observational jokes to society-skewering diatribes is only fitting. In his comedy, he started out merely working, and by the end he was diving fully into life and all its contradictions. He also suffered from some addictions, and managed to stay married for over thirty years, so on that score he must have known something about how to keep things in perspective.

Carlin loved to say that he enjoyed watching the human race slowly circling the drain of their own extinction, but anyone who kept on getting out there and commenting on our foibles must have felt some glimmers of hope for his species, too. By way of a woefully inadequate tribute to the now late legend, I hereby borrow from the Carlin lexicon and send out a cautionary screed of my own concerning the subject of this very blog. In fact, some of the hindrances to getting work and life on the same track may very well be in the words we use to keep them separate. With that in mind, may I present:


  • Tenderness
  • Fear
  • Joy
  • Play
  • Childish
  • Non-competitive
  • Carefree

Not exactly a laugh riot, but I like to think these words could prove just as shocking to the establishment as that famous and more cathartic list of so-called obscenities. Sure, ultimately my attempt at immortality is not as funny as George Carlin. But then again, few things were.

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  • William Barrell

    George Carlin made fun of me, and I liked it. I think that is the best tribute I can give. bb

  • Mark Zorro

    Sorry Tom, your memorial isn’t fitting to the George Carlin I came to respect. Great comedians leaves a legacy that never die, it is the comedians whose lines disappear into the giant nothingness of superficial entertainment and who are the first ones who lose their act. It is the great comedians who have the last laugh, and though we might say, “he who laughs last, laugh’s the longest”, there is a moment where comedy and tragedy become indistinguishable, and in that meld greatness is formed. The fact that we can turn comedians into establishment icons must surely means that open source doesn’t work, especially when it comes to the software of human comedy. We still need farce and slapstick to remind us that we are simple little children in a branded and tragic skin called adult bodies; and the journey of comedy on the continuum from superficial to shocking tell us more about who we are rather than who or at what the comedy is pointing towards. George Carlin always knew he could put on a show. He was brilliant because he was so good at what he did, and he was a master craftsman using his anvil of language, that was more direct and to the point then a beatnik could poetically hammer, (and look at what intelligent people did to Jack Kerouac) but more streetwise and poignant than Monty Python, because those are people who attended Cambridge University but I am talking about people who attended New York City. One cannot pay tribute to George Carlin, without paying tribute to Lenny Bruce. Carlin followed in his footsteps, was transformed about what the scope and possibilities of comedy by watching Lenny Bruce pave the way (and in the very same clubs Bruce stood firm within). Yet what society did to Jack Kerouac by suffocating him in his own fame, they did far worse to Lenny Bruce, and that is nothing to laugh at, for not even the seven words we cannot say are nothing in comparison to the deeds of what Thomas Jefferson refers to as “our barbarous ancestors”. Last week, while Carlin was alive as he was being nominated for the “Mark Twain Award”, I was sitting in the Jefferson Memorial, sitting on a marble bench staring at those very words “barbarous ancestors”. Jefferson was addressing transformation in his words, and not some superficial need for humanity that satisfies our need to sugarcoat life. I also did ask a family next to me why there wasn’t a memorial in Washington DC for Benjamin Franklin, they told me that it is in Philadelphia. I thought to myself, one of the greatest American’s alive and they honor him in a town that adores Rocky Balboa. George Carlin undressed that need within us to be inspired today by thes constant fictions of our selves today in every show, but there was no sugarcoating for the conviction of Lenny Bruce, one that he paid so dearly for; it wasn’t that our barbarous ancestors were still alive 40 years ago, it is that that we are the very same ancestors Jefferson so long ago reminded us not to be. That is Carlin’s greatest legacy, to reveal through his poignant observations the hypocrisy that this barbarous ancestor still lives within us, and Carlin knew what a sorry lot we still are, for he constantly joked about that. And that we should use words like Tenderness, Fear, Joy, Play, Childish, Non-competitive, Carefree, oh my, how I can just hear Carlin in my minds eye use those words on stage, as he contorts his face and mocks us for not seeing what he saw; perhaps with the hope that we might awaken to our selves and recognize the nature of our own savagery. If we are still the barbarians Carlin knew us to be, we better keep watching George Carlin over and over, until we realized that he wasn’t living a legacy begun by Lenny Bruce, but simply hoping that our children could one day laugh at all of us, we their barbarous ancestors and so I cannot say Mr George Carlin Rest in Peace, for he’s already done that skit a long time ago, and yes, it should be time for all of us to watch the re-runs......M.