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George Carlin: The funniest crusader against censorship

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on June 22, 2008 No Comment

George Carlin, the legendary, irreverent comedian par excellence, arguably most famous for his “Seven Words You Can Never Use on Television” routine, died a few hours ago in LA. I’m not generally given to grieving for celebrities, but the news of Carlin’s death hit me hard. I discovered Carlin a mere three years ago, in Chico, when a roommate invited me to watch a Carlin special that was playing on HBO. That one show was enough to hook me; I was immediately addicted to his “acerbic, cerebral, sometimes off-color” stand up routines. And since then, I’ve devoured his books, and laughed uncontrollably at almost every word he penned. His HBO specials, so many of which are Youtubed, are oftentimes my morning viewing staple…and there are numerous hilarious one-liners of his I can recite from memory. Less than a month ago, as I was packing up to move from the I House to a sublet, I had Carlin classics such as Life is Worth Losing, Jammin’, and George Carlin at USC playing on my laptop while I packed. There are few things that are as guaranteed to act as de-stressers and elicit laughter from me as his incredible comic dexterity and wit. For a variety of reasons, this loss is very personal.

The Grammy-winning comedian had a tumultuous personal life (marred by long term drug use), and was arrested several times for what were deemed his “obscene shows.” His routines overflowed with profanities, and he was very anti-Establishment, attacking organized religion, the government…pretty much everything “organized” that got him riled up. His anti-Establishmentarianism wasn’t run-of-the-mill comic irreverence; there were moments of startling, deep, and penetrating insight that marked his “counter-culture” brand of humor. Carlin’s routines were not merely meant to be comically provocative; they were aimed at attacking censorship that regulated language that was permitted in the media. As Richardson (2000) noted,

In 1978, comedian George Carlin’s classic routine, “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Radio,” challenged existing media censorship regulations in two critical ways. First, by mentioning the seven “forbidden” terms repeatedly in the routine, he succeeded simultaneously in de-mystifying them while at the same time mocking the US Federal Communications Commission’s preoccupation with “filthy words“. Second, and perhaps most importantly, Carlin raised the question of agency (individual or collective resistance to some kind of external control) and the media. Given the immense power that the media has over what we see and hear, how can we question and resist its tendency toward the promotion of global consumerism, Eurocentrism and cultural homogenization?

These are questions that we battle and will continue to battle as the media continues to permeate more and more aspects of our daily lives.

Carlin’s comedy was unique; it wasn’t just his comic timing, the turns of phrase he employed, or the deadpan delivery he was the master of. It was comic subversion at its best, one imbued with rich commentary on that unraveled the very fabric of human life.

So what did Carlin say about death?

“The most unfair thing about life is the way it ends. I mean, life is tough. It takes up a lot of your time. What do you get at the end of it? A Death! What’s that, a bonus? I think the life cycle is all backwards. You should die first, get it out of the way. Then you live in an old age home. You get kicked out when you’re too young, you get a gold watch, you go to work. You work forty years until you’re young enough to enjoy your retirement. You do drugs, alcohol, you party, you get ready for high school. You go to grade school, you become a kid, you play, you have no responsibilities, you become a little baby, you go back into the womb, you spend your last nine months floating…and you finish off as an orgasm.”

He should have the last word. I am embedding a video of one his most famous routines…Rock on, Carlin. Your words will live on in my laughter.

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