Wednesday, July 2, 2008

Beat Me, Daddy

Since George Carlin died unexpectedly a couple of weeks ago, I’ve been hearing more of his work than I’d ever heard before in my life. That’s handy, because I’d never had much use for him, and the eulogies I’ve read since he died, by people I respect, made me wonder if I should reconsider. Aside from his cameos in the Bill & Ted movies and Dogma, all I knew were the “Hippy Dippy Weatherman” and “Wonderful WINO” bits I’d heard on AM radio forty years ago. I always heard those as mainstream humor by and for squares who couldn’t grasp hip culture and resented it accordingly. Of course I have heard of the Seven Forbidden Words routine, but I got that sort of thing out of my system in the 60s too, with Frank Zappa, the Fugs, and other famous pottymouths. Carlin just never seemed interesting enough for further attention from me.

But the other night my beloved community radio station played a hefty chunk from a late HBO special, Life Is Worth Losing it was apparently called. I came in on a long poem full of word play and macho posturing; I listened to thirty or forty minutes of what followed before I turned it off, but I was annoyed enough that before I could sleep I made a lot of notes on it.

I’m still trying to figure out what is supposed to be so cutting-edge about him. There’s nothing novel or daring about an aging straight guy venting his rage against humanity, especially the human body. He attacked the “fucking” Christians and the “Politically Correct” for trying to “clean everything up” when what we need is more words like “pussy farts” and “cornholing.” The Politically Correct especially made the steam pour from his ears, for allegedly referring to “cornholing” as “anal intercourse, anal rape.” (Like so many straight guys, Carlin was vague about the difference between intercourse and rape; the jokes which followed confirmed that he preferred to think of sex as a violation if not outright violence.)

Where Christians are concerned, Carlin should have tried reading the Bible, which contains plenty of fine filthy language about the wicked, especially wicked women; or early Church Fathers like Jerome, or Martin Luther, whose scatological ravings leave Carlin in the, um, dust. Religious nuts do want to “clean everything up,” but they love imagining the sewage in which the ungodly wallow.

Compared to these masters, coy giggling about “cornholing” is grade-school stuff. Carlin was following in the footsteps of people like Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, and Gregory Corso among others, but at a safe distance. He was some kind of preacher in a way that they weren’t, and he was less interesting, because they got at their own abjection in a way that I didn’t hear Carlin doing in that show: he was sitting above it all, clean and pure above this “extreme human behavior.” Compare Ginsberg’s “Please Master” – I can’t imagine Carlin talking about his own desire to be used, abjected, degraded, because it’s much more threatening to straight male pride than putting other people down. And there's always been a compassion, a fellow-feeling for other sentient beings, in Ginsberg's work that I didn't detect in Carlin.

Carlin’s swipe at the Politically Correct, along with his grating voice and look-at-me-I’m-cynical tone tipped me off that he wasn’t as different from Rush Limbaugh and other sleazoid right-wing talk radio hosts as he and his fans wanted to believe. I’ve long realized that many liberals and leftists want a liberal-left version of Limbaugh, and the audience reactions to Carlin’s dirty talking told me that they’d found one – I could smell the self-righteousness through the airwaves. Or is Limbaugh a right-wing version of Carlin? [P.S. I just realized why Limbaugh sounded so familiar when I first heard him on the radio so many years ago: his voice and delivery were a lot like Carlin's, especially the way I heard him on Life Is Worth Losing.]

Carlin went off on a long rap about the advisability of suicide, with digressions like “I don’t think a writer could ever commit suicide, he’d be too damn busy working on the note.” Hemingway, Plath, Sexton, Berryman, James Tiptree, Hart Crane, Woolf … need I go on? This would only be funny if it were true.

He claimed we’re the only species that kills other members of our species for profit or pleasure, and the only species that kills members of other species for profit or pleasure. (Um, predators? The Venus fly trap?) The audience applauded this part of the sermon. It occurred to me that we’re also the only species that does stand-up comedy. And the sermonizing became more hippie-dippily obnoxious as it went on.

“Assassination – the people we kill are those who told us to try to live together peacefully in brotherhood. Jesus [hee hee hee, Mr. Hellfire and Damnation who thought it best to become a eunuch for the kingdom of heaven]. Lincoln [hahaha, killed half a million of his own people in his quest to make them live peacefully together]. The Kennedys [Vietnam, Cuba, ran a damn Murder Inc. in the Caribbean -- stop, my sides are splitting]. Martin Luther King, Jr.” One out of five ain’t bad, I suppose. Of course, Jesus was executed not assassinated, but hell, Carlin was a comedian, not a historian.

Then he moved into a fantasy about computer controls failing, and all the jails and mental hospitals disgorging their inmates. He liked the idea of other white people being visited by these poor marginalized souls, though I’m not sure he was thinking of himself or his audience as the beneficiaries of their freedom. He thought rapists and murderers and mental patients are “alpha males.” I hope this isn’t too Politically Incorrect of me, but do I hear some penis envy there?

“All of these things show me what beasts we humans are. Ordinary jungle beasts, savages.” But I thought we were worse, lower than the animals! That pretty much exhausted my patience, and I turned off the radio at that point. Say goodnight, Georgie.

I don't pretend to have grasped Carlin totally here; I know very well I haven't heard enough of his work for that. All I know is that I'm not interested in hearing more. I don't get the appeal of this kind of standup comedy, and I know it's a matter of taste. I take seriously Dennis Perrin's argument that Carlin was "a slate on whom anyone can project whatever they need to be true." But what does it say about what I need to be true that I found him tiresome, old hat, been there done that? For Perrin, "George Carlin essentially told us to wake the fuck up and take control of our lives. That he doubted this could be done did not soften his message; it made it more pressing." That fits with Perrin's general taste in comedy, which is very different from mine; I guess it's what he needs to be true. But I don't believe Perrin needs to be told to wake up any more than I do. And what a backhanded sort of compliment to Carlin's memory it is, to say that you should listen to him because he's good for you.

There are so many writers and artists who've brought me the news I needed to hear, compared to whom Carlin seems to me no more profound or necessary than an angry baby squalling in his dirty diapers. This isn't just a boy thing -- I have the same reaction to Margaret Cho. I think Perrin's bit about "take control of your own life" does inadvertently get to the nub of the problem, though. One function of those vital forbidden words, especially "fuck," seems to be to try to get control over reality by fucking / abasing / abjecting it -- often by people who feel out of control, though by entitlement of color or sex they think they should be. I'm enough of a Taoist to doubt that such control is even possible (though I'm enough of a control freak myself to understand the appeal of the fantasy) and I think that devoting one's life to trying to achieve it is a recipe for misery.

Besides, people have been telling / urging / ordering other people to wake up for thousands of years. It hasn't worked; maybe a new tactic is in order. And if you did wake up, what then? What would you do with a self? And what's with this "we" stuff? What made George Carlin think he was awake?