Tuesday, June 24, 2008

The Passing of a Genius

I lost one of my childhood heroes this weekend. I’m not sure if it’s fully sunk in yet that he’s gone, but in my humble opinion the world will now be a slightly emptier place with his passing. He may have been a rather odd choice of heroes, but then again I’m a bit of an odd duck myself.

George Carlin had a huge impact on me, and on both my sense of humor and my writing style. I always loved that his biting sarcasm was riddled with truth, since the best comedy has the truth as its base. That’s what makes it funny. Carlin wasn’t just about his “Seven Words You Can’t Say On Television” bit that made him a household name. He had an expansive vocabulary and often interjected “big words” into his bits. In fact, language was a frequent focus of Carlin's work. Euphemisms and popular catch-phrases that in his view sought to distort and lie, and the use of language he felt was pompous, presumptuous or silly, were often the target of Carlin's routines.

Carlin also gave special attention to prominent topics in American culture such as our obsession with fame and celebrities, consumerism, religion, corporate control and Big Brother-ism, hypocrisy, child raising, fast food , news stations, self-help publications, patriotism, sexual taboos, certain uses of technology and surveillance, and the pro-life position, among many others.

Carlin openly communicated in his shows and in his interviews that his purpose for existence was entertainment, that he was "here for the show". He professed a great sense of schadenfreude in watching humanity slowly self-destruct of its own design; saying, "When you're born, you get a ticket to the freak show. When you're born in America, you get a front-row seat."

A few people have remarked to me over the years that some of my humor and my writing was Carlin-esque, and I took it as a great compliment. In college, I took on as my case study in Constitutional Law, the case of FCC v. Pacifica Corporation, by where the Supreme Court handed down a landmark decision on “indecent” material as it applied to broadcasting. In 1973, a father complained to the FCC that his son had heard the “Seven Dirty Words” routine broadcast one afternoon over WBAI, a Pacifica Foundation FM radio station in New York City. Pacifica received a sanction from the FCC, in the form of a letter of reprimand, for allegedly violating FCC regulations which prohibited broadcasting "indecent" material. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the FCC action in 1978, by a vote of 5 to 4, ruling that the routine was "indecent but not obscene". The Court accepted as compelling the government's interests in 1) shielding children from patently offensive material, and 2) ensuring that unwanted speech does not enter one's home. The Court stated that the FCC had the authority to prohibit such broadcasts during hours when children were likely to be among the audience, and gave the FCC broad leeway to determine what constituted indecency in different contexts.

I look at it this way: the radio has two knobs; one turns the station and the other turns it off. Be a proactive parent and keep your kid from listening, instead of letting the government babysit your kid. The original complainant, John Douglas, was driving in the car with his son and heard the broadcast and complained to the FCC because he was unhappy his son had heard it. If you found it offensive, dummy, why’d you keep listening? That’s like keeping your hand in boiling water after you feel pain, and then calling the government to say the water was hot instead of removing your hand. However, my feelings about the FCC and censorship are for another day. Back to Carlin.

George Carlin wrote five books, had 14 specials on HBO, did 16 movies, released 23 albums, and won four Grammy Awards. He was the first-ever host of Saturday Night Live, appeared on The Tonight Show 130 times. He even played Mr. Conductor and narrated for several years on the American version of the children’s TV show “Shining Time Station”, and the companion show Thomas The Tank Engine and Friends”. A few days before his death, it was announced that he was to be this year’s recipient of the 11th annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor from the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

Goodbye, George. You’ll be missed dearly.

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