Tuesday, June 24, 2008

George Carlin, 1937-2008.

When I was fifteen years old, I volunteered at a public access television station in Artesia that catered mostly to the city’s Portuguese community. The most popular show (which still runs to this day) was a three hour-long Portuguese language program hosted by a middle-aged blind man with a seductive baritone voice and a bottomless store of mother-in-law jokes. One day Manuel Ivo, sitting bolt upright with his shade-covered gaze fixed just above my head as always, told me that his neighbor was moving out and had given him a stack of records that he didn’t want to store. “I don’t want them either,” he told me. “Come over and see if there’s anything you’d like.” Long story short: there was plenty that I liked. This vinyl collection ranged from the absurd (“Nilsson Schmillson” and the soundtrack to that appallingly bad Sergeant Pepper’s movie with the Bee Gees) to the eyebrow-raising (a Danish release of Jimi Hendrix’s greatest hits) to the downright exciting (original pressings of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” and Led Zeppelin’s “II”). Among the exciting was George Carlin’s “Class Clown” EP. I knew who Carlin was, of course, but I can't say I really knew who he was, why he mattered. All I really knew was that the cover of this album had a picture of the old guy from "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" on it, but he was young. He wore blue jeans and a tight-fitting blue denim jacket with no shirt on underneath, and he sat on a stool with his back turned to a chalkboard. He faced the non-existent classroom with his eyes wide open, middle finger bent to look as if he'd shoved it knuckle-deep into his right nostril.

George Carlin was the perfect anti-hero for a mindset that I don’t think I’ve ever really outgrown: he was the dunce who could outwit his entire class, the erudite underachiever, the intelligent stoner with a "fuck you" always on reserve and bubbling just beneath the surface. I loved George Carlin before hearing so much as a word from that album, but of course the record (which includes the notorious "Seven Words" bit) fully delivered on its sleeve's promise and—angry little shit that I was—I instantly became a devotee of St. George's Church. I don't know if I can say that I absolutely "got it" back then, but I don't think that my angsty teenage understanding of Carlin's humor was so far from getting at the crux of his impressive career.

So, what was to be gotten? Why did George Carlin matter? He was certainly a titan of comedy and a cultural force to be reckoned with, but it isn’t so simple to define what it was that he actually did beyond making us laugh (not to downplay the importance of laughter). The institutions that he habitually punctured remain intact, the injustices and absurdities that he so acutely pointed out have not become less prevalent—so what did George Carlin do? In a popular landscape where everybody has something to say (didn’t Pink write a song about Dubya?), why did Carlin stand out as someone to whom we should all be listening?

George Carlin was an eiron to all the bluster and puffed-up stupidity of an unjust, wasteful and shallow society. He was a trickster character, subverting norms and violating taboos at every turn, whose only concrete agenda was exactly that: to violate every absurd rule that he could, thus chipping away at the ridiculous system that propped up such oppression. Carlin filled the role of ironic sidekick that Kierkegaard assigns to John the Baptist in The Concept of Irony: not the positive force of the Messiah establishing a new world order, but the negative force of one who picks apart the established order from the inside by demanding that it deliver on the promise of its own ideals.

John the Baptist—the disheveled, belligerent, insane prophet—is not the revolutionary hero per se, but lays the groundwork for revolution by rejecting that which is established and accepted as given: “For just like the law, irony is a demand, an enormous demand, because it rejects reality and demands ideality.” (CI 213) Kierkegaard makes this observation in a comparison of John the Baptist with Socrates, in which he notes that—as Robert Perkins writes—both the Pharisees and the sophists failed to grasp “the discrepancy between the phenomenon and the essence and…the seriousness of this discrepancy.” (CI 376) I can’t think of a better way to describe Carlin’s importance as a commentator on American society. The phenomena of American life do not live up to—and in fact all too often shamelessly contradict—the essence of its ideals. The honest, just observer cannot then merely beg for change within the everyday operations of that system, but rather must demand that the system recognize itself as undeniably corrupt—and if the system will not recognize itself as such, it must be dismantled from within. This dismantling must be gradual, and must be propagated through a changing of the minds that operate daily within the very machine that oppresses them. Irony is, like John the Baptist, a presence that wags its finger at a broken world and demands that it fix itself:

Irony is a disciplinarian feared only by those who do not know it but loved by those who do. Anyone who does not understand irony at all…lacks what momentarily is indispensable for personal life; he lacks the bath of regeneration and rejuvenation, irony’s baptism of purification that rescues the soul from having its life in finitude even though it is living energetically and robustly in it. (CI 326)

This passage—especially the phrase “feared only by those who do not know it”—brings to mind Jon Stewart’s infamous appearance on CNN’s “Crossfire,” the interview that allegedly led to the show’s cancellation and resulted in the station’s refusal to renew pundit Tucker Carlson’s contract. Throughout this interview—a YouTube favorite—a progression is visible in the faces and demeanor of hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala. At first, they’re apparently thrilled to have Stewart on. This changes rather quickly when it becomes clear that the comedian does not intend to put on a comedy routine, but rather to censure them about their show “h-h-hurting America.” He berates the shallowness of their coverage, the cynicism of their approach, the worthlessness of their discourse, and the “Crossfire” audience applauds his every statement.

Bewildered, Carlson tells Stewart that he’s not funny. “No, but I’ll go back to being funny tomorrow," Stewart answers, “and your show will still blow.” Laughter, applause. Later, in response to demands that he be funny and not sententious, Stewart sneers at Carlson and mutters, “No. I’m not going to be your monkey.” They trade insults back and forth until even the “liberal” Begala can hardly conceal his disdain behind that creepy grin that’s been painted on since Bill Clinton ran for president. What strikes one while watching this is how desperately lost Carlson and Begala are—they just don’t get it. One gets the sense that their staff handed out tickets outside the studio and deliberately sought out Stewart’s fans, wanting to fill the seats but oblivious to the fact that Stewart’s whole shtick is skewering the very type of show he’s about to be on. To them Stewart is just a “liberal,” like all the other castrated liberals and conservatives they’re used to having, he’s supposed to show up and voice his disapproval of the Bush administration, tell a couple of jokes, side with Begala against Carlson, shake hands, good day. When Stewart doesn’t follow the script, vertigo hits and nobody knows where they are anymore.

Jon Stewart was invited to “Crossfire” for the same reason that big name politicians scramble to get on his show: they hope some of his credibility will rub off on them. And for the most part, it’s rather obvious that they can’t stand how much credibility he has. You can see this in the “Crossfire” incident, when towards the end there’s a hint of hateful frustration in the way Carlson addresses Stewart, who refuses to let up even for a second. For a person whose life has been dedicated to powerful brown-nosing in order to get the hottest scoop, Stewart’s legitimacy as a commentator is the worst kind of usurpation—but that’s precisely why he has that legitimacy in the first place. Americans are perfectly aware of the fact that we’re being lied to daily, hourly, constantly—to the extent that being an insider is no longer a sign of journalistic credibility but rather evidence of the most abject collusion. And since those giving us the story can’t be trusted, and those with access to information continue to distort it, we can only trust those who pick it apart and denounce its corruption.

That is how irony works negatively, and it’s why Stewart’s “fake news” and Colbert’s “truthiness” have eclipsed so much (to be clear, though, not all) “legitimate” political analysis. That negativity is what people like Tucker Carlson seem to struggle to understand: who the hell is this guy, and what exactly does he do? Why is he so important? Of course, when these questions are put to Stewart, the answers are, respectively, “Nobody. Nothing. I’m not.” But a man as well-read as Jon Stewart, as admiring of Twain and Swift, knows exactly who he is, what he does, why he matters—denying his power is simply what makes him effective. It's negation all around.

The sort of romantic irony of a satirist like Stewart is that the strength of his punch comes largely from his charade of weakness. Aware of his own limitations, he loses no opportunity to remind interviewers that he is only a comedian and his is only a comedy show, that nothing he says matters, that his own interviews are notoriously soft-hitting, etc. And with each denial, the aura of respectability strengthens, the immunity of the jester is reinforced, John the Baptist converts another sinner while the Pharisees and Romans alike scratch their heads, unaware of their own impending oblivion.

It is precisely because the satirist denies his own importance that he matters. Should even the sharpest ironist ever proclaim his own positive revolutionary potential, he would instantly become subject to the same scrutiny as his targets. Thrust into an arena with beasts, the adept penman would find himself desperately wanting a sword. But so long as he stands outside and gently harangues the spectators, drawing them in with laughter only to expand their minds with truth, the subversive eiron might slowly set in motion the downfall of the whole corrupted coliseum.

We’ve lost one of those with the death of George Carlin, but we’ve also gained several of them through the influence of his life’s work. One can only hope that, in this age of sound bites and embedded reportage, American discourse does not forget the importance of listening to the ferocious humor of those angry jesters, bitter eirons, mischievous tricksters and insane prophets.

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