Has there been a comedian more closely aligned with the sympathies of the business communicator than George Carlin?
He’s the man who riffed on “soft language” and the words you can’t say on TV. The guy who ditched a jacket and tie for jeans and the freedom to say whatever he wanted; the kind of freedom we writers and editors, trapped in nine-to-five slogs, yearn for.
By now you know he’s dead. And maybe you remember him as that bitter old-timer who did an annual HBO special; his most recent standup routines bordered on homicidal.
But the way he dissected language and its pretension was brilliant. Early on there was his “seven words you can’t say on TV” bit; words I won’t include, because, well, they will probably offend. But, as Carlin pointed out, the strange thing about language is …
“We have more words to describe dirty words than we actually have dirty words. They call them bad words, dirty, filthy, foul, vile, vulgar, course, in poor taste, unseemly, street talk, gutter talk, locker room language, barracks talk, bawdy, naughty, saucy, raunchy, rude, crude, lewd, lascivious, indecent, profane, obscene, blue, off-color, risqué, suggestive, cursin’, cussin’, swearin’ …”
Carlin was unrelenting about language. He commented on the hypocrisy of language. For instance, Carlin riffed that TV is full of sex humor. Television shows are constantly referring to it, he said. Entire plots and games shows are based on sex, and yet the word F*** can’t be said on television.
By the ‘90s Carlin riffed on impotent language, the “soft language, the language that takes the life out of life,” he would say. “Sometime during my life toilet paper became bathroom tissue ...” He observed. “Poor people used to live in slums, now the economically disadvantaged occupy substandard housing in the inner cities.
“They’re broke! They don’t have a negative cash flow position. They’re f***** broke! Because some of them were fired. You know, fired? Management wanted to curtail redundancies in the HR area so many people are no longer viable members of the work force.
“Smug, greedy, well-fed white people have invented a language to conceal its sins.”
His last truly great standup special from beginning to end aired in autumn 2001. The highlight was his closing bit, a revision of the Ten Commandments. Like a great editor, Carlin managed to trim ten commandments to two. They became:
“Thou shall always be honest and faithful to the provider of thy nooky; and I shall try real hard not to kill anyone, unless of course they pray to a different invisible man than you pray to.”
I watched that special with my dad, a devout Catholic and unapologetic Carlin fan; he laughed himself to tears.
But it was Carlin’s bits on language that remain some of his most amusing and insightful. Even the words masking the stigma of death were no match for his irreverent wit, as evident in this bit from the ‘90s:
“The one I do resist is when they look at an old guy and they say, ‘Look at him, he’s 90-years-young. Imagine the fear of aging that reveals to not even be able to use the word ‘old’ to describe someone, to have to use the antonym.
“And fear of aging is natural. It’s universal. We all have that. No one wants to get old, no one wants to die, but we do—so we bullshit ourselves. I started bullshitting myself when I got to my 40s. As soon as I was in my 40s I would look in the mirror and say, ‘Well, I guess I’m getting … older.’ Older sounds a little better than old, doesn’t it? Sounds like it might even last a little bit longer.
“Bullshit! I’m getting old. And it’s OK, because thanks to our fear of death in this country I won’t have to die … I’ll pass away.”
Meanwhile, across the Internet you’ll find obits and tributes to Carlin that say, you guessed it, “Carlin passed away …”
Take this so-called tribute: “I woke up on this gloomy Monday morning here in New York to the sad news that legendary comedian George Carlin had passed away last night at the age of 71.”
Oh, the fun Carlin would have with that.