Sunday, July 13, 2008

So long, Carlin

It wasn’t too long ago that George Carlin died, and even though I was offline at the time, I thought it was important to post a quick note here about what a great performer he was.

Performer almost seems too limiting of a term. I think Carlin was really a “stand-up philosopher”. That phrase was coined by Mel Brooks in “The History of the World, Part I”, simply referring to a comedian – the profession of Brooks’ Roman Empire –era character, Comicus. But with Carlin, the philosopher part of the gig went far deeper than the mere fact that he was a stand-up, or that he used performance as the vehicle to deliver his philosophy. As many have already mentioned, and with far better words than I can muster, Carlin’s comedy dug into the heart of our society, both in terms of the how and why behind simple things like turns of phrase and sports, to the bigger issues like politics, religion and ideology. Carlin wasn’t just having tantrums on stage to see if he could get you to smile, he had clearly thought his words through to their ends and made you laugh because he helped to you to see the absurdity behind it all for yourself.

In addition to his stand-up routines, Carlin was also an actor. Some of his roles of interest to SF fans were Rufus, the cool cat who kept the two hard rock-wannabes on track in the Bill & Ted movies (Rufus gets extra cred for choosing a phone booth for the shape of the time vessel in the movies, a respectful nod, of course, to “Doctor Who”) and as slick-talking, cigarette-sucking, Armageddon-courting Cardinal Glick in Kevin Smith’s biblical fantasy “Dogma”.

But getting back to his stand-up, while I enjoyed many of his political rants, the Carlin routines that I’d have to say are my favourites are What Constitutes a Real Sport/How Sports Should Really Be and most especially Hellos & Goodbyes. I love how Carlin catalogued all the ridiculous ways people say goodbye and their implications (asking you to say “hi” to someone else for them is like asking you to carry cargo), and how the routine evolved into “unique” ways to say goodbye that he’d dreamt up so that “people would remember you”, such as “Farewell! May the forces of evil become confused on the way to your home!” At a time when we’ve just lost this master stand-up philosopher, proper ways of saying goodbye become important. In fact, as J. Michael Straczynski has noted, “goodbye”, because it is a single word that carries such heavy emotional freight, is one of the most powerful words we have at our disposal. And yet it is also one of the simplest. I think one of the messages Carlin was trying to convey with his bit on hellos & goodbyes is that too often we stretch for ostentation when the simple and the heartfelt would do. And so, with that, I say goodbye, George.

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