Saturday, January 01, 2011

Thank goodnesss for the still-living subversiveness of George Carlin


Denis Leary talks about his relationship with George Carlin and his comedy in Part 6 (of 10, though Parts 3-5 have apparently been purged by YouTube) of 2008's sadly posthumous Kennedy Center award of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. Later in the clip we see a version of George's own riff on "The Seven Words You Can't Say on Television."
Thank God, the Catholic Church once a month, in the bulletin, would put a list of the banned books and records [slow-building then really long audience laugh] and the recommended books and records, which, by the way, for us in those days was like a "What's Hot and What's Not" list. So one Sunday the paperback version of The Godfather was listed among the books that were not to be read by Catholics, and Class Clown, which was one of the things I was vying to be in my school at the time, and they specifically said, "The Seven Words You Can't Say on Television." There were four altar boys. We pooled our money, left the church after Mass, went to the record store, bought the record, went to this kid's house whose parents were away, and listened right away to "The Seven Words You Can't Say on Television." It was at that moment that I became an ex-Catholic, ladies and gentlemen. That was when I realized you could make money for saying stuff my dad used to say when the car wouldn't start.
-- Denis Leary, remembering George Carlin
at the Kennedy Center

"Beware of all enterprises that require new clothes."
-- from notes for the 2008 Kennedy Center event made by
George Carlin, found by his daughter Kelly after his death

[for more on this quotation, see the UPDATE below]

by Ken

As I write this, I'm watching the traditional telecast of the Vienna New Year's Day concert (this year conducted for the first time by the new general music director of the Vienna State Opera, Franz Welsesr-Möst, music director of the Cleveland Orchestra -- and so far not quite as drearily straitlaced as I would have expected from previous encounters with Welser-Möst, who at least isn't getting in the way of the Vienna Philharmonic, which can't hide its gut-level identification with this music), no longer having any choice between PBS's formerly traditional afternoon and evening telecasts of the concert.

In place of the afternoon telecast, at least on my local PBS affiliate, we had an afternoon of comedy: rebroadcasts of the Kennedy Center awards of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor (given annually since 1998) -- to Tina Fey (2010), George Carlin (2008), and Bill Cosby (2009), followed by an American Masters show devoted to Carol Burnett.

As it happened, I hadn't seen any of these shows. I think it has to do with something like that observation of George Carlin's about "enterprises that require new clothes," read at his posthumous award presentation by Kennedy Center Chairman Stephen Schwarzman. It's understandable that such events are uncomfortable for performers; for much the same reason they can be uncomfortable for audiences. One of my favorite moments from the Carlin show was the showing of a clip from The Colbert Report, a "Word" segment devoted to George's famous "Seven Words," which ended with Colbert expostulating "Motherfucker," which to the horror of the great Lewis Black was bleeped, not just for TV, but inside the Kennedy Center! Lewis couldn't get over it. George probably would have found it hilarious.

Tina Fey was of course honored at a significantly earlier stage of her career than most Mark Twain Prize recipients, including George and Bill Cosby, and so her (totally well-deserved) accolades came mostly from colleagues. The Carlin and Cosby programs were peopled more by "disciples," notable figures in American comedy who were majorly influenced by the honoree. I think what made Denis Leary's story so compelling for me was the Catholic background he shared with the man who showed him the way, comedically speaking. You certainly don't have to be Catholic to love George Carlin, but I suspect growing up Catholic gives you special access to a part of his particular sensibility.

And the roster of Carlin presenters provided an obvious but still important reminder that one crucial function of comedy is to be subversive, to refuse to accept conventional orthodoxies and pieties. The loss of George has been felt incredibly painfully, but there's some inspiration to be had, not just from the large body of work he left behind on records and video and in books, but from the number of great comics he's inspired with his own unrelenting subversiveness.

A preview of the American Masters show devoted to Carol Burnett


Commenter Buttermilk Sky recognizes that line George had noted in his Kennedy Center preparations as a quotation from Thoreau:
I believe the "enterprises requiring new clothes" line is actually a quote from nineteenth century funnyman Henry David Thoreau. Carlin was very well read, which is becoming rarer among comedians.
The quotation as I find it is: "Distrust any enterprise that requires new clothes," and it certainly seems likely that this is what George was remembering. The closest I can find for the actual Thoreau source, though, is "Seasons--Autumn (l. 202)."

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At 7:19 PM, Blogger Buttermilk Sky said...

I believe the "enterprises requiring new clothes" line is actually a quote from nineteenth century funnyman Henry David Thoreau. Carlin was very well read, which is becoming rarer among comedians.

At 7:45 PM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Thanks, Buttermilk! It does seem that George was recalling the Thoreau quote, "Distrust any enterprise that requires new clothes." The closest I can find for an actual source, though, is "Seasons--Autumn, line 202."


At 3:02 AM, Anonymous Robert Dagg Murphy said...

I wonder if Tim Russert will have George on "Meet the past" this Sunday. You know what Carlin wanted on his tomb stone - "He was here just a minute ago".

I heard George Carlin at the University of Kansas in the late 50's when he was on the road doing his "seven words".

I am surprised that the losers didn't destroy him like they did Lennie Bruce.


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