Zen and the Art of Being George Carlin

It’s often been said (especially by me) that the only people worth paying attention to are science fiction writers, and stand-up comics – such as George Carlin, for instance. He’s right up there with Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, in the ranks of the funny gods.

What does it take to be a stand-up comic? How do they get that way? It’s tempting to generalize, e.g. “The formula for humor is a wounded childhood plus, later, a lot of cannabis.” Being left-handed may help: Franklyn Ajaye says that 60 percent of comedians are, as compared to only ten percent of the general population. I don’t know if Carlin was left-handed, though he did take the trouble to learn that someone had registered a patent for a left-handed cheese straightener, a term which went on to join the muffler bearing as one of America’s favorite non-existent items.

One reason people become comics may be a childhood based on “We’re not here to have a good time.” This kind of kid might grow up with a strong resolve to spend a lifetime proving otherwise. I don’t know if this was the case with Carlin, but doubtless the biography is out there somewhere.

A comic has the ability to pinpoint the aspects of experience that are most nearly universal. The banal and uninspired will do this by dragging out the same old mother-in-law jokes; the genius will do it more subtly. In one of Carlin’s routines he recounts a favorite line of his mother’s – “If Billy jumped off the Empire State Building, would you do it too?” Where I grew up the expression was, “If Didi jumped over the Falls…” But the final result was the same: firm parental reaction to peer group pressure. Universality of experience is taken to its limits by Carlin, who includes stomach noises, nose picking and farts in his subject matter. “Anything that we all do and we never talk about is funny,” he once said.

What it takes to be a great comic is a long-range, finely tuned bullshit detector, and you can tell when somebody has one. Here’s a typical Carlin observation: “Conservatives say if you don’t give the rich more money, they will lose their incentive to invest. As for the poor, they tell us they’ve lost all incentive because we’ve given them too much money.”

Carlin admits that he wants to give the audience a “mental hotfoot.” It’s kind of like the Zen approach, where a whack with a stick sometimes boosts the novice to enlightenment.

There’s a very sexual aspect to stand-up comedy, which has nothing to do with the content of the material. Simply expressed, making someone laugh is like giving a john a blowjob. The performer acts upon a passive, usually willing, audience, and elicits an explosive physical reaction. (And gets paid for it.)

As the news of Carlin’s death sinks in, a cluster of funny little synchronicities come to mind. Just a few days ago I posted a collection of “the hippest things anyone ever said about politics,” and quoted one of his sayings: “Politics is so corrupt even the dishonest people get fucked.”

Also, on the VirtualVenice.info website (that’s the California Venice, not the Italy one), a woman wrote in to say she used to live in an old house owned by Carlin, who had rented it to the Canaligators, who in turn sublet it to her. Did Carlin ever actually occupy that Venice house? I don’t know, but he wrote the introduction for Paul Krassner’s book, Murder at the Conspiracy Convention and Other American Absurdities. Krassner was of course a long-time Venice resident, so it’s not impossible that the two met in the city that’s been called the world’s largest outdoor lunatic asylum.

There’s another Venice connection. The bio of media ecologist and meta-entrepreneur Gerry Fialka notes that he once worked for Carlin. Fialka also used to work for Filmex, and for Frank Zappa, making his CV one of the more interesting ones on the block. He went on to found the PXL This Film Festival; the Marshall McLuhan-Finnegans Wake Reading Club; the 7 Dudley Cinema Series; and the Documental series, which is recognized as the “pre-eminent documentary and experimental film showcase” of Los Angeles, and that’s saying something. It just goes to show, people who really know what they’re doing tend to hang out together.

Much comedy involves taking language literally. Laurel asks, “May I have part of that banana?” and Hardy hands him the peel. When invited to get on the plane, George Carlin says, “Fuck you, I’m getting in.” Of course English is the world’s best language for this kind of comedy, since it has much ambiguity in the form of words that sound like other words, or have multiple meanings, or whatever.

Not “getting” puns indicates the inability to entertain two concepts simultaneously. In fact, much humor originates in the clashing dichotomy. When asked for the formula he uses to think up a joke, Carlin once said, “Seeing the incongruity in things has a lot to do with it. You take two things that are not normal and not related to each other.” That doesn’t automatically make a joke, he cautioned, but it’s a start.

F. Scott Fitzgerald defined the artist as a person who can hold two contradictory ideas and still function. The comic artist can throw a spotlight on the contradictory ideas we hold, and open the door to deeper understanding.

George Carlin was all about the Sixties holy trinity: sex and drugs and rock’n’roll. Here’s sex: “If God had intended us not to masturbate, he would have made our arms shorter.”

In the 1990s he narrated many episodes of the “Thomas the Tank Engine” TV series. This came up when Melanie Martinez was fired from a children’s TV show, because she had appeared in some satirical short films making fun of things which, according to her network, shouldn’t be made fun of. Not only that, the network went back and excised Martinez from all the previous shows, so she will not be appearing in “encore performances.”

Blogger Edward Champion mentioned that firing, and started a discussion that included many mentions of the fact that George Carlin, revealer of the 7 dirty words not allowed on network TV, is one of the voices of Thomas the Tank Engine.

Tony Hendra once explained the National Lampoon humor standard: “…it had to be about something that mattered, a funny statement on a vital issue, a small but painful bullet in the posterior of an odious power structure. Most important – something that might make the powerless laugh at what they weren’t supposed to.” Exactly.

“Humor is what you wish in your secret heart were not funny, but it is, and you must laugh.” The poet Langston Hughes said that, and he also said, “Humor is your unconscious therapy.”

One of George Carlin’s old stand-up routines includes a bit where he explains his job, which is thinking up goofy shit. We, the audience, are too busy all week to do it ourselves; we’re on the run, making a living and taking the kids to soccer practice. So he thinks up the goofy shit and reports back to us on the weekend. But Carlin did more than that, just like Bruce and Pryor and my new comedy hero, Craig Ferguson. What these guys do is, they teach us to see the goofy shit, too. They help open up little windows in our minds.

Kingsley Amis once said, “The rewards for being sane may not be very many, but knowing what’s funny is one of them.” The two things work together. Being sane helps us see what’s funny, and seeing what’s funny helps to keep us sane. I’m pretty sure it was Carlin who came up with this idea for the working stiff: instead of calling in sick, call in well!

The job of a comedian is very important. There’s more to it than pointing out what’s ridiculous about the government and the other institutions that run our lives. He helps us see our own pretensions, superstitions, and other varieties of human foolishness; in other words, our own bullshit. It’s more fun and memorable than going to a psychiatrist, it’s cheaper, and probably works just as well. But it gets even better. Here’s what Tom Robbins says: “A sense of humor, properly developed, is superior to any religion so far devised.”

Speaking of which, here’s a humorous observation:

“On your birthday people usually say ‘Happy Birthday,’ when actually the day of your birth was the birth of your suffering. But nobody says, ‘Happy Birth-of-Suffering Day!'”

Did George Carlin say that? No, the Dalai Lama did – but the line is pure Carlin.

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About Pat Hartman

Before publishing the two books "Call Someplace Paradise" and "Ghost Town: A Venice California Life", my main project was "Salon: A Journal of Aesthetics. " I wrote extensively for "Scene," a monthly arts and entertainment magazine with a circulation of 25,000. Also proofread, sold ads, put together the music calendar and, for a couple of years, served as editor. Presided over a couple issues of the local NORML newsletter, as well as being featured speaker at chapter meetings. Wrote a complete screenplay; collaborated on another one; worked on a couple of scripts (additional dialog and general brainstorming) with an indie film producer. Booked the talent for a large music festival. Wrote, designed, illustrated and produced various catalogs and brochures for small businesses. Spoke at a high school as a panelist on Women in the Professions; was a featured speaker at the 1991 Women in Libertarianism Conference; presented public programs on "Success in One Lesson" and "The Bloomsbury Group: What's It To Us?" Created the website VirtualVenice.info and wrote many politically-oriented pieces for Earthblog.net
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