John Colson: Hit and Run
Warning: The column you are about to read contains material deemed unsuitable for children or others with sensitive eyes, ears and minds. Caution is strongly advised.
I had to put that in, because my boss warned me that even with a disclaimer I was about to venture into territory not normally explored in family newspapers, and I might be risking more than just negative reader reaction.
But, to begin at the beginning, I was deeply saddened to hear this week that George Carlin had died of heart failure at the relatively young age of 71.
Did I write that? Yes.
Back when I first saw Carlin at the Shady Grove theater-in-the-round near Washington, D.C., I think it was around 1970, I sure wouldn’t have considered the age of 71 in those terms. More like, “nearly dead” or “long gone.”
But, hey, times change, I’m a lot older now and I see things differently. Live with it.
Back when I first saw Carlin, he was only in his early 30s, his hair and beard were dark, and his face was unlined. But his eyes, they were the same then as the were in his later years ” the same hint of a challenge, the same rascally twinkle, the same crinkle in the folds of the surrounding skin as he made a face or raised his brows.
This, the late ’60s, was about the time when he grew that beard and let his hair out a bit, joining in with the general themes of the times and altering his act to suit. He still sometimes did the “hippy-dippy weather man” that he used in his early routines, and of course he was making headlines with his “Stuff” routine, but it was his edgier material that was beginning to set him apart as the comedian of our time.
This was the guy who reportedly appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson 130 times, but ultimately was banned from the show because it was rumored he used illicit drugs like marijuana; who almost caused a riot at the Playboy Club in Lake Geneva, Wis., (I think that’s gone now, too) because of his remarks about the Vietnam War; who reportedly got thrown out of Las Vegas twice over his on-the-edge material about drugs, sex and freedom of speech.
l’m pretty sure he was the only stand-up comic whose material landed him in a case before the U.S. Supreme Court.
The case, by the way (please re-read my opening warning), was about his use of “the seven words you can’t say on television,” which were “shitpissfuckcuntcocksuckermotherfuckertits.” He would string the words together in a rapid, lilting singsong that he repeated endlessly on stages across the country in the mid-1970s.
The bit got him arrested and prompted a lawsuit. Free speech won the day, but the outcome was the creation of “the family hour” on network television, a slightly skewed result that Carlin likely saw as supremely ironic.
A fan and follower of Lenny Bruce, Carlin loved to tweak America’s nose over the ridiculous and outrageous conventionalities we cling to. He poked fun at our dependence on euphemisms to hide what we really mean, at the imbecility of our national outrage over “illegal” drugs while we were drinking, smoking and pill-popping ourselves into oblivion, and the list of his groundbreaking work and words goes on and on.
He was the first to break out in ways that today’s stand-up comics might consider tame, and that made him a pioneer, leading the charge that opened up the field for his successors.
Of course, that was not his only claim to fame. For instance, he starred on a PBS kids show in the 1990s, “Shining Time Station,” playing Mr. Conductor, a tiny, magical guy who lived in the walls of the station and bonded with his audience in ways his comedy fans might have found unlikely.
But, hey, genius takes its own road. If Carlin had a vision, I never learned what it was, and I wonder if he felt his groundbreaking work led to good things or bad.
I guess, in the end, I’m just glad he was here, and I’m glad I got to see him up close and personal.
The jester may be dead, but long live the jest.