Why Carlin’s jokes work and why today’s PC police might crucify him regardless
Benjamin Porter — email@example.com
As one of my high school English teachers always said: “Technique is content.” For this reason, I think it’s essential for comedians to justify every stylistic choice they make. Too many comedians today are excessively profane, vulgar and mean-spirited for no reason whatsoever. Political incorrectness just for the sake of political incorrectness serves absolutely no purpose, and it’s not funny.
This is a symptom of how American culture has been dumbed-down to the point where some less-talented comedians who aren’t smart enough to write good material can get away with decorating their substandard ideas with flashy language. It’s analogous to how mediocre soccer players think that they can get away with playing poorly just because they have tattoos, neon pink boots and a blue stripe in their hair.
In his prime, legendary comedian George Carlin didn’t have much hair left, and his routines often were profane, vulgar and a bit mean-spirited. Yet Carlin is one of my all-time favorite comedians because his profane, politically-incorrect language is indeed a motivated aesthetic choice. My favorite Carlin routines can be boiled down to one main thing: calling out narcissism, hypocrisy, bullshit and people who are stuffed with all three. Frequently, his jokes are just factual descriptions of absurd, ludicrous or just flat-out stupid things that some group of people is doing, and the punchline is just some vulgar variation of Carlin telling them what they should do. You know what I mean.
But his style worked because his foul language is a technique that helped communicate his anger to the audience, who could share in his astonishment at absurd stupidities. The targets of his jokes were always obvious, and there was always an undeniable truth at the core of the joke. On rare occasions, his jokes could go too far, but Carlin was at his brilliant best when he was using “offensive” language and highly exaggerated premises to mercilessly eviscerate those who were begging for it.
For example, Carlin has a 20-minute routine called “a list of people who oughta be killed.” To assure those who can’t get past the potential poor taste of that premise, he is not literally advocating violence. This is just a technique for showing his disgust with various breeds of shallow narcissists and hypocrites. He begins each entry in the list with an absurd way in which “they should be killed.” In one entry, Carlin says:
“Here’s another pack of low-grade morons who oughta be locked in portable toilets and set on fire: These people with bumper stickers that say, ‘We are the proud parents of an honors student at the Franklin school’ — or the Midvale Academy or whatever other innocent sounding name has been assigned to the indoctrination center where their child has been sent to be stripped of his individuality and turned into an obedient, soul-dead conformist member of the American consumer culture.”
While there is no profanity in this rant, it is one of Carlin’s trademark uses of language — long, rhythmic rhyming lists and endless progressions of “unnecessary” qualifiers. Jon Stewart told Carlin that his “fascination with language is so apparent” and that watching him “is almost like watching a musician, the way you weave words and use language for emphasis.” This is clearly evident in the bumper sticker rant, as well as in a bit called “advertising,” where he goes on a three-minute riff reciting dozens of meaningless marketing slogans to which our “consumer culture” has numbed us.
Carlin died in 2008, with a sharp rise in PC culture just around the corner. In a bit on politically correct language, Carlin discussed how terms like “shell shock” became grotesque, lifeless and “sanitized” jargon like “post-traumatic stress disorder.” He also explains how we’ve arrived at terms like “differently abled,” “minimally exceptional,” “physically challenged” and “handicapable.” The phrase “poor people live in slums” became “the economically disadvantaged occupy substandard housing in the inner cities.” Carlin says that all this ugly language makes him want to vomit, or in other words, “engage in an involuntary personal protein spill.”
Carlin’s goal here is to call out the ridiculousness of people who think that “by changing the name of the condition, you change the condition,” as well as those who try to police language by imparting a sense of shame on any words that might offend some subsection of some group. Had he lived to 2019, Carlin would have had a field day with the amount of new material on this subject, and it likely would have gotten him in much more trouble today.
I fear that even the routines in which he utilizes his techniques perfectly may not have made it past today’s more gung-ho PC police, as too many people would be unable to look past his irreverent style and see the substance of his jokes or artistic use of the English language. A 2015 Washington Post article suggested that even though Carlin loved working out material on college campuses, he wouldn’t even be welcome on them today. Can’t we make fun of people without worrying about the most sensitive person in the room?
Carlin was a proud, non-voting “spectator” of American society, “divested” from the outcome and resigned to the notion that we can’t solve environmental degradation or corruption in the mainstream political establishment. Because of this, I worry that pro-Trump Americans might have hijacked Carlin’s unique brand of cynicism and distrust in authority to fuel their own questionable narratives about Donald Trump being some sort of hero fighting against the “Deep State.” Carlin was not shy about sharing his view that U.S. elections are just a sham, a charade, an “illusion of choice.” It’s possible that today he and his fans would have enjoyed watching Trump shake things up, regardless of the consequences.
In Trump’s America, Carlin would have had difficulty reconciling his love of spectating with his hatred of bullshit. He might have loved Trump as an agent of chaos, or hated him as an agent of bullshit who disrespects the arts of rhetoric, language and logic that Carlin held in such esteem. I’d like to think the latter.
Written by: Benjamin Porter — firstname.lastname@example.org
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