Being George Carlin:
It's the intention behind the words that makes them good or bad! The words are completely neutral! The words are innocent!
- George Carlin (1937-2008)
Carlin would have been at home among the Greeks. He might have written this very monologue. If there is one thing that subversive comedy embodies in the discourse of the Carlinesque, it is fond of attacking social dishonesty - the kind of dishonesty that passes for natural where the nakedness of the emperor is clothed with euphemisms of every possible kind. That is where Carlinesque can be located at its best because it sees in comedy a picture of power relations. The role of perspective or ideological position in all of this must be borne in mind. Subversive comedy or the Carlinesque is rooted in the condition of struggle. It is the voice of the powerless mocking power and showing it in its non-euphemistic state of being nothing but a façade disguising self-interest.
That is the essence of the comedy of Aristophanes especially in his construction of the imaginary city of “Cloudcuckooland” in The Birds. As David Konstan notes in Greek Comedy and Ideology, “Cloudcuckooland is not, however, an arbitrary fantasy. It is a complex image of Athens' own contradictions - its communal solidarity and its political and social divisions, along with the conservatism that looked to the image of an ancestral constitution and an imperial will to power” (44). If there is one thing that comedy relies upon more than anything else, it is the truth - the truth bereft of euphemisms. Comedy cannot survive unless it is “truthful,” despite the fact that it thrives on hyperbole. The truth in Carlinesque style comedy is blatant and selective, choosing from that which is latent and repressed; it recognizes the fact that truth can only be ultimately funny. Truth is funny in the genre of comedy because it is the other of the self - the amoral other that rejects the achievements of consciousness. The moral basis of comedy is that it does not hesitate to view this amorality from an objective perspective.
Johnson in his Preface to Shakespeare says of the bard: “In his tragic scenes there is always something wanting, but his comedy often surpasses expectation or desire. His comedy pleases by the thoughts and the language, and his tragedy for the greater part by incident and action. His tragedy seems to be skill, his comedy to be instinct.” The emphasis on “thoughts” and “language” in relation to comedy is of significance here. Further, the association of “tragedy” with “skill” and comedy with “instinct” - the fact that something like comedy can only be natural - which is why Shakespeare’s comedies surpass “expectation or desire” because Shakespeare is more than anything else a “poet of nature; the poet that holds up to his readers a faithful mirror of manners and of life.” If tragedy is noble, individual, and aristocratic, demanding therefore “skill” in how it is portrayed, comedy is rustic, common and day-to-day, which is what makes it a thing of the masses. The comic carries in it a sense of the grotesque other, making it something to be relished. Carlinesque is a mirror of the grotesque other, making it powerful as an argument. While the language of comedy tends to be elevated and concocted, identity in its less obviously politicized forms is rooted in a comic vein. Mark Twain makes the point rather well interrelating comedy with point-of-view in a passage from Huckleberry Finn:
There are three points of view with respect to property in the passage. One is that of Aunt Polly which is a mainstream bourgeois position that you’ve no right to be taking something that belongs to someone else; it’s “their” property in other words. That of Pap is an alternate position which is that there is no harm in “borrowing” things from others - a euphemism or a “soft name for stealing.” The third position is that of Jim the Negro slave - a subaltern position - which is that you can take a few things and then don’t “borrow them any more," but, of course, “he reckoned it wouldn't be no harm to borrow the others.” The points of view are created through a specific use of the vernacular. As Peter Messent points out: “In this novel Twain, despite all previous writing done in the vernacular mode, effectively shattered the accepted boundaries of literary language in America" (73). Poor and powerless as Pap, Huck Finn and Jim, in entirely different ways in a deeply racist and classist society, are nevertheless aware that a certain use of language has the power to preserve them from mainstream values, which are contrary to their basic interests. Their voices are not heard by those who can make a difference; that is precisely why they must look out for themselves and create an alternative set of meanings that will accommodate their conception of the world. In simpler words, it is the language of survival more than anything else that Twain portrays in an unforgettable manner. According to Messent:
Though humor in itself cannot be “over-romanticized,” there’s no doubt that it is a greatly feared art form especially because it gives the weak a chance to show the limitations of absolute power. As Andrew Stott observes in Comedy, “humour has been demonstrably policed or punished by many governments who see it as a form of subversion” (98). This has been true from Robert Walpole to Hitler to Soviet Russia to Senator McCarthy and the House Un-American Activities Committee. Stott explains but one example:
While humor may not change governments or cause revolutions, there is little doubt that it is an effective instrument for repressed masses to work out an ideological platform for social change and seek an outlet for their grievances. No one perfects this project of connecting with the masses like the stand-up comedian. According to John Limon, “Stand-up is uniquely audience-dependent for its value because joking is, essentially, (1) a social phenomenon... (2) a fully embedded phenomenon. The particularities of the relationship of joke teller and audience do not make the joke seem more or less funny; they make the joke more or less funny” (12). The stand-up comedian is intrinsically a socialist in the broadest sense of the term - a person of the masses. She relates to people as people without expectations attached to it. This does not mean there are no collective prejudices and biases of race, gender, class, religion, or region at play. It just means that the biases are a part of the humor as much as anything else. You don’t bother to hide what makes you laugh. Laughter is a response to one’s own fears and the former can be as irrational as the latter. Indeed, “The specific benefit of laughter is obliviousness” (Limon 104). The capacity for instantaneous liberation is the domain of the stand-up comedian who in some sense is the organic intellectual of the masses. She voices their concerns and is indirectly defining the goals of a group more so in the case of radically conscious stand-up comedians such as George Carlin. The stand-up comedian performs the same function as drugs or alcohol in unleashing the force of “instinct,” yet without the so-called “side-effects.” As Carlin phrases it in one of his interviews, “Napalm, Silly Putty, and Human Nature":
In the discourse of the Carlinesque, performativity cannot be separated from resistance. The point in relation to what makes Carlinesque “performative” is easier to answer than the resistance part. The resistance is built into the fact that Carlinesque as subversive comedy is an ethical commitment to change the world. It is entertainment and therefore performative. The thinking comedian is a dangerous person - because she makes you want to think as well. The irony is that while Carlinesque is entertainment in itself, we cannot be with a thinking comedian without forcing ourselves to think on the important issues raised. A stand-up comedian thinks aloud and thus invites an audience to join in her thoughts. This discourse is political because it marries resistance to performativity. Simon Critchley observes, “Politics requires subjective invention, imagination and endurance, not to mention tenacity and cunning” (132). The “resistance” that I identify with the Carlinesque has “subjective intention”; it is imaginative and enduring. It is not abstract and “revolutionary” in a utopian sense. It constructs “political subjectivities that are not arbitrary or relativistic, but which are articulations of an ethical demand whose scope is universal and whose evidence is faced in a concrete situation” (Critchley 132).
Even those with a strong distaste for Carlinesque humor will grudgingly admit that George Carlin is a comedian neither to be ignored nor to be forgotten. The radical awareness of the potential of language to subvert mainstream ideologies is at the heart of Carlinesque, an adjective that defines the relentless humor of Carlin. Global or national politics, religion, how we eat, think, feel about the world, the work we do, the games we play, mannerisms, manners, education, economy, men and women, sexuality, what shocks us and what does not - no subject escapes the rhetoric of subversion built deep into Carlin’s comedy.
By stating the obvious - which in fact is not all that obvious - Carlin shows how language is used to conceal what is literally true. For instance, he says in one of his shows: “The part I really don’t understand is if you’re looking for self-help, why would you read a book written by somebody else? That’s not self-help, that’s help. There’s no such a thing as self help. If you did it yourself, you didn’t need help. Try to pay attention to the language we’ve all agreed on” (Complaints and Grievances, italics mine).
In the grave-digger scene of Hamlet (Act V, Scene I), the clowns know that reality is constructed in language and pay serious attention to the “language we’ve all agreed on.” Language is not a product of nature but of society. To the riddle of the first clown - "what is he that builds stronger than either the mason, the shipwright, or the carpenter?“ - the second clown responds: "The gallows-maker; for that frame outlives a thousand tenants." The first clown offers an even sharper response by saying the "grave-maker: the houses that he makes last till doomsday." There is a literalness at work in the language-game the clowns play in how words are used.
In the play Othello, Desdemona naively asks her maid Emilia if there are women who would "abuse their husbands/In such gross kind" and if she, Emilia, could "do such a deed for all the world." Emilia responds: "The world's a huge thing: it is a great price for a small vice.“ When Desdemona insists "in truth I think thou wouldst not," Emilia’s response is a classic understanding of the literal use of language based on what words mean in day-to-day contexts:
In taking the phrase “the whole world” literally, Emilia subverts the meaning of Desdemona’s question and in fact subtly mocks Desdemona’s fidelity to Othello who with his irrational possessiveness stopped being worthy of it. If the “whole world” is the price, “why, who would / not make her husband a cuckold to make him a monarch? I should venture purgatory for't.” We see a similar strategy in the use of language when Portia in The Merchant of Venice argues her case with the literal insistence on a pound of flesh:
Carlin’s genius with language falls in a category where he can see that language as we use it to describe things is not the same as language that conceals the truth in the attempt to make things seem natural. The literalizing of the metaphorical is a political stratagem to uncover the nuances of propaganda. Carlin’s rhetoric of subversion is rooted in the literalization of the metaphorical where the literal is used as a means to undermine what hides behind a layer of euphemisms. Says Carlin: “I don't like words that hide the truth. I don't like words that conceal reality. I don't like euphemisms, or euphemistic language. And American English is loaded with euphemisms. Cause Americans have a lot of trouble dealing with reality. Americans have trouble facing the truth, so they invent the kind of a soft language to protect themselves from it, and it gets worse with every generation” (Doin’ It Again).
This is the context in which one must understand Carlin’s visionary comedy as a whole. Like the marginal characters in Shakespeare which include the fools and the clowns or the tramp in Chaplin finding his place in the world, Carlin uses comedy as a genre to singularly attack the “insincerity” in people’s motives, the basis of which is “a gap between one's real and one's declared aims” thus bringing to light the “mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia.”
Carlin’s deconstruction of the Ten Commandments is an illustration of the point: “About 5,000 years ago a bunch of religious and political hustlers got together to try to figure out how to control people and keep them in line. They knew people were basically stupid and would believe anything they were told, so they announced that God had given them some commandments, up on a mountain, when no one was around.” Whether it is not stealing, or not bearing false witness or not committing adultery or not coveting thy neighbor’s wife - as Carlin sees it - a similar kind of behavior is prohibited which is about not being honest; therefore these commandments can be reduced to “thou shalt always be honest and faithful to the provider of thy nookie” (Complaints and Grievances).
However the commandment that “prohibits” coveting “thy neighbor’s goods” is seriously problematic because “coveting your neighbor's goods is what keeps the economy going!” In Chaplin’s darkly funny movie Monsieur Verdoux (1947) that indicts the horrors of capitalism, the main character Verdoux living during the infamous depression era makes a “business” of murder since murder, according to him, is the essence of business. As he puts it: “That’s the history of many a big business . . . wars, conflict. It’s all business. One murder makes a villain, millions a hero. Numbers sanctify.” “Coveting” is about making profits at the expense of thy neighbor.
Carlin develops this line of thought in his biting critique of “education” and what is called the “American Dream,” “'cause you have to be asleep to believe it” (Life Is Worth Losing). The corporate world wants “obedient workers” and not “well-informed, well-educated people capable of critical thinking.” Carlin’s criticism is true of global capitalism as a whole especially in a time when resistance has significantly weakened and “good, honest, hard-working people…continue to elect rich c---------- who don’t give a f--- about them” (Life Is Worth Losing). Referring to the United States, Carlin speaks of what “the owners of this country don’t want,” although this is true of what the “owners” in countries across the world do not want. These are the people who own a good part of the earth itself. Carlin’s critique does not stop with global capitalism but moves to people and how they've acted towards themselves and others throughout history.
In The Great Dictator, when the Nazi officer tells the Jewish barber, "I thought you were an Aryan," the latter responds, "No, I'm a vegetarian." In an instant, the viewer realizes race is meaningless in terms of judging human beings. The comedian plays the role of subverter warning people that they may indeed be "basically stupid" and "believe anything they were told." In the poem "The Genius of the Crowd," Charles Bukowski shows collective thinking as the norm. People sacrifice individuality in order to fit in with the group. The “average human being” is a product of the sinister kind of thinking that turns people into consumers incapable of asserting their critical faculty in the face of indoctrination. Bukowski writes, "[T]here is enough treachery, hatred violence absurdity in the average / human being to supply any given army on any given day." This poem paraphrases what Carlin essentially feels about people. The pointless need to hurt, maim, and kill another being has been the legacy of man on this planet. Human beings are products of the society in which they live. They also consistently display the worst kinds of inhumanity towards others often for no reason at all. Carlin complains:
At the heart of Carlin’s pessimism about people in general - the “pessimism of the intellect” to quote a phrase from Romain Rolland, there is the “optimism of the will,” which is the idea that people can change if they really want to. Indeed, there is no reason on earth why they should not provided their choices are not based on insincere motives or guided by a ruthless pursuit of self-interest.
Aristophanes. The Birds. MIT: The Internet Classics Archive.