Being George Carlin:
Carlinesque as Performative Resistance

Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture (1900-present), Fall 2010, Volume 9, Issue 2


Prakash Kona
The English and Foreign Language University, Hyderabad, India

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)


Locating Carlinesque

Resistance permeates the comedy of George Carlin - resistance that occurs in a performative mode, that is, as Judith Butler notes: “The kind of speaking that takes place on the border of the unsayable (and) promises to expose the vacillating boundaries of legitimacy in speech” (41). Carlinesque is in essence that which challenges the legitimacy of the “border of the unsayable.” What we call the unsayable is not just something that "shocks" for the pleasure of shocking, but something that in the process of shocking also conveys a definite conception of the "real." Carlinesque is the comedy of the spade being the spade and nothing more or less; any attempt to euphemize the real is viewed with suspicion filled with irony. In Carlinesque, resistance is married to performativity because it is speech-related and meant to provoke laughter through ridicule. It resists precisely because it takes a stand against authority and the status quo. As Tony Hendra notes in his introduction to Last Words: “George best typified a crucial element of my premise: that Boomer humor - because of its fundamental message of dissent - had always had an adversarial relationship with Official America’s most powerful weapon, television. In its origins it had tended to be a humor of the page or the stage - whether concert, nightclub or theater. A live, largely uncensored affair, often improvised and by definition unrepeatable, the very opposite of recorded entertainment. To get it, you hadda be there” (xii). You can observe a Carlinesque tone with a “fundamental message of dissent” in the comedies of Aristophanes where bitter irony is combined with a commentary on the existing order of things; where there is a discrepancy between what people say and what they do. In The Birds, Aristophanes writes:

There is nothing more useful nor more pleasant than to have wings. To begin with, just let us suppose a spectator to be dying with hunger and to be weary of the choruses of the tragic poets; if he were winged, he would fly off, go home to dine and come back with his stomach filled. Some Patroclides, needing to take a crap, would not have to spill it out on his cloak, but could fly off, satisfy his requirements, let a few farts and, having recovered his breath, return. If one of you, it matters not who, had adulterous relations and saw the husband of his mistress in the seats of the senators, he might stretch his wings, fly to her, and, having laid her, resume his place. Is it not the most priceless gift of all, to be winged? Look at Diitrephes! His wings were only wicker-work ones, and yet he got himself chosen Phylarch and then Hipparch; from being nobody, he has risen to be famous; he's now the finest gilded cock of his tribe.

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:

Mornings before daylight I slipped into cornfields and borrowed a watermelon, or a mushmelon, or a punkin, or some new corn, or things of that kind. Pap always said it warn't no harm to borrow things if you was meaning to pay them back some time; but the widow said it warn't anything but a soft name for stealing, and no decent body would do it. Jim said he reckoned the widow was partly right and pap was partly right; so the best way would be for us to pick out two or three things from the list and say we wouldn't borrow them any more - then he reckoned it wouldn't be no harm to borrow the others.

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:

The brilliance of Twain’s novel however lies in the way that the powerful voices that sound within the novel’s social world are contained by Huck’s own narrating voice. Huck (and Jim’s) voices are often, and finally, silenced in their social interaction, and their words have little or no effect. But it is Huck who, in terms of the novel’s form, displays the various languages and value-systems of this south-western community and the ways in which they interact and relate to one another. And it is Huck’s own voice in the narrative - for the telling of this narrative is the one thing he does control - that effectively (though usually unconsciously) challenges and tears the mask from all these surrounding languages. (80-81)

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:

In 1952, Charlie Chaplin’s uncontroversial film Limelight was singled out for McCarthyite suppression. Limelight was apolitical, but the millionaire Chaplin, who had always retained his British citizenship, was thought to hold too much sympathy for the workers. Chaplin was refused re-entry to the United States until he had appeared in front of the Immigration Board of Inquiry to answer questions of a "political nature and of moral turpitude." (99)

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":

[T]he job is entertaining and engaging imagination. Laughter is part of it. Thought is part of it - not making people think. I never set out to do that. Sometimes interviewers will ask me, Do you like to make people think with your shows? I say, no, I like them to know I’m thinking. Then I like to show them that. And they take and do what they want. But, generally, I try to make it entertaining. (Conversations 192)

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).

The Carlinesque in George Carlin

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.

Carlin combines the anger of Malcolm X at what an unjust society does to the poor and the powerless with a Chaplinesque sort of intellectualizing the meaning of the world through comedy. Comedy is a disguise for unmasking other faces. The tragedian shows a “face,” but the comedian hides behind masks and tells the truth as if it were a joke. Sometimes the joke is far too serious to be merely laughed at. We are not supposed to take words literally. But words are literally what they purport to express.

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:

...for the whole world, - why, who would
not make her husband a cuckold to make him a
monarch? I should venture purgatory for't. (Act IV, Scene III)

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:

Therefore prepare thee to cut off the flesh.
Shed thou no blood, nor cut thou less nor more
But just a pound of flesh. (Act IV, Scene I)

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).

He gives the example of “shell shock” which in the First World War meant “a fighting person's nervous system has been stressed to its absolute peak and maximum.” Later the same word ended up becoming “Battle Fatigue” in the Second World War, “Operational Exhaustion” in the Korean War, and “Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder” during the Vietnam War (Doin’ It Again 1990). Similarly, Orwell in “Politics and the English Language” speaks of this alteration of language to suppress brutal realities:

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as "keeping out of politics." All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia.

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:

Human beings will do anything, anything. I am convinced....what is the moral difference between cuttin' off one guy's head, or two, or three, or five, or ten - and dropping a big bomb on a hospital and killing a whole bunch of sick kids?... When you get right down to it, human beings are nothing more than ordinary jungle beasts. Savages. No different from the Cro-Magnon people who lived 25,000 years ago. No different. Our DNA hasn't changed substantially in a hundred thousand years. We're still operating out of the lower brain. The reptilian brain. Fight or flight. Kill or be killed. We like to think we've evolved and advanced because we can build a computer, fly an airplane, travel underwater, we can write a sonnet, paint a painting, compose an opera. But you know something? We're barely out of the jungle on this planet. Barely out of the f------ jungle. What we are, is semi-civilized beasts, with baseball caps and automatic weapons. (Complaints and Grievances)

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.

It may be impossible to know the real face of a comedian because true to the genre he conceals his real self while he exposes others. If Carlin called himself a “modern man,” who is “diversified multicultural postmodern deconstructionist, politically, anatomically, and ecologically incorrect” (Life Is Worth Losing), you can be certain that this description is one of the masks of the comedian that comes closest to fitting his face the best.

Works Cited

Aristophanes. The Birds. MIT: The Internet Classics Archive.

Brown, David Jay. “Napalm, Silly Putty, and Human Nature.” Conversations on the Edge of the Apocalypse. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005.

Butler, Judith. Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative. New York: Routledge, 1997.

Bukowski, Charles. “The Genius of the Crowd.” Poetry Archive.

Carlin, George. “I Don't Like Words That Hide the Truth.” Doin’ It Again. 1990. DVD.

---.“Human Beings Will Do Anything.” Life Is Worth Losing. 2005. DVD.

---. “The Ten Commandments.” Complaints and Grievances. 2001. DVD.

Carlin, George with Tony Hendra. Last Words. New York: Free Press, 2009.

Chaplin, Charlie. Monsieur Verdoux. United Artists. 1947. Film. 

---. The Great Dictator. United Artists. 1940. Film.

Critchley, Simon. Infinitely Demanding: Ethics of Commitment, Politics of Resistance. London: Verso, 2008.

Johnson, Samuel. Preface to Shakespeare. ebooks@Adelaide

Konstan, David. Greek Comedy and Ideology. New York: Oxford UP, 1995.

Limon, John. Stand-up Comedy in Theory, or, Abjection in America. Durham and London: Duke UP, 2000.

Messent, Peter. The Cambridge Introduction to Mark Twain. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2007.

Orwell, George. “Politics and the English Language" (1946). George Orwell.

Shakespeare. The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. MIT: Complete Shakespeare. http://www.

Stott, Andrew. Comedy. New York: Routledge, 2005.

Twain, Mark. Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Electronic Text Center, University of Virginia Library.

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