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George Carlin 1937-2008

George Carlin, the eloquent comic genius, passed away yesterday at age 71 from heart failure in St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. Like the Cheshire Cat, he knew that, “we’re all mad here….”

(Note added May 23, 2009: It looks like CNN removed the page containing Carlin’s obituary. At the cheap price of disk space, I guess that I do not understand this removal. Fortunately, the obituary of The New York Times, below, remains at this date.)

It is not my intention to write an obituary here. The CNN link above does a very nice job of that, and the elegant and thorough obituary of The New York Times online provides classic counterpoint to CNN. Besides, with time zones, they had at least a 3-hour head start on me. :-)

The latter obituary had a quotation from Carlin of which I was unaware, but will remember from now on, “Scratch any cynic, and you’ll find a disappointed idealist.”

My first memory of George Carlin was his role of Al Sleet, “the hippy-dippy weatherman,” probably on the Ed Sullivan Show. It was not until years later that I came closer to understanding some of the sources of his eloquent humor, during a televised HBO special, his first in New York post-9-11. In that special, he said that he was conceived at Rockaway Beach (the one in Queens, not the one in Pacifica, CA) and was born and raised in New York City. I have a genuine fondness for New Yorkers, whose gruff exteriors can often conceal hearts of gold.

George Carlin left his mark on comedy in so many ways – everything from suggested public executions on Monday Night Football to placing 50-foot fences (hmmmm, sound familiar? :-) And they say that life imitates art….) around the four rectangular western states that touch at one point, as containment for four different types of criminal offenders. Then, just to mix it up, he suggested that the gates be opened among the four fenced states at intervals, to allow prisoner exchange. His list of “people who should be killed” included “white guys who shave their heads” and “men over the age of 10 who wear their ball caps backward.”

Carlin also left his mark on U.S. law, when the Justices of the United States Supreme Court decided 5-4 (so at least SOME of the Justices understood the First Amendment) that his “Seven Dirty Words” comedy routine was “indecent but not obscene.”

I can also relate to George Carlin’s Irish working class background, and his respect for language, including oxymorons (“jumbo shrimp”, “business ethics”). Carlin also understood traffic, in both New York and California: “Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?”

This November, George Carlin was scheduled to receive the 2008 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, given by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. His response was, “Thank you, Mr. Twain. Have your people call my people.” I am almost certain that Mark Twain would have approved.

For making us look at the absurdities of American life, for reminding us of the power of language, and for making us think, we thank you, George. We will miss you.

-Bill at Cheshire Cat Photo™

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