The late George Carlin proved that more than mindless entertainment, stand-up comedy is an art form that can uniquely blend humour with the harsh realities of social critique
George Carlin, a stand-up comedian who was infamous during his lifetime for his critical and offensive humour, once stated, “Comedy is a socially acceptable form of hostility and aggression. That is what comics do: stand the world upside down.”
Spanning over 50 years, Carlin and his provocative material achieved an anti-establishment status. He was scheduled to receive the John F. Kennedy Center’s prestigious Mark Twain Prize for American Humour before he died. He stated at the height of his career, “when comedy stopped being safe … [and] became about saying no to authority.” In the midst of current topically influenced comics, Carlin’s material is ever-relevant as he dissected the mechanisms of society, politics and social structures simulating a new outlook on every aspect of humanity. His decades old words resonate strongly to this day.
A comedic master is one able to define comedy within the same standings as aggression and invokes a thought process that redefines the meaning of hostility within humour. Usually, anything stated aggressively is believed to be accompanied with violence. Yet being able to raise laughter instead of offence separates the stand-up comedian from the common criminal. In Carlin’s performance, comedy is transformed into a pure form of honest communication. Within his aggression and hostility is derived pleasure as stand-up comedy sets itself apart from other entertainment forms.
George Carlin said that he had no emotional attachment to culture, which freed up everything for ridicule. He was infamous for his critique of culture, people and society to a point of condemning everyone for their actions. Yet, as stand-up comedians openly criticise their vast audiences for their day-to-day actions and belief systems, they receive laughter and applause. Instead of allowing people to escape the harshness of truth under the limelight of performance, Carlin forced them to focus on the reality of his words and acknowledge the distinction between wrong and right, true and false and humane verses sadism. However, his technique of provoking such feelings of discomfort and unease followed by leading them back to obnoxious laughter and applause is a form of genius to be marvelled.
Anthropologist Mary Douglas says, “the joke form rarely lies in the utterance alone, but can be identified in the total social situation.” Carlin engaged his audience through the use of different characters, voices, and a variety of astounding facial expressions. He was among few in his field who chose to create performances that shocked, horrified and baffled audiences. His show, “George Carlin Jammin’ in New York,” took the audience on a whirlwind ride through several topics and acts. He started off with war and the inborn need for America to destroy and take control over other countries, “That’s our new job in the world: bombing brown people.” He ridiculed the American government and declared himself not to be another blind and obedient minion since he had formed his own opinion through the process called “thinking.” In discussing the media and politicians, he described them to only be interested in the differences in society rather than similarities.
Carlin focussed on simple things, such as people looking at their watch and forgetting what time it was a few seconds later, or forgetting what day it is and even talking to themselves when alone. A lot of his sentences from this act started with “did you ever notice” or “did you ever try”, showing that he was implanting the concept of everyone being the same as he categorises them all as “you” in the singular.
As he hammered every aspect of simple human behaviour, he slowly transgressed onto the concept of American values, on a more serious note. He blamed the lack of social progress on the people instead of the government. “Nobody wants you to build low-cost housing near their house. People don’t want it near ‘em! We’ve got something in this country – you’ve heard of it – it’s called NIMBY, N-I-M-B-Y, ‘Not In My Backyard!’” He then proposed a solution: to get rid of golf courses and build housing for the poor. He mocks the upper class for playing golf calling them “pin-headed pricks” and referring to golf as a “mindless game” and an “arrogant, elitist past-time.”
Carlin followed his tirade by making the claim, “I enjoy chaos and disorder” and called himself an “entropy fan.” He talked about the media constructing and bombarding society with explosive images of destruction, bloodshed, chaos and pain as people die. Carlin expressed his joy in watching just “bad things” happening. He accused people of lying when they seemingly express sympathy at such horrific actions stating, “Nobody wants to admit it…You love it and you know it. Explosions are fun!” Everyone is being accused of relishing the suffering of others and enjoying it from a blatantly voyeuristic perspective with no concept of morality, ethics or humanity. To Carlin, the exploitative nature of the media and people being exposed daily to destruction and disorder leads to them becoming numb to it.
People are panicking about every minimal issue and are always concerned with saving “something”. Herein is raised the topic of environmentalism and saving the planet. Carlin was horrified that humans are so arrogant as to believe that they are a threat to the existence of the planet and that their “self importance” allows them to believe they can “save the planet.” He repeatedly focuses on the inability of humans to understand that we are part of a higher power that we cannot understand, and it is our existence that is limited, not the planet’s. “Let it be”, he stated simply, because things are, always have been and will continue to be, regardless of human existence.
Carlin explored the human condition in all forms of society whether through race, class, politics, or lifestyle. He compressed everyone into a single entity whose flaws are selected and established as he openly condemned them. While it may seem that Carlin condemned all of humanity and hated every aspect of society, underneath the jeering and mockery was someone who desperately wanted the wrongs to be corrected and the world to become a better place. His frustration with the lack of correct understanding and thinking in people only motivated him to say more, write more and create more. Regardless of whether he sounded sceptical, arrogant, sarcastic or even offensive, “Scratch any cynic,” he said, “and you’ll find a disappointed idealist”.
Image from: www.independent.co.uk
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