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Remembering George Carlin

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George Carlin may be the last comedian who comes to mind when you think of family-friendly entertainment, but my sister and I grew up on his routines, thanks to my mom, who used to play his album A Place for My Stuff on long car trips. I’ve never memorized Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address or Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy, but to this day, I could probably repeat Carlin’s “Ice Box Man” routine verbatim, even though I haven’t heard it for 25 years. (You can listen to it here, starting about five and a half minutes in. The bit contains one NSFW word.) Gen Y-ers may have first been introduced to him as Mr. Conductor on PBS’ Shining Time Station, and viewers younger still may know him only as a voice from Pixar’s Cars. Carlin, who died yesterday at 71, left us with a vast legacy of classic bits covering all aspects of modern life, not just the angry, profane, decidedly adult corner for which he’ll most likely be remembered.

Carlin was a master of the observational, “Didja ever notice…” humor that is every comic’s stock-in-trade now, but in his case, it wasn’t just random musings; his accounting of our absurd, illogical behavioral tics all added up to a larger point about human folly, hypocrisy, and superstition. Carlin was a satirist of the first rank; just last week, he was named the 2008 winner of the Mark Twain prize for his lifetime of comic work, and he would have been feted at America’s most hilarious annual awards ceremony later this year. Like many satirists, he became even more bitter and angry with age, and his view of human nature was supremely pessimistic, but the way he would marshal the prosecutorial evidence against our feckless species over the course of an evening, it was hard not to agree with his logic — or to laugh ruefully along with him.

Having worked in marketing before his comedy career took off, Carlin had an especially fine ear for language, for the way we use words to mislead rather than to reveal truth. When it came to uncovering the hidden agendas behind language (as in the “Baseball and Football” routine embedded at the top of this post) or deconstructing the taboos behind certain words (as in the “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television” routine, his most famous and notorious bit), he was better than a media studies class. I know I have a finer ear for what makes language tick, for the unspoken agendas behind advertising and political propaganda, and for what’s clear and unclear in my own writing, because of all the time I’ve spent listening to Carlin.

I don’t want to make Carlin sound like spinach. He was an entertainer first and foremost; just last week, he was playing Vegas. But there was always a message behind the laughs, and that message was usually: Think for yourself. Maybe that’s why I never got tired of hearing his routines over and over, and why I think everyone who’s mature enough should not go through life without hearing (and laughing heartily through) the “Seven Words” routine at least once. I’ve embedded it after the jump; it’s very NSFW, which is, of course, the point.

Here’s the intro, animated à la South Park by a fan.

Here’s the rest of the routine, slightly updated from the original 1972 version.

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