Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Abstract and brief chronicles

Hey, what's the deal with comedians? I mean these guys who make us think by making us laugh. Why do so many of them seem to end sadly? Jonathan Swift lost his mind, and Mark Twain got hung up denouncing Christian Science and eventually all religion, which never plays well in America. Ambrose Bierce just disappeared one day, which might be the best exit of all.

In the microphone era after World War II, performance comedy grew up. Its practitioners were called satirists by those who appreciated them, and "sick" by those who didn't. Lenny Bruce, born a decade too early, got tired of being arrested for talking in public the way everyone talks in private; he died in the bathroom like Elvis, but of different drugs. (There's a book to be written about those two parallel lives.) Mort Sahl was a brilliant diamond, but as the times grew darker he lost his sparkle. He failed to notice that people don't go to nightclubs to hear a deconstruction of the Warren Report, and ended crankily supporting Alexander Haig for president. (His blurred copy, Dennis Miller, skidded to the right even faster.) Jean Shepherd turned his back on radio, where he was an undisputed genius, and sought success as a writer and filmmaker. When it didn't come, or at least didn't bring the "wheelbarrow of money" he expected, he denounced his listeners as idiots who couldn't tell his stories were fiction -- what higher praise could a storyteller ask? -- and went off to Florida to die. Richard Pryor survived heart attack, drug abuse, self-immolation and being a black man in America, only to die, inch by defiant inch, of multiple sclerosis. Bill Hicks went faster, from cancer.

The death of George Carlin last Sunday caught me by surprise, not because he hadn't had his own problems with drugs and coronary disease but because he seemed immortal, still angry and funny at 71. His notorious "Seven Words You Can't Say On Television" brought him to the attention of the public and ultimately the Supreme Court of the United States, but that was only part of an enormous body of work. He was funny because he was grounded in a New York City childhood in the 1950s, growing up in "White Harlem," listening to Yankee games on Spanish radio and learning why "the least free people are the most free" in their culture, their language and their lives. You didn't need to be a recovering Catholic to appreciate his reports from Catholic adolescence, figuring out that a light penance was available if you went to confession to a non-Irish priest ("Three Hail Marys and you're back on the street with Father Rivera!"). Those who only heard the "dirty words" (including, apparently, most of the obituary writers) failed to notice that Carlin was a real pro whose command of timing, vocal inflection and facial expression left Robin Williams at the starting gate. He used his instrument like Charlie Parker; by comparison, his closest heir, Lewis Black, rarely modulates from C minor. It was Carlin's professionalism, honed on countless Tonight show appearances, that made him accessible to people who never "got" Andy Kaufman or Sam Kinison, wild men from the forest. Agree or disagree with the specifics, you always knew Carlin would make you laugh immoderately sooner or later. I miss him, but I'm glad he didn't have a slow, miserable decline -- he went to the hospital with chest pains and died a few hours later. I have the impression of a reasonably happy life -- long marriage to his first wife, close relationship with their daughter, no financial or legal worries. I hope I'm right. He was our finest "foole".

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Blogger Jackie said...

I will miss his sense of everyday universal connections- the basic humble things of life.. I was young and remembered his bit about everyone's family having the "good scissor"- someone running around the house yelling at everyone, wondering where the "good scissor" had gone...
Grew up in a house where humor was needed and demanded- felt he knew what that was about.

5:48 PM  

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