Sunday my favorite comedian of all time died. This is based on a piece on him I did back in May 2006.
“There are nights when the wolves are silent and only the moon howls.”
Confession time. My spiritual hero is George Carlin. Not Moses. Not Jesus. Not the Apostle Paul. Not Augustine. Not Martin Luther. Not Mother Teresa. Not Jim Elliot or Billy Graham or even Saint Bono. My spiritual hero is George Carlin, the recently dead, staggeringly brilliant, and profane atheist comedian. I wanna be like him when I grow up. Well, sort of—except for the dead part.
Active until his death at 71 years old, George Carlin’s had been around for awhile. Some remember him from his early days as Al Sleet, the hippie-dippie weatherman (“Tonight’s forecast: Dark. Continued mostly dark tonight, turning to widely scattered light in morning.”) or for his infamous “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” In the mid-seventies Carlin started doing HBO specials. From 1991-1998 he was the Conductor on my favorite PBS kids program “Shining Time Station.” He’d also been in movies and even had a short-run sitcom. He was a regular headliner in Vegas. Strange resumé.
In his later years, Carlin had gotten extremely caustic and fatalistic. You can feel his anger in his hilariously shocking social criticism. He wasn’t very impressed with us. In a late 1990s interview he remarked about his view of human life, “I think we’re already circling the drain as a species, and I’d love to see the circles get a little faster and a little shorter.” For the faint hearted, Carlin could be a bit raw. He could twist your inner karma like a dishrag.
But he burned (and still burns) like a flare on a dark stormy night. One of the things I like about Carlin is that he saw through the Game and called it how he saw it, exploiting our self denials no matter what they’re made of. “I think it’s the duty of the comedian,” he once said, “to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately.” Crossing that line is the source of both his humor and his searing observations.
One of his biggest targets was religion, Christianity in particular. (“I would never want to be a member of a group whose symbol was a guy nailed to two pieces of wood.”) As an atheist, he spurned any sense of the sacred, but his critique of American Christianity was fueled by more than mere philosophical rejection. He was furious at what belief in God has wrought in terms of pain and war. As far as Carlin was concerned the whole religious system is pure, destructive “bulls**t.”
Perhaps his most piercing diatribe came in the form of a raging piece on religion. Some may dismiss it outright as a blasphemous tirade, but if you listen, really listen to him, you can hear a voice of one calling in the desert. Here’s an excerpt:
“But I want you to know something, this is sincere, I want you to know, when it comes to believing in God, I really tried. I really, really tried. I tried to believe that there is a God, who created each of us in His own image and likeness, loves us very much, and keeps a close eye on things. I really tried to believe that, but I gotta tell you, the longer you live, the more you look around, the more you realize, something is f***ed up.
“Something is wrong here. War, disease, death, destruction, hunger, filth, poverty, torture, crime, corruption, and the Ice Capades. Something is definitely wrong. This is not good work. If this is the best God can do, I am not impressed. Results like these do not belong on the resumé of a Supreme Being.”
This is the kind of brutal honesty that resonates among those weary of limp Good News; it repudiates easy-believism and demands an accounting not only from religious folk but from God himself—exactly what the Old Testament prophets used to do. Carlin, however, was a prophet without a god; he had nobody in heaven to yell at.
Carefully rehearsed rants like this reveal a deep and painful spiritual disillusionment. Carlin was raging against the machine because he knew something is utterly wrong. “Inside every cynical person,” he has said, “there is a disappointed idealist.” Carlin claimed he didn’t care anymore, but all of his work screams otherwise. Ironically, Carlin was furious with the God he refused to believe in. This unGod has royally screwed up and Carlin wasn’t about to reward him with faith. Unlike Abraham, Carlin would not sacrifice Isaac and repudiated any “invisible man in the sky” who would have the audacity to ask such a thing. Carlin would have had Job’s head on a platter.
This kind of spiritual engagement is prophetic in the best sense of the word. Like the Old Testament prophets, Carlin found himself in an untenable situation: on one hand, he held fully accountable the human race who persists in its stupidity and depravity; on the other, he took profound exception to any conception of God that seemed conveniently benevolent or, worse, duplicitous. Taking humanity as a whole, Carlin saw zero merit for divine grace (sounds orthodox to me), yet a careful review of his oeuvre reveals anguish over this condition and a career-sustaining conviction that it is worthy of note.
Also like the Biblical prophets, Carlin framed all of this within a keen sense of language. He knew the power of words to reveal and to conceal. (“Is there another word for synonym?”) If a crushed idealism was Carlin’s altar fire, his exquisite mastery of language was his temple. At his most brilliant (like his piece “Football and Baseball”) he astonished us with poetic genius. Even at his most ferocious he was the consummate artist of the utterance. (“I finally accepted Jesus — not as my personal savior, but as a man I intend to borrow money from.”) Carlin, more than anybody else I have ever known, understood the practical implications of logos. Through his meticulously crafted utterances, the proud were humiliated and the lowly were exalted (Who now can look at “nondairy creamer” the same way?). Carlin was a divineless but astonishingly articulate oracle for our times.
Like The Wittenburg Door, George Carlin was probably not for everybody. But then again, Ezekiel probably didn’t get invited to many cocktail parties either. It’s never easy to stare existential rage in the face even when it’s funny. Still, in 2004 Carlin was voted #2 on Comedy Central’s list of the 100 greatest standup comedians of all time, edged out only by Richard Pryor.
For a long time my secret desire was that Mr. Carlin would get his own Damascus experience before he croaked—or, as he might have reported it, got knocked off his ass by a Jesus who tells him, “I’m kicking your prick now, buddy!” Every so often I prayed to the Sky God for him. I had only hoped that getting saved wouldn’t kill his comedy.
Now, it seems, his comedy has killed him. Maybe now he and God can iron out their “mutual differences.”