Hats Off, Gentlemen! A Genius!

I haven’t blogged anything about George Carlin’s demise because, really, where do I get off? Arguably the greatest comedian of a generation, and easily the most professional stand-up since the days of Vaudeville.

I mean, he did (by my count) 12 HBO specials in the past 30 years, with virtually all new material every special. 12-18 hours may not seem like a lot, but find a comedian who’s done more. And Carlin’s TV credits go back over ten years further, and I’m pretty sure that was after a decade or more of uncredited work.

The dude was polished. Even if you didn’t like the material, his style was undeniable.

And yet, it can be hard to watch a lot of those shows. The older he got, the angrier he got. The gentler parts of his routines vanished over the years.

I suppose some would argue that his political statements were what made him “important”, insofar as he was, but it seems to me he was at his most brilliant in his whimsical and absurd moments. And when he summed something up about human experience, like the stuff/shit routine and “Everyone driving slower than you is an asshole. Everyone driving faster is a maniac” bit. When he brought us together, in other words.

His political statements–well, to be fair, his most overtly political statements were deliberately crude and dismissive. He saw himself as above those things.

But his socio-political “arguments”, if you want to call them that, were crude in the sense of being at the level of an angry 13-year-old. The perfect role for him was as Cardinal Glick in Kevin Smith’s Dogma, since the “arguments” in that movie are pretty much at the same place. (And I love that movie, but much like a Carlin routine, it’s best when it’s making with the funny, and very weak when the philosophy comes out.)

Even then, though, his delivery was brilliant. And if you agreed with him (see clap humor), his show was great. He was better–and more subversive–than both, because he phrased things in such a way that you often wanted to agree with him.

Another funny thing about Carlin was that, while liberals are often accused of loving Mankind and hating people, Carlin seemed to hate Mankind and love people. That is, his schtick–particularly in the last years–was geared toward how horrible Man was, yet in describing his travels he had nothing but praise for the people he met (cf. Michael Moore).

Regardless of your political orientation, it’s hard to deny the man’s craftsmanship and dedication. The only comparable figure I can think of is the late Johnny Carson–and he was on hundreds of times a year for decades, and never had any forbidden words to fall back on.

I won’t say “Rest In Peace” because that would’ve just pissed him off. And I sure won’t make any comments about heaven. I’ll just say, “Hey, how’s death working out for you?”

Shame he can’t answer. I’m sure it’d be hilarious.

“Clap Humor”

I use this term all the time but I guess it’s not really that common, or obvious in meaning.

“Clap humor” is an ostensible joke that isn’t really funny, but which expresses a sentiment with which the audience agrees. They laugh, but they mostly clap. Stand-up comedians will do lame local humor, knowing that people will clap out of recognition. Over the years that I’ve watched him, I’ve seen David Letterman do essentially the same fat jokes about Oprah, Roseanne Barr and Rosie O’ Donnell. Or, you can take any political joke and substitute today’s politician with the original:

A man died and went to heaven. As he stood in front of St. Peter at the Pearly Gates, he saw a huge wall of clocks behind him. He asked, “What are all those clocks?” St. Peter answered, “Those are Lie-Clocks. Everyone on Earth has a Lie-Clock. Every time you lie, the hands on the clock will move.” “Oh” said the man. “And whose clock is that one?” “That’s Mother Teresa’s. The hand have never moved, indicating that she never told a lie.” “Incredible” said the man. “And whose clock is that one?” St. Peter responded, “That’s Abraham Lincoln’s clock. The hands have moved twice, telling us that Abe told only two lies in his entire life.” “Where’s [whoever]’s clock?” asked the man. “[Whoever]’s clock is in Jesus’ office. He’s using it as a ceiling fan.

Other ones include such classics as "He said he killed the pig” and “God doesn’t think he’s [blank]”.

The thing about “clap humor” is that it’s easy. You just set yourself up with a particular audience and rely on their agreement to get half your job done. It is, to some degree, a fair tool in the comic’s toolbox, but it gets old fast, and you have to not care about alienating people.