George Carlin is dead. He was an icon of my youth, and a counted on companion throughout my adulthood. What did I count on him for? To tell the truth. To keep me honest. To remind me that I am small, ordinary, impermanent and ridiculous.
And to think: He delivered those sober and not-so-flattering messages into my life by making me laugh.
I was 15 when my longtime schoolmates Keith and Carl introduced me to the George Carlin recording "Class Clown." We were at Carl’s house on a Saturday morning. Keith put the needle to the vinyl, and then my two buddies obediently lay down on the living room floor.
"You might as well get down on the floor now," Keith said simply. I didn’t understand.
A few minutes later, I was horizontal to the 1970’s shag, sucking carpet, taking desperate breaths in between spasms of laughter.
George was examining the seven words you can’t say on television. Of the myriad topics and comedic styles embraced by George’s professional career, my favorite was always when he would play with words. He would use the power of words to deflate their sometimes exaggerated power. He used the power of words to deflate the power people hide and misuse by distorting and blurring language. He used the power of words to expose the relentless foolishness of human beings.
Mostly he used the power of words to tell the truth, no matter how shocking, disturbing or impolite the truth is. He saw life in an ultracandid manner, and to practice candor, one must sometimes sacrifice "polite."
I will never be able to explain why some comedians use copious profanity and make me laugh so I need an oxygen mask, while others use profanity and are just profane, like an 11-year-old who’s giddy about knowing a dirty word. Andrew Dice Clay is, for me, an example of the latter. Just grinds my soul. George Carlin never bothered me.
The only time I struggled with George was in the period of years after his wife died, when I thought he was more bitter and sad than funny. But I didn’t blame him.
The great comics don’t tell jokes; they tell the truth. They are social and cultural prophets in the biblical sense of that word. They stand outside the city gates, pointing fingers at modern life, and naming our absurdities.
His favorite and most oft-repeated truth? Human beings are ridiculous — contradicted, hypocritical, capricious, self-centered, self-deluded, not very bright, and generally, as a species, given to self-destruction.
Now, why is that funny as hell? How could a message so dire and cutting make me laugh so hard?
See, only the truth is funny. Think about it.
Monty Python is only funny because it’s true that the strident cultural value of polished English decorum at all costs regularly invites people to act in ways that range from stuffy and emotionally dishonest to contradicted and absurd.
The comic strip "Dilbert" is only funny because we readily recognize the predominant misery and meaninglessness of the practices, expectations and leadership of the modern corporate workplace.
Dana Carvey’s famous "Saturday Night Live" character "The Church Lady" is only funny because, well, if you have ever spent much time in a Christian parish, you’ve met her. You know you have. The caricature isn’t even all that exaggerated. I’ve never set foot in a church that didn’t have at least one Church Lady. Some have entire organized teams.
Gallagher once said that "men would be better lovers if they would learn to cook, because then they would know that a stove has more settings than ‘off’ and ‘high.’ They would learn terms like ‘simmer,’ and ‘slow rolling boil.’ When making a quiche, they would mix the eggs slowly, deliberately, gently. They would keep it a quiche, and resist the temptation to whip the eggs and say ‘Oh hell, I’ll have scrambled eggs!’ "
And when the camera panned the audience, couples were quaking with laughter. Because Gallagher’s critique was undeniably true.
Do you remember a few years ago when comedian Chris Rock hosted the Academy Awards? Do you remember the bit that he filmed at a movie theater complex in Inglewood, Calif., a predominantly black neighborhood? He simply interviewed family after family, couple after couple, individuals, asking them to name this year’s films nominated for Best Picture. And over and over people couldn’t identify them. Because they hadn’t seen them.
And what Chris was asking me to examine was so true, I remember I could barely laugh at all. My breath sucked out of me. Oh. My. God.
I’ll miss George Carlin. I thought he was brilliant.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling Wellness Center in Las Vegas and the author of "Human Matters: Wise and Witty Counsel on Relationships, Parenting, Grief and Doing the Right Thing" (Stephens Press). His columns appear on Tuesdays and Sundays. Questions for the Asking Human Matters column or comments can be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.