There are very few comedians who can really tickle my funny bone, and, sadly, more and more of them are dying. I always had an affinity for the "borscht belt" comedians. Maybe that's because I had the glorious chance in my youth to spend time at places like the Concord and Grossinger's in upstate New York.
Few people remember anymore how many of the comedic greats got their start in the Catskills. Woody Allen, Milton Berle, Lenny Bruce, Jerry Lewis, Don Rickles, Rodney Dangerfield, Henny Youngman, Buddy Hackett, Shelley Berman, and Jonathan Winters (the list goes on and on) all got going in what was affectionately called the "Jewish Alps."
Forgive me a moment of ethnic hubris, but to this day, many of the most talented comics of our time come from that same cultural heritage: Adam Sandler, Jerry Seinfeld, Larry David, Al Franken, and Lewis Black, to name just a few.
But to my affinity for comedians who are "members of the Tribe," I have made exceptions — most notably for Robin Williams, Richard Pryor, and yes, George Carlin, who, sadly, left us for good this week.
I had the great good fortune to see Carlin perform a few years ago in Tunica. The guy was absolutely amazing, regaling the audience with nearly two hours of seemingly extemporaneous shtick (how do those guys remember all that?) and showcasing his irreverence and lack of respect for any and every one of society's most revered principles and institutions.
There was no such thing as a sacred cow to Carlin, and the proof of that was that God and religion were two of his favorite targets. To him, God was the "invisible man in the sky," which may have been why Carlin professed to worship the sun (because, he said, he could actually see it) and to pray to Joe Pesci (because, he said, Pesci looked like a guy who could get things done).
He famously abridged the Ten Commandments into two ("Thou shalt always be honest and faithful to the provider of thy nookie" and "Thou shalt try real hard not to kill anyone, unless, of course, they pray to a different invisible man from the one you pray to") and added a third commandment of his own: "Thou shalt keep thy religion to thyself."
Carlin's disdain for government and politicians was famous. He boasted that he had never voted, so that no one could blame him for whatever the elected ones would inevitably foist upon the American public. He preached the evils of corporate control and derided the environmental movement. (If the earth, he said, had endured millions of years of floods, ice, and plague, it could survive a few million plastic bags and soft drink cans.)
He was a great believer (as am I) in the Menckenian principle that "no one ever went broke underestimating the intelligence of the American public," even though his own popularity would seem to belie that principle.
Carlin was, above all, a wordsmith, possessor of a talent I admire almost as much as I do that of somebody who can tie a knot in a cherry stem with their tongue. His riff on the idea of "stuff" is priceless. He was able at once to ridicule our obsession with conspicuous consumption and to demonstrate, quite seriously, that our society has become one in which we are what we own.
Of course, Carlin's ultimate act of simultaneous tribute to — and deconstruction of — the English language came in the form of his famous "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" riff, which resulted in a U.S. Supreme Court case upholding the government's right to control profanity on the public airwaves and which he developed into a free-standing monologue.
He took on a variety of personae in his early career, when he frequently appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show (not coincidentally, also the showcase for many borscht belt comics) and lampooned some of his favorite characters, including "Al Sleet," the "hippy dippy weatherman," a dope-smoking, addle-brained takeoff on all weathermen, whose most famous prognostication was: "The forecast for tonight is darkness, followed by increasing light towards morning" — perhaps the last time any weatherman, real or fictional, got it right.
Sadly, the world will become a little darker without George Carlin, who got it right, too, to shed his light on it.
Marty Aussenberg, who writes the "Gadfly" column for memphisflyer.com, is a Memphis attorney.