Sunday, June 29, 2008

Comedian George Carlin dies of broken heart

(previously published in the Terre Haute Tribune Star, 6/29/08)

TERRE HAUTE — George Carlin died last Sunday. He deserves an appropriate headline akin to his own spoof headlines like: “Jacques Cousteau dies in bathtub accident.” Maybe something like: “Comedian Carlin dies of Broken Heart.” or “Funny-man Carlin Gets it wrong, dies in Health Center.”

George Carlin was a force for me growing up with over-protective parents who were enthusiastic Nixon supporters. Even though he appeared something like 135 times on the “Tonight Show” with Johnny Carson, my folks disapproved of him. I borrowed his comedy albums from older friends and listened to them secretly in my room. I memorized his routines and would recite them for my friends.

In the world of Nixon supporters, the dominant cultural trends of the times were “scary.” Long hair (on men), free love, birth control, abortion on demand, drugs, communism, civil rights, women’s rights … this list is very long, and all of them disrupted the conventional, white, uptight world I grew up in. George Carlin made all that stuff okay for me, because he so devastatingly poked fun at the deathly conventional corporate culture that was emerging with suburbanization and television (with its incessant advertising).

George Carlin was everything I wasn’t. He was hip, witty, quick, and edgy. He wore a ponytail and I wore a crew cut (yes, even in the ’70s). He experimented with drugs and I snuck chocolate chip cookies. He was warped and I was about as straight-arrow as one could get. He was the “hippie dippie weatherman” and I was sergeant of the school patrol. I was a good student and he wasn’t. I thrived in the institutional bureaucracy and he didn’t.

I marveled at his observations of daily life. For instance: “When you dial the phone, do you give your finger a free ride back?” “If it’s true that our species is alone in the universe, then I’d have to say the universe aimed rather low and settled for very little” or “I have as much authority as the Pope, I just don’t have as many people who believe it.” His celebrity was for his more edgy material, which I can’t share here because this is a family newspaper and his “seven words you can’t say on television” pretty much still can’t be said on television nor printed in this newspaper. His sense of irony was superb: “I got fired last year for saying s**t, in a town where the big game is called craps.”

I wanted to make those kinds of offbeat observations. I wanted to play with language the way he did. I wanted to turn everything upside down like he did. So, I worked to make similar observations, to turn things upside down, to seek the irony and humor in daily, common, everyday events. I make no claims to success, but I have had students who probably listened to their parents’ (or grandparents’) Carlin albums say I reminded them of George Carlin. Of the many things that have been said about me by students over the years, that is one I hope is true.

I don’t recall Carlin making acerbic observations about college. I am not trying to channel him here, but modern college professors live, in large part, in a space created by the intersection of government and the church. Modern professors have spent their lives on college campuses, going from Freshman to Full Professor in a seamless progression of dorm room keggers, grad student affairs, sycophantic assistant professor, tenured associate professor (tenure should come with a burial plot on the campus quad), to the holy grail of “full” (of it) professor. Among the many curiosities of the Academy is “academic speak.” Here is a description for a new academic program: “FS courses are the foundation of a college-level educational experience and for learning in the academic disciplines and professions.” Gee, I thought high school was the foundation for a college education, but a college education is now a “college-level educational experience.” No wonder the costs of college are increasing so much, a “college education,” six syllables has grown to thirteen syllables, “college-level educational experience” (hereafter CLEE). Instead of charging by the credit hour, maybe tuition should be figured by the CLEE, and professors rated on their CLEE production. “Steiger’s students average five CLEE per class, which is above the department average of four CLEE, but below the College CLEE rate of seven.”

A headline I’d like to see: “George Carlin rose from the dead today; declares frisbeetarianism official religion.”

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