Humour and its Haters

It would be impossible to overstate George Carlin's contribution to standup comedy. Along with Richard Pryor and a few others, he essentially created the genre. But he was more than just a comedy pioneer. He was a freethinker who never backed down, and he truly changed the course of American culture. He will be missed - Jay Dixit

George Carlin, one of the greats of US comedy has left us. The world will be a dourer place but only for a while. Carlin’s enterprise would not have proved the success it has undoubtedly been were his influence unable to survive his death. One sure reason that Carlin made the impact he did lies in his having set out his stall on what humour should be. It was a stall where the merchandise on offer never lost its power of attraction. Carlin’s influence will far outlive him. Therein is to be found the evidence of his potency. Death shall not curb it.

Out of all his sketches my favourite is where he narrated the tale of the invisible man. The raving, ranting, religious right must have been red in the face as Carlin hurled them to the outer limits of apoplectic rage with his take on god. Repeated viewing does not fray its edge. Elsewhere, his take on the men of the cloth wasn’t far off the mark ‘what a bad name religion has given God.’

In town today I became self conscious that people might be looking at me strangely as I sauntered along, laughing and snickering as the ear phones extending out from my MP3 player transmitted the voice of George Carlin ribalding away about the US being a mass producer of bullshit. Carlin was careful not to accuse it of being the sole producer of bull. How enriching it would have been had he turned his wry eye and waspish tongue on the North. Bullshitting politicians who think gay people are an abomination on the basis of some biblical bollix, coupled with theocratic grifters stalking the chambers of powerlessness up at Stormont would have been a feast to him. He would probably have been barred from the North on the grounds of not being helpful to the peace process. Seems commanders in chief who, in the words of retired Major General Antonio Taguba - responsible for the initial investigation into abuses at Abu Ghraib - 'authorized a systematic regime of torture’ rather than comedians who mock them, are truly helpful to the peace process.

Carlin in the last interview of his life, given to Jay Dixit, offered an insight into how he regarded humour. Because it was ‘vulgar’, comedy could never quite fit into the category of fine arts. And why should it? Comedy is essentially people’s art, not high brow for the theatre stuff. There are wags in every pub but few if any opera singers. A good comedian gives expression, often in crude form, to the collection of sentiments floating around in the social intellect. That the politically affiliated of all shades seem to harbour in their midst an inordinately high proportion of humour haters is precisely because the crap that passes for politics is often the target of the humorist. They don’t want the floating particles of discord - which in Carlin’s own words ‘are lying around waiting to be discovered and … our job is to just notice them and bring them to life’ - to form into a coherent common sense against them. The current mayor of Belfast, a long standing joke himself, once requested that Sinn Fein members be prohibited from telling jokes about him. The minute it was announced in Connolly House prior to our weekly Monday morning meeting commencing, I told another one about him. Those at the meeting merely laughed including the chair. No more was heard of it. Not everybody in Sinn Fein is an insufferable bore.

I love a joke, the thought that goes into it, the shape of its structure. Carlin referred to its logic and ingenuity, the two elements that converge in an apex when melded by the wholly unforeseen twist. I marvel at the artistry involved. And I don’t particularly care if the PC type thinks the jokes I enjoy are sexist, racist, fatist, ageist or whateverist. Sour faced lemon suckers who think cracking a smile would result in a visit to the hospital should never be allowed to police what the rest of us listen to, view, read or say. They suffer from victim syndrome, an intellectually debilitating ailment that propels them to search endlessly for those offensive sorts who might just … offend them and leave them fuming, much like ‘rage boy’ from the world of Islam.

Paul Krassner commented that Carlin knew 'his audience trusted him not to be afraid of offending them'. An artist’s courage interacting with an intelligent audience – a potent mix that is a triumph for the Enlightenment.

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