George Carlin’s death puts a spotlight on a void: The lack of comedian culture watchers.
Carlin, who died Sunday of heart failure at age 71, riffed on just about everything, and central to his persona was keeping one eye on us, one eye on The Man. He challenged the notion of “dirty” words (and had his favorite, which I certainly can’t expect my editor to let into print, but it rhymes with duck), he got pissed about the government’s reaction to 9/11, he was open about his love of pot. During his 2008 HBO special – his 14th, according to USA TODAY – he reveled in old age, saying that an old “duck” like himself can get away with anything. “(Duck) Lance Armstrong,” he said in that raspy voice that made you want to clear your throat, asking us if we were as tired as he of being told who to worship.
Carlin, after decades in the business, had status. That old (duck) had an audience.
I’m hard-pressed to think of an equivalent in the new crop of comedians, largely because the game has changed. The ones who achieve star status seem to come to celebrity by current standards: sheer availability.
The sad news is that arguably the biggest comedian we have is Will Ferrell, who pretty much plays one tune in his films. (“Me-me-me-me-me-me-me.”) I know this because I keep renting them. It’s a little thing called hope: Everyone wants a laugh.
Ferrell’s “Semi-Pro,” the most recent of his canon to hit DVD shelves, hinges on one-dimensional comedy. A lot of the jokes are sight gags, Ferrell’s gut packed into a form-fitting basketball uniform, him in a 1970s leisure suit (the film is set in the decade of disco), him with an afro.
The mere sight of his bare torso practically becomes a plot point in his movies. If a comedian revealing his man belly is still shockingly funny then call me an old lady and, please, bring me a decaf.
One reason I have a fondness for Carlin is because I didn’t understand him when I was a kid. His humor had layers, points to be made – it was adult. Trying to find layers in Ferrells’ humor is like peeling a grape: frustrating and pointless.
Carlin’s MO was to (duck) with norms, (duck) with expectations. Ferrell is a straight read whose comedy makes little commentary on the system. He’s just not filling.
Of course Ferrell’s earning power is bloated by his appeal to all ages, on down to the wee ones (naked jokes, accessible to toddlers). And he dominates the big screen, while Carlin peddled his comedy mainly on TV specials and live in concert halls. It’s scripted versus stand-up.
Not a fair fight? Let’s turn to cable, both the great hope and biggest disappointment for stand-up comedy. There are a lot of hours to fill in a day, so there’s a lot of recycled (crap) comedians willing to step in. They schlep it on every kind of pop culture montage show – not the kind of culture watchers I’d put in bed with Carlin.
Sarah Silverman could make a decent bedmate. She challenges taboos, has one filthy mouth and delivers jokes wrapped in stories and context rather than just dumping them on your doorstep. And her star is on the rise. Ditto Dave Chappelle on all of the above. His star will get back on track. (Jon Stewart seems like an obvious inclusion here, but I have yet to make it through an entire episode of his show.) They’re both a bit rough around the edges but are necessary voices who hopefully, with their shock-with-purpose coterie – Amy Sedaris, Chelsea Handler and on – continue to be heard.
Carlin just spoke loud enough until we couldn’t turn away, and, really, in these (duck)ing unstable economic and political times, we need some good shouters.