Rest In Peace, George Carlin, and Thanks for Disturbing It

Categories: Life and Death

One small detail that wasn’t mentioned in the obituaries following George Carlin’s death on Sunday, June 22, was that he loved to read The Village Voice. At least he did back in the late 1980s.

In 1988, previewing a New York Giants-Washington Redskins game, I quoted from his classic “Indian Sergeant” routine where the Indian Sergeant is reading off a list of the week’s activities to his men. “Tuesday,” he says, “we will be attacking the fort again. This time, it will be different—this time there will be soldiers in the fort.”

My fool of an editor—take a bow, Mike Caruso—inserted a line in the piece saying “Okay, just because it’s classic doesn’t mean it’s funny.” Carlin could have ignored it or send me an indignant letter. Instead I got:

Dear Allen,

OK, OK, it’s 25 years old; OK, it predates “Amer-Indian consciousness”;
and OK, it’s based on a fairly simple comic substitution principal, but, Not Funny? Jeez, Allen, that’s a killer. Let’s just say it’s not as funny as it once was.

Anyway, thanks for even remembering the Indian Saergent.[sic] It would have “read” better with the exact words, I think. Just for fun here’s a cassette copy of it. I hope you enjoy recalling it.

By the way, it was developed on stage at the Cafe Au GoGo on Bleecker Street during 1963.

Thanks for all your fine writing and reporting.

Yours,
George Carlin


This was the start of a beautiful friendship that nearly resulted in my working on a book with him (scheduling conflicts prevented it from happening).

I wish I could report in all honesty that I was the reason George liked the Voice so much, but in truth that was the only compliment I ever got from him in writing. Subsequent letters suggested I was way down on his favorites list, but it was a pretty tough list to crack.

His real favorite was the Voice’s press critic, the late Geoffrey Stokes, like Carlin, Irish and a disaffected Catholic. He also got a big kick out of Stanley Crouch—“I’ve never seen a picture of this guy. I don’t know what he looks like, but he writes like Sonny Liston looks.”) He also liked to read Nat Hentoff, “who alternates between pissing me off and expressing my uncreated conscience.”

The allusion to Joyce was no accident. The two had much in common besides blood. Both, in their own way, were agitators; both were pissed off at the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church—and by extension all religious institutions—and both, in their own ways, were wordsmiths. (I can picture Joyce guffawing as did my daughter when she was eight at Carlin asking “Why do we drive on a parkway and park in a driveway?”

Such facile word play came easy to Carlin and invariably led to something more serious—for instance, his eye-opening routine on how the World War I term “shell shock” evolved into Vietnam’s “post-traumatic stress syndrome.” He wrote the bit, he told me, out of anger that Vietnam vets never got the rehabilitation they needed: “If they just kept calling it shell shock, somebody might have paid attention.”

That Carlin was concerned for a minority like Vietnam vets might come as a surprise to some of his fans. It shouldn’t. After all, his mentor Lenny Bruce showed more compassion for the working class who wore policemen uniforms than many of his fans did. This is not to make a case for Carlin as a conservative, but merely to point out that like all the great stand-up comics of the last half-century, the targets of his wit weren’t just the absurdities of the far right but also liberal pieties.

In 1972, Carlin was arrested at a concert in Wisconsin for disturbing the peace. The judge let him off, saying that he “found nothing disturbing” in Carlin’s routine. Fuck (to quote from Carlin’s seven words you can’t say on television) that. The judge was a wuss.

Everything George Carlin did disturbed the peace.

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