My thanks to all at Murderati for allowing me to visit my blogging alma mater, as I moved out and took up residence at Hey, There’s A Dead Guy In The Living Room about a year and a half ago. But I still check in here, and I’m still awed by all that happens in this space. It’s very special.
By now, you might be sick and tired of hearing about George Carlin, who died suddenly last week and was subsequently eulogized by everyone except members of the FCC, who were probably annoyed that everyone started remembering The Seven Words You Can’t Say On Television again.
You might be so tired of Carlin at this point that you’re glad he’s dead. Well, too bad for you.
Add my voice to those who thought George Carlin was brilliant and brave. Well, until he got so angry the past few years that he came out and told the audience that it would be better if we all died and let the planet regenerate itself. He might have been right, but I’m not willing to test the theory.
Carlin’s death was a shock to those of us who follow comedy seriously. He was 71 years old, not exactly ancient but not at an age where he’ll be classified as "Gone too soon" in ads featuring T-shirts with pictures of Elvis, Marilyn, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix and others who didn’t wait for Death to come along and find them, but helped the process along a good deal. His was merely a matter of bad health; Carlin had already suffered more than one heart attack, dating back decades.
But it’s relevant to note that like another great comedian, Groucho Marx, Carlin thought of himself more as a writer than a performer. He adored words, played with them, found the hypocrisies in the way we use them, and pointed them out. Carlin wrote three books (the third is scheduled for publication).
His riffs on the concept of "jumbo shrimp" and "military intelligence" just skimmed the surface. In his later years, he could go on long, perfectly precise tears that explored every aspect of a word or added words to thoughts where they’d never belonged before. And as in all forms of genius, he made you think that his idea was a perfectly sensible one that you’d never considered before.
Why is comedy important? Because it is the escape hatch, the steam valve of life. We are attracted to great comedy because it includes not only the obvious, but also the truthful that we never considered before. When Groucho Marx turns to his brother in Horse Feathers and admonishes him that "you can’t burn the candle at both ends." Harpo merely reaches into that voluminous trench coat of his and pulls out a candle burning at both ends. And we say to ourselves, "You know, I guess you can, after all."
People make the mistake of thinking that because comedy is performed quickly and casually, that it is effortless. It’s anything but. I appreciated it when Publishers Weekly used the word ("effortless") in a review of my last book, SOME LIKE IT HOT-BUTTERED (the new one, IT HAPPENED ONE KNIFE, comes out tomorrow), because that meant I’d done my job right, and the jokes seemed like they flowed naturally. They didn’t — in some cases, I was pacing the floor in my office for hours trying to come up with the right comeback for Elliot Freed to use the second after someone insulted him.
I began worshipping comedy at a very young age, probably starting with Bugs Bunny (before I got all the jokes, and thought these were serious fims about a man trying to shoot a rabbit) and Rocky and Bullwinkle (see previous comment, but substitute "moose and squirrel" for "rabbit.") But I quickly graduated to Bill Cosby, Get Smart (the beginning of a lifelong affection for Mel Brooks), then Woody Allen, the Marx Brothers (especially the Marx Brothers!), W.C. Fields, Larry Gelbart, Dick Van Dyke (which led to Carl Reiner), Robert Klein, David Brenner, John Belushi, Dan Ayckroyd, and . . . well, suffice it to say I could go on.
It gets us through the tough times. The problem is that now, there’s no George Carlin to get us through the death of George Carlin. But there is Jon Stewart, and there is Craig Ferguson, and Lewis Black, and Stephen Wright, and Tina Fey and many, many others.
In my own writing, I’m going for the laugh first. I’ll admit that. I feel like I write comedies that have a mystery in them, and not the other way around. If you send me an email that says, "You know, the plot really doesn’t hold water, but I laughed all the way through." I’m a happy man. Comedy is essential to our collective sanity, and that commodity appears to be in short supply htese days.
Respect those who provide it.
Rest in peace, George. Or better, rest cranky. Your work here is far from done, but it was advanced enormously because of your tireless work. We will miss you a good deal more than you’ll miss us.
Jeffrey Cohen is the author of IT HAPPENED ONE KNIFE: A DOUBLE FEATURE MYSTERY, which you might have heard will be published tomorrow. He is also the author of the Aaron Tucker series, unproduced screenplays, newspaper and magazine articles, nonfiction books about raising a child with autism-spectrum disorder, and a grocery list that is attracting a good deal of attention in Hollywood.
(Thanks, Jeff, for visiting today. We’re glad to have you.