Furious George

They say good news travels fast. But the bad can be equally fleet. And it is bad news indeed when Andrew "Dice" Clay is coming to town, I assume, to deliver nursery rhythms and sundry misogynistic rubbish for which he was granted 15 minutes of fame and a few million dollars. The comeback trail is a crowded place these days. And the Diceman cometh, along with the usual contingent of broken-down geezers of rock, cashing in on past inglories.

A word of advice: Don’t give him your loot. Stay home instead and tune in HBO’s George Carlin special, "You Are All Diseased," currently in rotation. If stand-up comedy has a future in an age, as Bill Bennett would put it, "beyond outrage," Carlin is the preacher and the prophet.

The first thing you notice about the man as he saunters onto stage is how well-preserved he is. A bit rakish, a bit grizzled perhaps, but he has a feline vibe that few men of 62 possess, much less exude. That, of course, is part and parcel of the Carlin persona – the hippie who didn’t sell out, who didn’t grow fat and lazy, who kept the faith while all around him bought minivans and voted for Republicans. George is in it for the long haul, staying lean and mean on his convictions.

Or a steady diet of bile. At full gale force, Carlin is a hectoring madman, a cross between a Tourette’s syndrome patient off his meds and a fiery Baptist minister testifying from scripture, not from the Bible but from Alexis de Tocqueville’s legendary treatise on the mediocrity of America. Indeed, if any one emotion can be said to drive Carlin, it is indignant bewilderment. Jerry Seinfeld asks "What’s up with that," turning the audience into his conspirators in irony. Carlin will have none of it. He demands, "What the fuck is up with you people?"

The answer, of course, is "you are all diseased." The genius of Carlin’s shtick, lifted of course from Lenny Bruce, is that he sets the traditional S&M relationship between comedian and audience on its head. Ordinarily, an audience is watching some cat work out his issues on the stage, secretly hoping that he’ll bomb. Carlin torments his audience by working out their issues, openly knowing that they’ll bomb.

Woozy titters emit from the crowd whenever George moves into one of his patented blasphemies. He doesn’t much care for the police, but wonders why people are so willing to let the fuckers work them over. An unhappy appraisal of the "angel" phenomenon naturally digresses into a full-frontal attack on God and his shabby handiwork.

Carlin’s famous gift for wordplay gets a workout in a bit on the craven euphemisms of the advertising business. No one can make the bullshit of Madison Avenue sound as smooth and awful as George. But hold on. Is this not the same George Carlin I just saw peddling the services of 10-10-220 on the telly? Of course it is! Never one to be caught on the hop, our man delivers a snarky aside to the audience, basically telling them to fuck off if they can’t handle the contradiction, because he’s fine with it. There’s no better defense than a good offense.

When Carlin simmers down, he is polite and cheery but doesn’t pander. The man is a master of timing, short-circuiting himself at the moment just before he lapses into self-parody. You still sense contempt seething beneath the brittle smile. And the smile flashes in the unpredictable and unconvincing way of a neon sign on the fritz. Carlin wants his audience to be uncomfortable because he knows they are already too comfortable.

A sky-high stock market and peace at home tend to make people even more complacent than they are in times of bear markets and battle. And stand-up comedy is hardly where one would think to go for political commentary in the first place. It’s supposed to be entertainment, full of witty yet toothless blather about closely observed banalities. Carlin is both angry and erudite enough to do better.

If free speech is guaranteed, why not test the warranty? Sadly, Lenny Bruce did and he was ruined. Redd Foxx did, but he was a Negro on the chitlin’ circuit, out of view and hence, out of harm from the pasty scolds. But Carlin arrived at the right time, when the cultural wellspring of the ’60s was starting to trickle into the staid bedrock of Middle America. Clinton’s acquittal was proof positive that the Culture War is over – the Republicans and their Bible-thumping schemers are in a wilderness of their own making.

George will always be in danger of being treated as a curiosity, rather than the subversive he is. "A Place For My Stuff" will always be favored over "Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television." Still, like Howard Beale, the mad prophet of the airwaves in Network (1976), he’s not going to leave you alone with your steel-belted radial tires, toaster and TV. He wants you to get up out of your chair, go to the window and scream, "I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore!"

Will you? I didn’t think so. And neither does George.

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