June 26, 2008
Kaddish for Carlin
"I heard he was related to the Karlin-Stoliner rebbe," a colleague said about the comedian who died this week at the age of 71.
No, not unless the Karlin-Stoliner rebbe's family was really Irish and Catholic.
"Are you going to do a story on him?" the editor of an East Coast Jewish newspaper e-mailed me.
No, I said, Carlin was not a Jew. When Ben Karlin dies -- he's the guy who created "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" -- that's a story we'll do. But that's several decades away.
We assume Carlin was Jewish not just because his surname name is Jew-ish but because his comedy confronted the status quo, the government, the elite, the insiders. He was right up there in the tradition of Lenny Bruce, Mort Sahl and Howard Stern -- the tummler who doesn't just want the world to laugh, he wants the world to change.
That's what Carlin's classic 1971 routine, "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television," did. Carlin came along and dismantled the idea that a government responsible for Vietnam and Watergate had a right to tell us what was obscene. It was such an obvious and threatening concept, he was arrested at least once after performing it and charged with violating -- what else? -- obscenity laws.
I was 11 when I first heard that routine, listening to my brother's copy of Carlin's "Class Clown" LP in our bedroom. I played it over and over, like a lot of people in my generation. It was liberation comedy, pointing out hypocrisy and greed in our society in a way that even an 11-year-old could understand.
I have been trying to compile a list of performers who've been dragged offstage by authorities, persecuted by the government or banned by media conglomerates not because of what they did -- drugs, underage girls, etc. -- but because of what they had said. By my count, most of these renegades have been Jewish.
It's not a long list, but there was Bruce, of course, hounded for his content (and, I believe, hounded for his drugs, because of his content). Stern and his fights with the Federal Communications Commission and the Christian right, which in his case may well be one and the same. There's Joan Rivers, who's been banned and re-banned by several shows. And then there's Carlin, part of the same elite club.
(In his book on the comedians of the '50s and '60s, "Seriously Funny," Gerald Nachman tells how the Los Angeles Police Department even found a Yiddish-speaking detective to monitor Bruce's act. The detective dutifully filed his report: "Suspect also used the word ‘shtup.'")
Carlin didn't stop with government. He went after religion; he went after God. What's more Jewish than that? The ability to take a fresh look -- and by fresh, I also mean crude and challenging -- at beliefs we have grown comfortable with is another Jewish comic tradition: Ask Woody Allen; ask Bill Maher.
Here's a favorite, for old times' sake, from 1997:
Think about it. Religion has actually convinced people that there's an invisible man -- living in the sky -- who watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And the invisible man has a special list of 10 things he does not want you to do. And if you do any of these 10 things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to live and suffer and burn and choke and scream and cry forever and ever 'til the end of time!
But He loves you.
He loves you, and He needs money! He always needs money! He's all-powerful, all-perfect, all-knowing and all-wise; somehow just can't handle money!
Carlin wasn't Jewish, but as he looked to Bruce, so generations of Jewish comic soothsayers looked to him. He begat -- or at least cleared the way -- for Richard Belzer, Roseanne Barr, Ben Stiller, Adam Sandler, Stewart and, of course, Ben Karlin.
"Nobody was funnier than George Carlin," Judd Apatow, director of "Knocked Up" and "The 40-Year-Old Virgin," told the Los Angeles Times. "I spent half my childhood in my room listening to his records, experiencing pure joy. And he was as kind as he was funny."
When I watched Larry David in "Curb Your Enthusiasm" try to steal a nail used in "The Passion of the Christ" to put up his mezuzah, I couldn't help thinking of Carlin's incendiary statements hadn't just cleared the way, but bulldozed the boulevard.
Before stand-up, Jews put their observations in print. The Austrian comic essayist Karl Kraus -- a big deal in the fin de siècle -- nurtured his rage by reading the morning paper then turning loose his pen. Then came the microphone and a way to share the anger, through humor, with the masses.
Carlin had that Jewish talent -- standing at a remove from the larger culture and commenting astutely on it. What he was doing on stage, Mel Brooks was doing on film, Norman Lear on television and Stern on radio.
As Carlin became famous and rich and lionized, he didn't lose his ability to get angry and funny, to rail against the hypocrites of the left and right, the politicians and clergy and businessmen, the environmentalists and the polluters. "I think it's the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn," he said, "and cross it deliberately."
That's why it's not out of line to say a little Kaddish for Carlin.
George Carlin: 'Religion is bullshit'
Michael Richards -- still not Jewish