I may receive some flak for saying this, but I don’t necessarily think George Carlin was one of the funniest comedians the world has ever seen. I do, however, think that he may have been one of the most important.
The way he delved into words — both vulgar and otherwise — was unmatched. He went beyond mere observational humor and seriously examined the way we use words, what we mean by them, what they mean, and the gap in between. Where many comedians use profanity as filler when they have nothing funny to say, Carlin examined the very nature of profanity, and language itself. If I could put three people in a room with me to discuss the nature of language (presuming resurrection and Babel Fish insta-translation was available), they would probably be Wittgenstein, Carlin, and some other guy*. There’s no denying that more than any other big-name comedian, George Carlin took great pains to unpack the language we use every day.
And he didn’t just do it as shtick, to mock a phrase like “Nothing’s wrong, do whatever you think is right,” when coming from a wife or girlfriend. He really dove into each word in much more depth than anyone who has come before, or since. There are other comedians who have picked a particular word to unpack (Chris Rock with “nigger”, or Jeff Foxworthy with “redneck”), but George Carlin covered a wide range of words while still giving each one its due. And neither Rock nor Foxworthy ever got into the word itself in the way that Carlin did, discussing things like soft sounds of letters like F, and harsh sounds of phonemes like CK. George Carlin wasn’t just a comedian, he was a linguist.
Anyway, I mention him in this week’s limerick on BBspot.
*Hard to choose that third guy. I considered various people from Douglas Adams to Taylor Mali, but couldn’t quite find the right third person. Although really, either of those two would do just fine.