I was in college when my younger brother introduced me to George Carlin. My brother was in junior high and somehow--likely unbeknownst to our parents--he'd seen Carlin's ribbons spiel. He memorized it and waited for a moment when the parental units were out of ear shot to repeat the joke:
"And haven't we gone a little overboard with these colored ribbons for different causes? Every cause has its own colored ribbon now, red for AIDS, blue for child abuse, pink for breast cancer, green for the rain forest, purple for urban violence. I got a brown one, know what it means? Eat shit mother fucker!"
I thought it was so funny I forced him to repeat it for my parents, who, because my brother was the youngest kid and the comedian of the family, laughed rather than scolding him. It helped that my dad was a Carlin fan, too.
Generally I'm not moved in the slightest by the passing of a celebrity. It's an emotional shrug I think Carlin himself would publicly make in the middle of a cynical routine poking fun at the absurdities of American life. But I couldn't let the 71-year-old comedian's passing go without comment.
His knack for calling it like it he saw it--especially when the truth hurt--set him apart from his peers more than 30 years ago. From war to globalization to the hypocrisies of the American dream, nothing was off limits to Carlin--even if it meant getting arrested. He pushed the boundaries of his craft, eliciting a laugh at his audience's expense while simultaneously insulting them, their beliefs and their lifestyles.
Sure his use of language was often crass and obscene. But for the better part of a decade, I've held the belief that bad words don't exist. (Last weekend, I explained the concept to my partner's 10-year-old son, whose mother will likely not appreciate my lesson.) Carlin was of a similar opinion. I think, at its core, the idea is to let go of ridiculous notions handed down to you by generations of stodgy social limitations that fall back on nothing other than the excuse "because that's the way it is."
I demonstrated my point last weekend by asking the 10-year-old which one of two words was a "bad" word in French: "mere" or "merde"?
One means mother, the other shit, and to the untrained ear, the two sound nearly identical in pronunciation. My point to him was that once you remove all of your learned prejudices, words are all on equal footing. It's an idea I think extends far beyond language. Strive to unlearn that which you didn't discover on your own; see the world through your own eyes, rather than through the lens provided you by those "who said so."
That's a bunch of heady talk for a silly blog and much of it is only obliquely related to Carlin. As far as the comedian is concerned, I'll find a brown ribbon and like Carlin, mine will represent something offensive and crude on appearance ("eat shit motherfucker") while delivering up a walloping backhand of irony to anyone really listening.