I’m always inspired by people that have a way with words. Carlin was, in my opinion, one of the best wordsmiths, especially in his later years. Books aside, his stand-up routines were amazing to watch. He had a talent for wordplay and for pointing out the insanity that comes with modern life and being human.
A little background about him – He started in comedy as part of a duo back in 1959 with a guy named Jack Burns. They were moderately successful, recorded an album together, but after a couple of years they parted ways on amicable terms. Carlin took a few years to build up his skills, performing on several variety shows in the 1960s before recording his debut in 1967. From there, things took off. He embraced the counter-culture and cast off his button-down appearance. He caught the attention of Johnny Carson and became a regular guest and stand-in on The Tonight Show.
In 1972 he was arrested in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on an obscenity charge for his “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television” bit. The case was later thrown out, but it marked a victory for the First Amendment as the judge in the case found that, although the routine used obscene language, the First Amendment protected Carlin’s right to say them. Yea for common sense! This also garnered Carlin a lot of free publicity.
It was in the late 1970s that he started doing stand-up specials for HBO and eventually got into acting. It’s interesting to note that he later abandon his acting career. He, like many other celebrities, ended up in trouble with the Internal Revenue Service (the tax agency of the US for my international readers). He felt that the acting path was too uncertain, so he decided to focus on his stand-up comedy. He knew that was the thing he was good at and had a more consistent return that acting. He also said that he felt the tax issues made him a better comedian because he was forced to work and tour relentlessly to pay off his debt to the government.
But the thing I admire most about Carlin is his way with words. That man could weave beautiful tapestries with words. He could make you laugh, make you cringe, make you shake your head in disbelief, and make you emotional. He had a rapid-fire delivery that I found amazing. He could spout off with these seemingly never ending strings of dialogue without taking a breath or pausing to check notes.
The other thing I admired about his was his ability to tell the truth. I won’t claim to agree with everything he said – that would be foolish – but even if I disagreed with his take on something, I could respect his opinion. For example, he wasn’t a believer in voting. His opinion was that the winner was already decided and we the people merely had the illusion of choice. I can see where he was coming from and he wasn’t necessarily wrong, but I believe we should still cast a vote. It’s our right and our duty regardless of where you stand on the political spectrum.
He was also adept at pointing out the weirdness of being a human. For example, in “Stuff” he notes that the only reason we need a house is so we have a place to store our stuff. When you fly in a plane you can look down and see everyone’s pile of stuff. And when you leave your house you have to lock it up so no one steals your stuff. Because they always steal the good stuff. Basically, your house is a place to keep your stuff while you go out and buy more stuff. Makes sense.
But my favorite bit by Carlin was this: Consider how stupid the average person is, then realize that half the population is dumber than that.
As a writer, I can’t help buy admire someone who cherishes words, who works with words like an artisan, a master crafts-person. He could opine on a multitude of topics, from politics and religion to sex and death. Nothing was taboo. Nothing too scathing.
To me, Carlin was the definition of what an artist should strive to be: Fearless, challenging, influential, and relatable. He’s been gone now for over twelve years, but I still go back every so often and listen to his stand up and read his books. Even though he didn’t write fiction, I consider him to be a major influence on my own writing. I try to be like him, pushing boundaries and challenging my readers. And hopefully, inspiring them to think differently.