George Carlin used to tell the story of the night that, as a young comic, he jumped into Lenny Bruce’s limo and exclaimed, “I want to be just like you.” Lenny was at the height of his fame at the time, and also at the height of his infamy, with simultaneous pornography trials going on in New York and San Francisco. Lenny, for reasons known only to himself, answered with a quote that turned out to be a Polish proverb. “If you tell the truth, kid, run like hell.”
Carlin sort of told the truth. He softened it, warmed it over and gave it back like milk at bedtime. He didn’t lie but he didn’t exactly shove it in our faces, either. So he never had to run. He made a lot of money instead.
I’m not trying to badmouth the guy, just see him in perspective without the golden aura of nostalgia. The truth is that he was no Lenny Bruce, cutting to heart of hypocrisy and laying it bare, and certainly he was no Richard Pryor, fearless with both his mouth and his life onstage. He had elements of each but they were tightly controlled. He never attacked religion the way Lenny did, although he did his best to give it a hard time, harrying it like a wasp at a church picnic. He never laid his private life bare in front of an audience or made humor from his relationships or loves – or failures – the way Pryor did, although the characters he created did sometimes have the same bright punch of recognition. He didn’t have the kind of courage a comic needs to go all the way, either in social commentary or personal risk. Or maybe he didn’t have that kind of desperation.
He tended to stay safe. His famous “7 words” bit was developed in front of college audiences in the 60’s who were thrilled with a new freedom, not in night clubs before successful businessmen raised on Burlesque and weaned on Milton Berle, who would have been angry, who would have called the police. I’m not saying he should have, I’m only saying he didn’t.
He guarded his career and the risks he took were carefully calculated to preserve it while at the same time he could appear to be going out on a limb. Lenny told audiences full of Catholics that they had invested their faith in an institution riddled with hypocrisy, faithlessness, and corruption. Carlin told audiences full of apostates that they were right. The NYT’s Charles McGrath notes the same characteristic, even if he means to applaud it.
Like all the great comics, Mr. Carlin had a gift for saying — and thinking — things that other people wouldn’t or couldn’t. He wasn’t as threatening as Bruce or Pryor. Especially in his later years, when, mostly bald but with a white beard and just a hint of a ponytail in back, he would bounce onstage in a black sweater, black pants and sneakers, his persona was warmer, cranky rather than angry. He was like your outrageous beatnik uncle.
There was always something unthreatening about Carlin. Even when his material wanted to skewer, his manner wanted to ingratiate. Lenny shared the truth with you because he wanted you to get the Great Cosmic Joke. Carlin shared his comedy because he wanted you to like him. There is a fundamental difference between Hard and Soft Truth that is personified in each man: Hard Truths don’t let you off the hook, don’t let you duck, don’t let you make excuses for not facing them. Soft Truth gives you a way to feel superior without having to do anything about it, least of all change your own attitude. Hard Truth challenges you, Soft Truth avoids challenges and gravitates toward comfort in the presence of pain. “It’s not my fault.” The only thing soft about Lenny’s truth was the humor he found in it. The only thing hard about Carlin’s humor was the language he used yo express it.
In a way that difference is an expression of what happened to society at the same time. In the 60’s we were ready to face Hard Truth, ready to do something even if we weren’t quite sure what it was we were supposed to do. Then they killed Jack and Bobby and Martin within a single 5-yr span, thousands of bodies were coming back from Nam, most of them friends and neighbors and jesus god family, and Nixon was the most popular president in history. We had torn society apart and for what? To hand it to wanna-be dictators? Carlin was there before, during, and after. He saw the change, then the turnaround, and his humor followed it. He had an ear for small discrepancies that played to the new desire not to mess with anything big, and a love of playing with language that college-educated if not college aged audiences could relate to. Lenny wanted us to stop the war. Carlin wanted us to make fun of it. Lenny died. Carlin lived.
That is the story of my generation. The motivating forces of my time were taken early and replaced by much softer versions with blurred edges who stepped carefully, suddenly aware that the risks they ran were not, after all, illusions. The Real Thing was replaced by its shadow, which was OK with us because by then we were running from the glare of the spotlight ourselves. By 1970 Lenny would probably have been doing routines about us selling out. Carlin did “7 words”. Without the Hard Truth staring us in our glassy eyes, we settled into the soft recliner of the Me Generation, turning our attention to making the money we once spurned and spurning the activism to which we had once pledged our lives.
Carlin was the perfect comic for us. He fed and confirmed our prejudices without challenging our assumptions. He was safe in a way Lenny never could have been. He was as much as we could absorb, as much as we wanted to absorb, the best we could get, the best we could stand to get. And he played his role to the hilt.