George Carlin: An Irish Mensch

After one of George's hilarious shows, we talked about my theories on the meaning of vulgar language. I was struck by what a calm, deep-thinking person he was off-stage.
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News of the death of George Carlin has left my eyes wet and reddened. Only last Wednesday, I awoke to the happy news on the front page of the Style section in the Washington Post that George had been named by the Kennedy Center as the winner of the Mark Twain Prize for lifetime achievement in humor. I immediately sent him a congratulatory e-mail in which I said, "No one deserves this award more than you. You're a credit to your race!"

It was my weak attempt to use humor with the greatest humorist of our time. George Carlin was not only one of the funniest comedians in American history; he was also a deep thinker who made very penetrating comments on the social injustice that persists all around us.

I came to know George Carlin only in 2001, when he read my book, Eve's Seed: Biology, the Sexes, and the Course of History (McGraw-Hill) and wrote to me to say how much he liked it. He was especially taken with my analysis of the deep, misogynistic meaning of most vulgar language.

In the book, I had quoted from his 1992 HBO special dealing with the first Persian Gulf War. "War," Carlin declared in a routine overflowing with his trademark obscenities, "is a whole lot of men standing out in a field waving their pricks at one another. Men are insecure about the size of their dicks, and so they have to kill one another over the idea."

"Men are terrified that their pricks are inadequate," George went on, "and so they have to compete with one another to feel better about themselves. And, since war is the ultimate competition, basically men are killing each other in order to improve their self-esteem. You don't have to be a historian or political scientist to see the 'bigger dick foreign policy theory' at

I thought Carlin was right about male insecurity being the source of war and many other troubles throughout history, but I argued that the problem went beyond what he had described. We had interesting conversations on the subject, and he invited me to a couple of his shows.

I don't know whether I have ever laughed as hard and as long as I did at the first Carlin gig I attended, at the Comedy Store in Los Angeles. After the show, we talked more about my theories on the meaning of vulgar language. I was struck by what a calm, deep-thinking person George was off-stage.

George Carlin was a thinking person's comic. Suddenly, in the midst of listening to his nonstop vulgarity, one would realize that he was making a very serious point about society, war, and human failings.

George's comment on Eve's Seed was an example both of his generous nature and of the intellectuality that he cloaked in his humor: "This impressive book . . . will provide [an] invaluable source of inspiration . . . regarding the huge issue of male/female roles and their impact on us. It's about time someone put men in their proper place: on the bottom."

When I had a new book scheduled to come out this year, Grand Theft Jesus: The Hijacking of Religion in America, George again came through with his trademark generosity and humor by providing this blurb: "If Robert McElvaine had been Jesus' lawyer, Pontius Pilate would have released him on his own recognizance."

George, you misunderstood the Mark Twain Prize. Receiving a lifetime achievement award doesn't mean your life is at an end!

I closed my message to George last week with the following words, which now, much to my sorrow, must be my epitaph for this wonderful man: "You have enriched the life of the nation and the world--and that's no joke."

Rest in the peace you tried to promote, George Carlin. The world is definitely a better place because of the time you spent in it.

Robert S. McElvaine is Elizabeth Chisholm Professor of Arts & Letters at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi. His latest book is Grand Theft Jesus: The Hijacking of Religion in America (Crown).

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