Death of a Comedian

Atheists, particularly in the United States, have lost an engaging and effective spokesman today in George Carlin. CNN’s eulogy (linked) does not mention Carlin’s personal non-belief, which is fine; Carlin was a remarkable entertainer for a variety of other reasons. But he skewered religion with as much zeal as he did politicians, and he did it with the same acerbic and vulgar wit directed at other targets (warning — video contains lots of profanity):

I can just see religious apologists starting to say, “Well, sure, when you put it that way…” Yes, do put it that way! The challenge an apologist should meet is to point out what is unfair or inaccurate about what Carlin said, to demonstrate that the routine was based on something inaccurate. I can do that for the apologist — God doesn’t need money; rather, a church does. But that concedes, of course, you’ve demonstrated that the church is not God, and also shown that God does not provide for the church’s material needs which is why people need to do that in God’s place, which in turn implies that the church does not enjoy God’s blessing for some reason.

I can also see an objection to Carlin’s comedy because it contains so much profanity and some people just don’t care to hear language like that. That’s a valid criticism. Was Carlin’s brand of comedy offensive to some? Oh, yes. That’s part of the reason why he did it the way he did. Was it intentionally crass and crude? Oh, yes. That gets your attention. But yes, I agree that he probably could have cut out more than half the “f-bombs” and gotten the same result. (His use of the word “bullshit,” though, does not seem to have an adequate substitute, as least not one that packs the same emotional punch.)

More important than the profanity, though, the real power of Carlin’s routine comes not from the outrageousness of the comedian’s language but rather from the basic truth of the subject. The comedian, like the court jesters of old, gets license to point out obvious facts that social convention prevents others from saying.

Stand-up comedy must be the most difficult form of entertainment imaginable. You rarely get help from anyone else. Few, if any, props to assist with your message. No images, no noises, nothing. Just a microphone, and dude, it’s all you. Only your words, your delivery, your personality. The audience is live, and generally it’s skeptical. If the material isn’t good, they’ll boo your ass and heckle you. A friend of mine did this for a few years and he put an immense amount of work into putting together a five-minute routine. That’s also not something the audience sees; it’s supposed to flow and look effortless, like the comedian is just up there talking. Carlin did that really well; he looked casual and relaxed and comfortable as he threw grenades all over the stage. Carlin was a huge success in a demanding vocation. Now he’s gone, but thanks to the magic of modern recording technology, we’ll have his words with us.

Burt Likko

Pseudonymous Portlander. Homebrewer. Atheist. Recovering litigator. Recovering Republican. Recovering Catholic. Recovering divorcé. Recovering Former Editor-in-Chief of Ordinary Times. House Likko's Words: Scite Verum. Colite Iusticia. Vivere Con Gaudium.

One Comment

  1. well, I don’t know if he was a spokesman for atheism or not. It seems to me that he liked to poke fun at the ‘unknown’ that religeon proposes. Even us religeous people do that to ourselves.I immensly enjoyed his stuff. He had a way to put things that took you out of balance. That’s what jokes do; and he was really good at his trade.I’ll miss him too. Just like I miss RodneyD

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