At the age of 71, comedian George Carlin died from a heart attack. During his career, what differentiated him from other comics and contributed to his success was his willingness to make remarks that some of his contemporaries found controversial.
As a nonconformist comedian in the late 1960s, he became a popular figure with the collegiate counterculture. His most famous routine was the “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” In that routine, Carlin identified some of the nonsensical elements of censorship and exposed “outrageous” profanities for what they were—merely words. He satirically warned against the dangerous practice of combining seemingly innocent syllables into deleterious words, saying that spewing the words “will infect your soul, curve your spine and keep the country from winning the war.”
It was fitting that his bit on censorship became the centerpiece of a landmark case regarding free speech. In 1973, Pacifica Radio station WBAI played the unedited routine. The Federal Communications Commission reprimanded the station for playing indecent material. The FCC’s decision to interfere with the broadcasting decisions of the station ultimately forced a Supreme Court ruling. In FCC vs. Pacifica, the courts decided in favor of the FCC and gave it the discretion to regulate against indecent material during times when children could presumably be listening.
Even after the counterculture began to fizzle away, Carlin continued to be an anti-establishment comedian. He galvanized other comedians to move away from the comedic tradition of jokes with punch lines toward more elaborately developed comedy involving social commentary. His comedy would often expose mundane political arguments by virtue of sharp sarcasm. A good example is his take on the inconsistencies of the conservative position on abortion.
“Pro-life conservatives are obsessed with the fetus from conception to nine months,” Carlin once said. “After that, they don’t want to know about you. They don’t want to hear from you. No nothing. No neo-natal care, no day care, no Head Start, no school lunch, no food stamps, no welfare, no nothing. If you’re pre-born, you’re fine. If you’re pre-school, you’re fucked.”
Through such commentaries, Carlin used comedy as a tool for social awakening. Unlike other forms of communication, humor, in the form of stand-up comedy, has the ability to traverse the outer boundaries of acceptable discourse in order to strip the most common beliefs, with impunity, of their ostentatious attire. Therefore, the exposure of the king without clothes can be passed off as the pursuit of entertainment, which placates everyone so they can go home happy. Even the offended party has little maneuverability because it would be ridiculed if it tried to battle a joke with serious discourse.
Comedy’s perks – or its VIP pass – are not shared by academic discourse, since people assume that humor is comedy’s central pursuit, while everything else is secondary. For that reason, most people are receptive to the messages laid out in comedy, but not to statements made by pundits on Fox or CNN. For example, a Catholic would be much less offended if he heard Carlin say, “I have as much authority as the Pope, I just don’t have as many people who believe it,” than if the same line was said at his university. It was for this same reason that Voltaire and Jonathan Swift were able to avoid the type of political harassment that would have been lobbed their way if they wrote with loftier, more academic styles.
The power of humor rests ultimately with the comedian. Some embrace the potential it provides, while others ignore it. Carlin espoused this view when he said, “I think it’s the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately.” Humor provides the keys for one to exit social conventions and become a nonconformist without actually leaving the room. It’s a concept known to all the great humorists.
Now that it’s out there, put it to use. Next time you find yourself in a predicament demanding the controversial utterance of truth, spice it up with humor. It will get you off the hook because, in the words of the playwright Oscar Wilde, “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”
Ali Saadi is a third-year biology major. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.