Was George Carlin really a prophet?


Seth Rogovoy, The Forward

It may seem wrong to talk about the late comedian George Carlin in the context of the prophetic tradition. One of Carlin’s perennial targets of scorn, after all, was institutionalized religion. Drawing on his personal experience growing up as a Roman Catholic who attended parochial schools, Carlin often turned his sharply honed wit toward what he saw as the built-in hypocrisies of religious thought and practices. He was nothing if not an iconoclast, smashing the idols of “organized religion.”

But Carlin was an equal-opportunity iconoclast: Religion was not his only target. Carlin distrusted any corporate body of humanity. As presented in the new, two-part documentary “George Carlin’s American Dream” — co-directed by Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio and streaming on HBO Max — Carlin claimed to love people as individuals. But as soon as they joined up in groups, even ensembles as small as duos, his bullshit detector went off. No good seemed to come from assemblages of people. In Carlin’s mind, once people began teaming up around a common cause, it was only a matter of time before they would descend into savagery. This, as much as anything, was the thematic thread running through his 50-year career as a standup comedian.

The great 20th century theologian and activist Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, “The prophet is not only a prophet. He is also poet, preacher, patriot, statesman, social critic, moralist.” That definition could serve well as a description of Carlin. He may not have been divinely inspired, but his mission — carried out primarily via the spoken word — was much the same as that of Amos, Isaiah and Jeremiah. “The prophets do not offer reflections about ideas in general,” continued Heschel. “Their words are onslaughts, scuttling illusions of false security, challenging evasions, calling faith to account, questioning prudence and impartiality.” To put it another way, Carlin was America’s “class clown,” to borrow the title of his landmark 1972 comedy album.

George Carlin was born in Manhattan to Irish parents who separated shortly after he was born; his father died when he was 8 years old. He remained close to his older brother, Patrick, throughout his lifetime. Patrick Carlin collaborated with his younger brother throughout the latter’s career and figures largely in the new documentary, having only just died earlier this year at 90. George grew up in Morningside Heights, where he attended Catholic grade school, before moving on to Cardinal Hayes High School in the Bronx, where a monsignor with great foresight once wrote on one of the many detention slips he issued Carlin, “He thinks he’s a comedian.”

George Carlin

After dropping out of high school, Carlin joined the Air Force in 1954 and trained as a radar technician. He received three court-martials and numerous disciplinary punishments in his short stint in the service, and received a general discharge in 1957. Having put most of his effort into his part-time work as a disk jockey at KJOE in Shreveport, Louisiana, during those years, he was now free to devote himself full time to radio.

Early on, Carlin’s ambition was to become a song-and-dance man like his idol, Danny Kaye (born David Daniel Kaminsky). But he got sidetracked by his sense of humor; in the late 1950s, he teamed up with Jack Burns, and the two began working as a comedy duo. They were mainstream comedians, wore suits and ties, played nightclubs and worked “clean.” Carlin’s shtick was his fast-paced delivery, pulling faces and making funny sounds. As a duo, they were pretty conventional; their act consisted largely of spoofing TV game shows, movies and the news. They were successful enough to have made an appearance on “The Tonight Show” when it was still being hosted by Jack Paar.

By the end of the 1950s, Carlin heard the brash young comedian Lenny Bruce on record. Referring to Bruce’s second comedy album, released in 1959, he once told an interviewer, “‘The Sick Humor of Lenny Bruce,’ we got that. And what it did for me was this; it let me know that there was a place to go, to reach for, in terms of honesty in self-expression.” As Jack Burns told Variety, “It was an epiphany for George. The comedy we were doing at the time wasn’t exactly groundbreaking, and George knew then that he wanted to go in a different direction.”