As I have noted many times, George Carlin and Richard Pryor were instrumental in saving me from my redneck past.
As a frail, anxious, and highly insecure teen, I sat in my room alone listening to their comedy albums over and over—memorizing, yes, but listening very carefully because I wanted to understand what these men were saying.
These were revolutionary ideas to a redneck in South Carolina in the 1970s.
But as I have been listening, my recognition that Carlin and Pryor are foundational to my critical journey—especially as an educator—has been shaken by coming back to Carlin as I sit in my mid fifties.
Two routines—”White Harlem” and “Black Consciousness” on Occupation: Foole—have pushed me even further into the tension that exists in pop culture, a tension I have examined regarding Marvel Comics Captain America:
And as I have been contemplating these routines, mostly about race and the politics of race, the Orlando massacre has forced me to highlight what is possibly the most important joke from Carlin for me in terms of everything it represents about why I was drawn to his work, why it still speaks to me, and why I am deeply concerned about both of those.
Carlin was born a couple years before my father and we are separated significantly by regional and religious backgrounds; however, we still share some commonalities that distinguish us from younger generations.
During Carlin’s riff on his old neighborhood—Morningside Heights bounded by Columbia University and Harlem, and labeled as “White Harlem”—he offers his sharp observation about language, noting that in his time, the words “fag” and “queer” meant different things: A fag, Carlin explains, is someone who wouldn’t go down town with you to beat up queers.
The audience roars on the albums—and I am forced to contemplate the ugliness beneath the laughter.
Carlin as social critic and master wordsmith always laid the world before us—and in his routines, characters, and rants, I believed him to be critical of that world he portrayed.
But just as Captain America’s popularity reveals the very worst of mainstream U.S. bigotry (regardless of the creators’ and many writers’ and artists’ since intentions), I see beneath Carlin’s routine that the audience response is about laughing at marginalized people due to sex or sexual identification.
Carlin’s race riffs seem to be as problematic. White Harlem? Really?
Carlin also explains that if you put five really white guys with black dudes for a while, the white guys will start to talk, act, and walk as the black guys do.
I think Carlin genuinely valued his growing up close to and in black culture, but I am not sure he understood appropriation—and I am certain his audience did not.
When a Sport Illustrated article repeated praises a female Olympic swimmer by framing her as “like a man” (at the subtle and seemingly harmless-but-not end of the scale) and when fifty people are slaughtered for being in a gay nightclub just a year after nine people were slaughtered in a church for being black, I have to ask are these routines by Carlin funny? Were they ever funny?
And, for me this is important, how complicit is Carlin in perpetuating the horrors of homophobia, sexism, misogyny, and racism?
It seems a very privileged thing to sit in a theater and laugh at a man, self-proclaimed foole, telling jokes and using dirty words:
I memorized Carlin and Pryor—and I took their routines to school everyday as a shield against getting beat up, probably not against the threat of physical abuse but getting beat up socially and psychologically because I was skinny and insecure—I simply was not man enough, I feared.
In the late 1970s, I was entirely unaware that I was already shielded from those threats in most ways, being white, male, and heterosexual.
I was entirely unaware of how cruel and wrong this world was and is, even though Carlin and Pryor had opened the door for me to discover all that in the coming years of college.
My critical journey has been a tremendously privileged one—one in which I have been afforded the role of witness, informed by James Baldwin and many others who have been passengers.
Just as Kurt Vonnegut taught me the sacred value of kindness, Carlin and Pryor proved to me that words matter—but our critical journey must step beyond words even as we correct them.
In a year, we have placed at our feet the Charleston Massacre and the Orlando Massacre. I find little joy in listening to Carlin because I must ask: What are we going to fucking do?