Toward the end of his life, Kurt Vonnegut mostly abandoned his life as a novelist, publishing instead political rants against George W. Bush and Republicans for In These Times. Some of those essays formed A Man Without a Country in 2005.
On April 11, 2007, Vonnegut died, and then a few months past a year later, George Carlin also died. Vonnegut (84), chain-smoking aside, lived a full 13 years longer than Carlin (71), who had his struggles with recreational drugs and heart disease.
Carlin and Vonnegut profoundly shaped me, Carlin’s comedy albums in the 1970s and Vonnegut’s impressive body of novels and essays throughout my adulthood. Both men as well ultimately became, as Carlin phrases, “old farts”:
Playing off Carlin’s joke that “farts are shit without the mess,” I must here acknowledge that both of these influential men were very weak versions of themselves in the final years—and they also began to fail significantly the brilliance they offered in the prime of their careers.
Two experiences with Carlin lately have nudged me to account for my affection for him and Vonnegut.
First, a much younger friend recently watched some Carlin stand up on YouTube; the response was, “He’s really problematic.” As I watched, these were much later clips, and I found them underwhelming, mostly angry-old-man rants that weren’t very thoughtful and held little evidence of the comedian I worshipped and memorized after listening to his albums over and over in my bedroom as a teenager.
Carlin’s Class Clown and Occupation: Foole were so smart and incisive, such powerful works of language, I am certain these are some of the most solid foundations of how I came to be a reader, writer, and teacher.
When I think of Carlin, I recall his slipping into songs and skits that I still can do by heart: Class Clown, Muhammad Ali—America the Beautiful, Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television. But I am in retrospect also drawn to his noting that he attended a John Dewey progressive Catholic school, where he terrorized the nuns.
Carlin and Vonnegut spoke to me through their irreverence, especially toward religion, and, of course, their deft use of language and dark humor; I also embraced the profanity.
But, second, after the sobering experience of watching Carlin with a friend, I saw these Tweets by Ja’han Jones:
Is George Carlin the best conservative comedian ever? 🤔
— Ja’han Jones (@_Jahan) March 17, 2019
The crux of his comedy—that everyone sucks and that’s why the world sucks—actually does little to question why inequality exists. I’ve yet to hear him talk about race or gender, for example.
— Ja’han Jones (@_Jahan) March 17, 2019
Something really hard for me to confront happened to Carlin between his three-album run in the 1970s and his posthumously released I Kinda Like It When a Lotta People Die. The skit and material for this were shelved by Carlin because of 9/11 and then Katrina.
That collection is representative of the later Carlin, the ranting that seems, as Jones questions, little more than conservative “get off my lawn” material; this Carlin seems as annoying as being crop-dusted by a stranger while trying to shop—offensive for offensive’s sake.
As a 2008 routine shows, unlike his brilliant examination of profanity from his early career, Carlin begins simply to swear a lot:
I’d like to begin by saying fuck Lance Armstrong. Fuck him and his balls and his bicycles and his steroids and his yellow shirts and the dumb, empty expression on his face. I’m tired of that asshole. And while you’re at it fuck Tiger Woods, too. There’s another jack-off I can do without. I’m tired of being told who to admire in this country. Aren’t you sick of being told who your heroes ought to be? You know? Being told who you ought to be looking up to. I’ll choose my own heroes, thank you very much. And fuck Dr. Phil, too. Dr. Phil said I should express my emotions, so that’s what I’m doing. Now, since the last time I rolled through these parts, and I do roll through with some frequency. I’m a little bit like herpes. I keep coming back. But since the last time, I might have seen some of you folks I have had my 70th birthday.
Carlin, the old fart.
I was in New Orleans the spring before Katrina hit, the natural disaster that, like 9/11, gave Carlin pause about his angry-old-man wish for a lot of deaths. My friend and I were tired, and back in our hotel room, I flipped through the cable channels, falling on Carlin in a 1992 interview by Charlie Rose.
Carlin explained “I don’t vote and I really don’t,” once again nudging into my life and steering how I navigated the world.
By 1996, again on Rose, Carlin is a more fully formed “old fart” from the hints of libertarianism in 1992 (“between you and me, I do not consent to be governed”), the detached observer without hope:
There’s a little bit of a sick part in this too, I [root] for the big comic, for the big asteroid to come and make things right….To get us back where we were before the first one came and knocked out these dinosaurs and…I’m routing for that big one to come right through that hole in the ozone layer because I want to see it on CNN. See, I’m here for the entertainment, Charlie. I am. People, philosophers say, “Why are we here?” I know why I’m here, for the…show. Bring it on, I want to see the circus.
Well, we’ve all seen a lot of comedians who seem to have a political bent in their work, and always implicit in the work is some positive outcome. That this is all going to work, if only we do this, if only we pass that bill, if we only elect him, if only we do that. It’s not true, it’s circling drain time for humans. I believe this, I honestly believe this, not just as a comedian, “He thinks that he has to say that,” I believe it, and when you say to yourself, “I don’t care what happens,” it just gives you a broader perspective for the art. For the words to emerge. To not care, that’s what happened in that ’92 show, that’s why I could say the planet is fine the people are (fart sound). Because the planet will outlast us, it will be here, and it will be fine.
At 81, Vonnegut wrote in “Cold Turkey”:
Many years ago, I was so innocent I still considered it possible that we could become the humane and reasonable America so many members of my generation used to dream of. We dreamed of such an America during the Great Depression, when there were no jobs. And then we fought and often died for that dream during the Second World War, when there was no peace.
But I know now that there is not a chance in hell of America’s becoming humane and reasonable. Because power corrupts us, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Human beings are chimpanzees who get crazy drunk on power. By saying that our leaders are power-drunk chimpanzees, am I in danger of wrecking the morale of our soldiers fighting and dying in the Middle East? Their morale, like so many bodies, is already shot to pieces. They are being treated, as I never was, like toys a rich kid got for Christmas.
Ultimately, with Vonnegut and Carlin, I recognize their counter-cultural roots in the 1960s and 1970s (when both men really hit) that shift from skepticism to cynicism as they approached death—humanity is doomed because we are self-defeating and at war with each other and Nature.
What am I to do with the ideal, maybe even idealized, Carlin and Vonnegut who shaped me against the “old farts” they became?
I am not sure, really, but I am left with one more similarity between the two men, a few lines late in Vonnegut’s claimed last novel, Timequake, “Listen: We are here on Earth to fart around. Don’t let anybody tell you any different!”