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George Carlin: Apocalyptic Comedy
George Carlin's When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?


by Charles Marowitz


Book Review



George Carlin, When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? Hyperion, October 2004, ISBN 1-40130-134-7, 320 pages, cloth, $23.95.


(Swans - February 14, 2005)   Since the demise of Lenny Bruce, there has been no shortage of fulsome foul-mouthed funnymen. Vegas and Cable TV have produced an endless stream of crass, four-letter and twelve-letter drolls who have plumbed the depths of our sexual mores and exposed the ickier nuances of our lavatorial habits. But Bruce has produced only one real heir in America, only one apocalyptic comedian, and that is George Carlin. Only Carlin has had both the temerity and incisiveness to construct odoriferous mud-pies out of our hypocrisy and immeasurable capacity for evil. Only he has managed to articulate disturbing moral insights using craggy and neological language. And wonder of wonders, he has done this in the mainstream media using aural and literary forms, through TV 'specials' and two best selling books. He has become the evil Nostradamus of our age, loosing prophesies, curses and spells that assail the nation's pretensions.

Carlin is the staunchest guardian of our language. He rails against words like "learning disabled." "Developmentally challenged" and "minimally exceptional" when often what we simply mean is 'dumb.' "Political correctness," writes Carlin, "cripples discourse, creates ugly language and is generally stupid." 'Older people,' he points out, 'has been banished from the lexicon in favor of "senior citizens" "golden agers" and "the elderly.'" Carlin bluntly suggests we just settle for the 'pre-dead.' "Homes for the aged, being just too blunt, has been replaced with "nursing homes," "retirement homes" or "long term facilities." Everywhere, he finds, carefully-constructed euphemisms replacing disagreeable truths and, before long, we are all talking gobbledygook which, in falsifying language, also perverts reality.

In a recent stage appearance, Carlin confessed that he titled his book When Will Jesus Bring The Pork Chops? in a direct attempt to offend as many people as possible on both sides of the religious divide. Significantly, the book jacket, which is a cartoon version of Da Vinci's "Last Supper," shows Carlin seated at the holy table, knife and fork poised for degustation. All semblance of religiosity is banished in one stroke but it tends to remind us that the painting, spiritual overtones notwithstanding, is essentially about twelve guys sitting down to a slap-up meal.

Like Orwell, Carlin exposes the treachery behind the bogus language originally invented by Madison Avenue and subsequently appropriated by Wall Street and now to be found in almost every field of commercial endeavor. He has shown us the 21st century version of 'newspeak,' the way in which language is used to varnish over what is essentially wood rot and how the blandest and jolliest catch phrases are there to inhibit rather than clarify thought. Picturesquely, he demonstrates the cunning way ad-men orchestrate the flow of our progesterone and the surge of our testosterone.

Like Swift, he offers us scandalous 'Modest Proposals' such as the obligatory termination of life when we all reach the age of 65, or obituaries which, rather than falsely revering deceased scumbags, enumerate the repellent evils of the deceased and the fact that we are all better off for their being shoveled six feet under. Like Hazlitt, he eschews euphemism and wraps his contempts in steel canisters embroidered with barbed wire, so that we must lacerate our hands in opening them. Like Mencken, his low opinion of the 'booboisie' feeds his disgust with the more appalling acts of 'the common man' and, again like Mencken, Carlin is an avid student of American vernacular -- especially those terms people use to cover their tracks or mislead their fellow men. The prelude to his stand-up act, printed here under the title of 'A Modern Man,' incorporates every drubbed cliché used by advertisers, sociologists and politicians now current on the Rialto and is a poetic work of art comparable to the best of Pope or Byron. Despite the roughhewn persona and foulmouthed argot, he is the most literary comedian at work in America today.

Lenny Bruce threw a glaring white light into the darkest corners of our most intimate relations. He forced us to confront our lusts and our cover-ups. But Bruce was non-intellectual; he didn't read and he couldn't conceptualize. Carlin's canvas is considerably broader and his sensibility covers more ground. He relates the little white lies of our daily discourse to the whopping great lies that underpin our national consciousness. Of all the performing arts, comedy is best suited to make those exponential leaps from the mundane to the sublunary.

The gist of most comedians' material is: How amusing we all are in our self-deceptions; Carlin's says: How craven and exploitative we are in our dealings with the outside world. Most comedians generate complicit laughter no matter how pointed the witticism; Carlin evokes rancorous, furious cachinnations that make us ashamed of our complacency and cowardice. Most comics dole out tepid Cokes, Carlin distributes swigs of carbolic acid. The spectacle of one man dispensing unbearable truths acts as a kind of cathartic agent for the rest of us, causing us to recognize and confront the extent of our own impurities. Is this a form of spirituality? A healing effect? I think it is. Does the fact that it comes enveloped in laughter dilute it? No, like any medicine, it tastes bitter but it does us good. I am not inferring that he is a 'hero of our times,' but if his message is absorbed by a comatose populace, he may yet be something of a savior -- which would certainly delight this lapsed Catholic and God-haunted atheist.

The America that Carlin limns for us -- both on stage and in print -- is one that makes our flesh crawl. Avoiding direct putdowns of recognizable political figures, he voices the disgust so many of us feel about a society which, in becoming progressively vulgarized, has coarsened social intercourse between us; a society in which we are asked to tolerate fraud and falsity as the very means of sustaining daily interaction; a society in which we are obliged to converse with recorded announcements instead of sentiment human beings because corporate bodies recoil from giving either aid or comfort, and in which being ripped off is so much part of our routine experience that we simply grade the degrees of fraud perpetrated on us rather than organize a concerted resistance to try to combat it. This picture of America is not so much the perceptions of a 'sick comic' as it is a society mired in a kind of congenital criminality. Not what you would call an obvious subject for comedy, and yet comedy naturally makes a bee line to what is camouflaged or irrational.

When will Jesus Bring the Pork-Chops? is a conglomeration of aperçus, sallies, quips, puns, ripostes, conceits, sermons, fables and abbreviated editorials. What they have in common is that they all cock a snook at clichés, respectability, traditional morality, dogma and hypocrisy. Carlin is well aware that the lure of his Dog-and-Pony Show is in giving offense and occasionally, one feels he 'gives it' not because he has actually been offended but because that is what his readers expect. Two thirds of the book is crackling and honestly iconoclastic, and one third, arbitrarily rude and merely peevish. But in the main, the Carlinian spirit shines through defining a weather-beaten, pony-tailed survivor, a defiant Hippie who has been through the mills of apostasy, heartbreak, drug-addiction and existential dread.

How many contemporary comedians carry that much baggage or swing those cases as gingerly as George Carlin?


· · · · · ·
George Carlin, When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? Hyperion, October 2004, ISBN 1-40130-134-7, 320 pages, cloth, $23.95.

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About the Author

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Published February 14, 2005