There’s Bozos and There’s Bozos

George Carlin

I have to begin this entry by confessing that, when I heard last week of George Carlin’s earthly demise, I reacted to the news with a feeling of subdued satisfaction and relief, one that was very similar to the feeling of watching the trash collectors drive away from the house after a weekend of cleaning. There was a mild sense of losing something familiar, but more a sense of being done with that which finally had to go.

Now, I realize that was not at all a charitable reaction, nor do I offer any justification for it. I didn’t know George Carlin, and I mostly paid very little attention to him while he was living. But there was a time when I thought he was funny, and there was also a time – an earlier time – when I thought he was more than that.

At one time, Carlin represented to me a kind of secret knowledge –  even a kind of blessed existence – that operated on the other side of a divide that I was being restrained from crossing by the sorry circumstances of my life (that is to say, by my youth). He was a kind of symbol of what was possible, if only I could be freed from the shackles that kept me bound to the boredom of my genteel, supervised, life. For genteel, he surely was not.

I remember in particular being fascinated by the existence of his famous routine on the seven words you could never say on television. I’m not sure I ever heard the routine – perhaps I did, but I can’t remember. What I remember is wanting to hear it.

When it was released in 1972, I was in 6th or 7th grade, and undoubtedly using all of Carlin’s favorite words in common speech with my peers (my own life actually being genteel in theory only), so there was no unknown pleasure waiting to be experienced in the knowledge of the routine’s content, I only wanted to experience the hearing of it. Knowing which words they were was not enough, I wanted to hear them said. Not by my friends, either – that might have had a certain charm, but it was not the real deal.

What I wanted to experience, I know now, was sheer mockery of civility. I wanted to experience the contempt for goodness that this piece trafficked in and pivoted on – in much the same spirit, I realize now, that other boys liked to watch frogs cruelly and contemptuously destroyed by firecrackers. I wanted to cheer on the defilement of purity.

I could be profane all by myself – I didn’t need Carlin. What made the vicarious insolence of indulging in a sophomoric rant like his seem more like “the real deal” than even my own private insolence was precisely the participation factor. In it, I could be a part of something much larger than myself, something of a social movement. It’s actually a perversion of liturgy – a way for me to belong; to be an insider in something that provided a kind of meaning to life.

And this is very ironic, because the mockery and insolence came off as a kind of liberation – a liberation from socially imposed expectations, which would purchase the freedom of independence. But I see now that it can only free one from the expectations of civility. Once across the chasm and into the promised land of irreverence, social expectations don’t disappear, they simply change, and mockery becomes the only acceptable currency, the only real proof of virility. It turns out to be not freedom from expectations at all, but merely an exchange of one master for another: exchanging the good, the true, and the beautiful for the cruel, the cynical, and the profane.

When something sacred is violated, we experience a kind of revulsion that is all too easily distorted into a titillating thrill. The perverse pleasure we take out of the debasement of the good is a masquerade that hides our inability to accept the cross of suffering with God for the sake of overcoming sin. First we feel sick to the stomach, and we get fearful and angry, but if we do not have the character to persevere and overcome, we will end up laughing. Such is the state of so much of what passes for contemporary comedy.

I’d intended to let Carlin’s passing pass without remark – in part because I felt no urge to expose the callousness of my own sense of good riddance – until I was confronted with my very contrasting response to the news of the death yesterday of Larry Harmon, a man I’d never even heard of, but who was largely responsible for the phenomenon called Bozo the Clown.

Frank Avruch as Boston\'s version of Bozo the Clown

I don’t recall much in particular about Bozo. I can picture the face, though it’s almost conflated a bit with Ronald McDonald in my memory. What’s important for my purposes is that the comedic entertainment that Bozo represented was of such a different character than Carlin’s. When I read of Harmon’s demise, I thought “there goes someone whose life work brought delight and wonder into the lives of so many children.” What a contrast to Carlin, whose life work peddled contempt and cynicism to the hearts of so many of those anxious to avoid being contaminated by the sweetness of childhood. Carlin is truly the one of these two contemporaries who deserves the title Bozo.

The NY Times obituary for Carlin says that he himself defended his particularly obnoxious recent “material” by claiming that “his comedy had always been driven by an intolerance for the shortcomings of humanity and society.” Of that, I have no doubt. But if society is going to avoid disintegrating into a fratricidal jungle, we need turn back from this “new way” of unmitigated contempt advanced by bozos like Carlin. Communities, like families, survive, in no small part, on the willingness of their members to overlook each other’s shortcomings. What we should be intolerant of is not human foibles, but the willful and deliberate corruption of the human spirit.

The challenge, for me, is that my community is not only full of people like Larry Harmon, who find a way to put their talents to work in ways that contribute in somehow to the common good, but also of bozos who try their best to tear down the good: to degrade, to demean, to belittle, to mock, to despoil. It’s a challenge to me because such people are a temptation to me to stoop to their level. I realize that Carlin can win the battle for my spirit by either getting me to laugh at his depravity, or by getting me to treat him as he treated others. I fear that the incivility and vulgarity that has come to so permeate my society over my lifetime has become barely recognizable in its ubiquity.

And I fear I remain a long way from being freed from the servility of the caustic inhumanity that makes up the faux-liberated modernism promoted by Carlin, if news of his death can only provide me a sense of satisfaction and an opportunity to call him a bozo. Lord, have mercy on all of us.