Tuesday, February 5, 2013

George Carlin, Comedian and Linguist

If I ever find myself uninspired and in need of some kind of pick-me-up, taking in five minutes of George Carlin (1937 - 2008) usually does the trick.  Like many YouTube adventures, what was supposed to be five minutes often becomes twenty or more, but Carlin is great in whatever dose.  He is easily my favourite comedian, and I wish I could have seen him live. 

Part of his allure was that his routines tended to revolve around contraversial topics.  His goal was to disturb the audience from their comfort zone, usually, though not always, stopping just short of being terribly offensive.  Then, once drawn into the subject, he tried to bring members of the audience to his side of the argument (though most members of his audience tended to agree with his views already).

When I think of his act, I usually think of his amazing facial expressions and his brutal honesty.  But if there is one feature that sets him apart from other comedians, it is his mastery of the english language.  It is surprising just how much of his material involves a curiosity with words and expressions.  It was his fascination with 'dirty words' that gave his stand-up career a major boost in the seventies (see Seven Dirty Words circa 1972).  Now is probably a good time to mention that the links in this article contain foul language, which I try to refrain from in the articles on this site.

I believe that George Carlin has nineteen sets of material captured on disc, but most of my favourite bits of his were written and performed during his later years.  If I was asked to recommend just one unforgettable clip, I think it would be this one from 2005, which can best be described as a lyrical assault (not bad for a guy in his late sixties).  Want another?  Try this one from 1990 about soft language.

My interest in Carlin extends beyond my desire to laugh and think; I am also inspired by his effectiveness as a communicator.  As a teacher, I find myself wishing to channel his crystal clear use of language (minus the profanity).

While teaching is a profession that combines aspects of many other professions, stand-up comedy and teaching share a surprising amount of common ground.  At the front of a group of people stands a person trying to engage them - trying to provoke thought; this is the aim of both a teacher and a comedian.  Both try to communicate ideas, and ask questions that may surprise the audience.

Comedians try to get in a good 'rhythm', and some nights are better than others.  Sometimes the audience is right there with him, and other times not.  I certainly feel this way about my classes.  There are few things that feel better than leading a particularly good lecture, lab, or demonstration - one they'll be telling their friends about.

Watch a George Carlin HBO special (there are so many to choose from), and you will see what it means to engage an audience.  You will see a man so articulate and poetic, so insightful, and so in tune with modern culture.  And, as you wipe away tears of laughter, you'll probably be wishing you could have taken a Humanities course taught by him. 

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