To understand why American sport is a lesser place with the death of comedian George Carlin last Sunday, it’s probably best to offer a sample of his work. Here then are the opening lines from the late 71-year-old’s last, great stand-up tour.
“I’d like to begin by saying ‘F**k Lance Armstrong.’ F**k 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, ‘F**k Tiger Woods, too’. There’s another jackoff 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? Being told who you outta be looking up to; I’ll choose my own heroes thank you very much!”
There are iconoclasts and then there was Carlin. In a country where most local libraries won’t stock any book questioning the veracity of Armstrong’s achievements and Woods exists in a place beyond criticism, it was at least refreshing to hear this cranky old-timer question the received wisdom on the most revered pair of contemporary American athletes. Of course, he made his career questioning the orthodoxy of everything and, along the way, also managed to figure in a US Supreme Court judgment.
In 1972, one of his 23 albums featured a routine called ‘The Seven Dirty Words You Can Never Say on Television’. Arrested on obscenity charges for reprising it during a performance in Wisconsin, the comic ran into more trouble when a New York radio station played a clip that listeners found offensive. The whole brouhaha culminated in the highest court in the land deciding in 1978 that the government had the right to regulate language on radio and television.
The future comedian and lightning rod for free speech advocates was raised in an Irish-Catholic family in the Bronx. He later eschewed religion and all faiths became legitimate targets for his savage wit. Even his detractors had to admit he treated the various deities with just the same irreverence afforded every other topic under the sun. Sport offered fecund ground too.
“Swimming isn’t a sport,” said Carlin. “Swimming is a way to keep from drowning. That’s just common sense. Sailing isn’t a sport. Sailing is a way to get somewhere. Riding the bus isn’t a sport, why the f**k should sailing be a sport?”
Even if his suggestion that all golf courses should be transformed into housing for the homeless was a tad extreme, the most devout amateur player can possibly see a grain of truth in his more considered assessment of their beloved hobby.
“Golf is a game that might possibly be fun if it could be played alone. But it’s the vacuous, striving, superficial male-bonding joiners one has to associate with that makes it such a repulsive pastime.”
His was not the comedy of the pithy one-liner or the elaborate gag. Often times, it was more about being thought-provoking than trying to be downright funny. No matter how out there his arguments, they always seemed strangely commonsensical and shot through with a desire to ridicule the pompous. Witness his simplistic and inevitably controversial take on steroids.
“The body is nothing more than one more piece of equipment, anyway. So why not improve it with new technology? Athletes use weights, why shouldn’t they use chemicals? Consider the Greek Pheidippides, a professional runner who, in 490 BC, ran from Athens to Sparta and back to ask the Spartans for help against the Persians in an upcoming battle that threatened Athens. Don’t you think his generals would have been happy to give him amphetamines if they had been available? And a nice pair of New Balance high-performance running shoes while they were at it? Grow up, purists. The body is not a sacred vessel, it’s a tool.”
It wasn’t all negative and caustic. There were times Carlin could wax poetic too. His curt dismissals of every code from soccer to ice hockey were put in some context by his enduring love of baseball. Perhaps his most famous monologue beyond “The seven dirty words” consisted of a lengthy dissertation on the difference between it and American football.
“Baseball is a 19th-century pastoral game. Football is a 20th-century technological struggle. Baseball is played on a diamond, in a park. The baseball park! Football is played on a gridiron, in a stadium, sometimes called Soldier Field or War Memorial Stadium. Baseball begins in the spring, the season of new life. Football begins in the fall (autumn), when everything’s dying. In football you wear a helmet. In baseball you wear a cap. Football is concerned with downs – what down is it? Baseball is concerned with ups – who’s up?
“In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defence by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy’s defensive line. In baseball the object is to go home! And to be safe! – I hope I’ll be safe at home!”
An epitaph if ever there was one.
(published in the Sunday Tribune, June, 2008)