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Friday, October 11, 2019

Words, Words

From the Vault Dept.: What a delight it was, 30 years ago, to see a George Carlin performance. He gave us a sense of hope that the lunacy of politics wouldn’t kill us, a hope I no longer enjoy. Here’s my Schenectady Gazette review of that long-ago show.


GEORGE CARLIN IS FASCINATED BY WORDS. We know that from his notorious “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television” routine, the commercial recording of which has gotten several radio stations in FCC trouble.

George Carlin
Carlin gave us an update Saturday night at Proctor’s Theatre, regaling a full house with his observations on language and people – but mostly language.

“Americans deal with reality by inventing a soft language to describe it,” he said, and traced the evolution of what was known during World War I as “shell shock” through increasingly detached terms like “battle fatigue,” “operational exhaustion” and, most recently, “post-traumatic stress disorder,” with eight syllables “and a hyphen!”

Although the tradition of shock as comedy has been with us for hundreds of years, Carlin’s barbs are as current as ever. It’s not the shock, sex-oriented comedy of Eddie Murphy; it’s more in line with the Lenny Bruce tradition.

And it’s thanks to Bruce and Carlin that this kind of comedy is seen in clubs and on stage – and on cable television specials, such as the HBO program Carlin told us he’s preparing to tape.

Hence the current tour. Carlin paced the stage, microphone in hand, follow spot leaping to follow, a thin, scraggly guy in a T-shirt with “Da Bronx” printed on it.

The crowd whooped its greeting, and he delighted them with an opening salvo of wonderfully rude political speculation. Then he got down to business. “I want to warn you about the language in this show,” he said, “and some of the things you won’t hear.” He loves those lists of words, and what followed was a cornucopia of techno-babble. “Nothing tonight will im-pact when it’s meant to affect. You won’t get in-put from me (pause) and I won’t expect any feed-back.”

He has a way of drawing out the offending syllables as if tasting a delicious but toxic brew.

Carlin is old enough to be granddad to much of the audience, but his message is obviously very current. And sneakily educational, too. There were long stretches of silence as people merely listened to Carlin’s observations on the hypocrisy of blue-nosed attitudes toward “unacceptable” language.

“Where do these words come from?” he asked, referring to several pages of phrases describing masturbation. “We act as if they arrived on a special train from hell, but the truth is that people made ‘em up! Made ‘em up and then decided not to use them!”

Another beef: “There are groups that want to control what you say. And they want to control what you think. We think in language, so that’s what they try to control.” Groups with particular axes to grind annoy him if they’re too easily offended: “I like to piss off any group that takes itself too seriously,” he surprised nobody by admitting.

While much of the material was familiar to Carlin die-hards, the presentation was a high-energy event. It’s almost as much fun to imagine the machinations of his mind as it is to hear what he has to say – and watch the way he says it.

He touched on other familiar matters, too: “Little moments that seem to last forever” segued into a portrait of the succession of dogs he’s owned, which somehow went into a discussion of cancer, “and some people don’t like you to talk about it.”

Being a journeyman entertainer, Carlin put together a 90-minute set that was excellently paced to allow us to recover from one assault before being surprised by the next.

He was helped by comedian Dennis Blair, who opened for him. Blair works with a guitar and an impressive range of vocal stylings. His specialty is quick delivery of barbs and exaggerations based on the icons of popular entertainment, and thus he was able to quickly establish a rapport with the crowd.

– Schenectady Daily Gazette, 31 October 1989

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