While tributes keep pouring in for George Carlin — including two particularly sweet ones: he’s still going to be awarded the Mark Twain prize, announced just last week, and HBO2 is going to play 11 of his 14 comedy specials Wednesday and Thursday night — there’s one thing that rankles me about many of the obituaries and eulogies: the references to Carlin as a “counterculture” comic. (See here, here, here, and here, among others.) This is exactly the sort of phrasing that would have set off Carlin’s own highly sensitive BS detector. First, the word’s association with the hippie era implies that Carlin and the battles he fought are safely relegated to the distant past, that he was not an artist who was still relevant and vital, and that the issues he raised years ago weren’t still in play today. Second, the word implies that he was some kind of fringe radical standing outside the mainstream. A look at the highlights of his career shows that to be false. He appeared numerous times on Ed Sullivan’s and Johnny Carson’s shows, he won four Grammys, he wrote several best-sellers, he did children’s TV and a voice role in a Pixar blockbuster cartoon, he played Vegas as recently as last week, and he was one of America’s most popular comics for 40 years. He wasn’t the counterculture; he was the culture.
Relegating Carlin to the counterculture is the sort of divisive misdirection Carlin often railed at; he was more interested in the common experiences that united us. Which is why I’ll let him say the rest, in the clip below. (Some of the language is, naturally, NSFW.)