Freedoms are something we take for granted in places like the US and Canada… until someone comes along and takes those freedoms.
The trouble with being “free” is we don’t always realize how limited that freedom truly is. That’s why we have people like George Carlin in our lives, people who push buttons.
Or we did. George Carlin died Sunday of a heart attack.
When it comes to really saying how society is, I think comics like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin have had such important roles to play. Lenny Bruce I’ve eulogized before on this blog. Carlin, not so much. I’m a huge fan of comedy, but more so the pushy, provocative skits of the ’70s.
In 1973, Carlin had a skit air on the radio that prompted another challenge of America’s obscenity laws that had plagued Bruce till he died. Carlin fought the charges and the Supreme Court ruled he was indecent, but not obscene. It wouldn’t be Carlin’s last fight, either, but he’d always win a little bit.
I’m a big fan of Freedom of Speech, albeit I’m a fan of our Canadian version of it, not the American version. (The difference? Although you’re not allowed to do hate speech in Canada, [which goes against “freedom” of speech but I approve] we can swear more, get away with more, and we have more sex on TV.)
But I’m a big believer that the freedoms I celebrate by being angrily on-point with issues, swearing all over the place, and flaming anyone I can think of, come on the heels of such provocative work done over the years by folks like Carlin, Bruce, Bill Hicks, and any other dead comedic great you want to lump in there.
Unfortunately, the debate between “obscene” and “indecent” still rages in the USA, and the land of the free still isn’t as unbridled and free as many of today’s comics wish it would be.
There aren’t a lot of comics where you always get the joke, professionals who understand how to really make their audience come alive, but Carlin was the last truly great comedian left from the time when American censors were getting paid too well for their jobs, when getting onstage meant daily questions of “What’s gonna be too much for this town, anyhow?”
For folks like Carlin and Bruce, that question would get answered when they’d land in jail yet again for some dirty jokes or peppering speech with profanities.
Just a little of the free speech you have in America is thanks to folks like Carlin who questioned those who called him “obscene”.
After all, what some people consider obscene is how the rest of us like to live our lives.
I’m sad that the world’s without Carlin now. I’m sad he never lived to receive his Mark Twain’s Humourist prize this November.
But I’m glad he pushed some buttons in his lifetime. Thanks, George. The mark you left behind changed the landscape of public speech, and you will be remembered.