One of the unfortunate side effects of aging is that your heroes start dying off. In the past decade, we've lost Joey Ramone, Joe Strummer, Warren Zevon, Johnny Cash, Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, Kurt Vonnegut, and Robert Anton Wilson, just to name a few. Yesterday, George Carlin joined the list. Carlin's death wasn't all that surprising--after all, he was 71 and had a history of heart problems--but that doesn't make it any less depressing.
When I was in middle school, my friends and I started to discover the world of comedy. Dubbed tapes of Eddie Murphy, Stephen Wright, and countless others made the rounds, references to stand-up routines started to pepper our conversations, and the most recent episode of Saturday Night Live was the hot discussion topic each Monday. At some point, someone handed me a copy of one of George Carlin's tapes. I think it was Playin' With Your Head, but it might have been A Place for My Stuff.
I was hooked. There was something about Carlin that clicked with me. Not only was Carlin funnier than most comedians I'd been exposed to, he was smarter, edgier, tackled a wider range of subject matter, and could make me laugh with any style of comedy, from straightforward stand-up to sketch comedy to sheer absurdity.
Since I never had cable growing up, my awareness of Carlin's physical presence was limited to the photos on album covers. That changed around ninth grade when somebody loaned me a VHS tape of Carlin at Carnegie and I realized that "stand-up" wasn't the right word for Carlin's act. Seeing Carlin's facial expressions, insane poses, and pure energy took my enjoyment of his work to the next level.
By the time I was in college, Carlin had played a big part in shaping (or perhaps warping) the way I looked at the world. During my sophomore year, I got to see Carlin live. Even though I had already practically memorized many of the routines he did that night, the Carlin show ranks right behind Johnny Cash as the best concert I've ever seen.
When I discovered Lenny Bruce, I realized that a lot of Carlin's routines (especially those about language) were the logical continuations of what Bruce had started. Bill Hicks was Carlin's logical successor, but unfortunately Carlin outlived him by more than a decade. To my knowledge, there's not a single comedian working today who seems qualified to continue the tradition. Or, if there is, I'm not familiar with them--if you know who they are, let me know.