Tom Ross' column appears in Steamboat Today. Contact him at 970-871-4205 or tross@SteamboatToday.com.
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Even in death, comedian George Carlin resides in a little pad on my desk in the newsroom.
Carlin died from heart failure Sunday at the age of 71. But, I'm fortunate to have one of those little laugh-a-day calendars devoted to Carlin. You know the kind of calendar I'm talking about. You see them by the hundreds in big city bookstores every November. They consist of a plastic base filled with a peel off notepad exactly 365 days long. There is a witticism along with the date and month on every page.
They make irresistible stocking stuffers.
The most ubiquitous laugh-a-day calendars feature Far Side cartoons. But, I can think of some obscure titles that might be big sellers: Mike Shanahan's "Press Conference Hijinks," for example. Or Barack Obama's "Wackiest Sermons I Ever Sat Through," and Paula Abdul's "Dittsiest Remarks on American Idol."
OK, I'll never occupy the same comedic universe as George Carlin.
Any time I need a quick fix of irreverent humor, George is waiting in the little tray on my desk with an oxymoron, a profane bumper sticker or a jab at bureaucrats.
Some of his favorite oxymorons are found in my desk calendar created by Andrews McMeel Publishing: holy war, resident alien, silent alarm, death benefits.
Carlin was the kind of comedian a copy editor could love - he despised excessively wordy phrases like: seating area, belief system and daily basis.
A standup comedian of remarkable longevity, Carlin managed to make audiences laugh even while coming down hard on government excesses. Like Lenny Bruce before him, Carlin crusaded for freedom of speech with his ongoing rant about "The Seven Words You Can't Say on Television." Carlin got himself in lots of trouble by saying them often and loudly.
There were times when Carlin's humor made me uncomfortable. I understood that was the point of it all. He was the guy who pushed the comedic envelope through four decades of wars, natural disaster, riots and presidential administrations. Yet, he prospered on mainstream media. Carlin was on "The Tonight Show" 130 times and completed 14 HBO specials.
Carlin wasn't always a controversial comedian. You can log onto YouTube and catch him as a young man performing in a coat and tie on "The Tonight Show", riffing on television meteorologists in a bit he called "The Hippie Dippie Weatherman."
Checking his weather radar, Carlin casually observed that there was a Russian intercontinental ballistic missile poised to arrive just ahead of a deep low-pressure trough.
"I guess you won't have to worry about those severe thunderstorms after all," he deadpanned.
The Hippie Dippie personality foreshadowed a transformation in Carlin's own personal appearance. Before long, he was grooming himself like Joe Cocker's twin brother, complete with black T-shirt, scruffy beard and ponytail.
His stand-up routines became more and more anti-establishment, skewering religion and politicians, but he never became so abrasive that he couldn't tell a joke just for the pure laughter. Carlin had an ability to see the humor in situations you and I encounter every day without noticing how absurd they are.
Abandoning the storytelling form of humor, he often delivered a stream of unrelated jokes in the form of wry observations, screwing his face up in to an exaggeratedly puzzled look.
The Associated Press recalled a classic, two-sentence joke: "Why do they lock gas station bathrooms? Are they afraid someone will clean them?"
However, George Carlin did more than just make us giggle. He challenged our unease with sex and drugs and, yes, four-letter words. In doing so, he became more than a comedian. He was a cultural critic bent on challenging taboos. And he reminded us not to take ourselves too seriously, even in times of social upheaval.
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