Monday, June 23, 2008

Counterculture Extraordinaire

Last week in 1101 we talked about the sociology of humor. We have also been discussing countercultures and rebellion. I can think of no better example of those three topics rolled into one than counterculture icon George Carlin, who passed away yesterday at 71.

George Carlin, 71, the much-honored American stand-up comedian whose long career was distinguished by pointed social commentary that placed him on the cultural cutting edge, died last night in Santa Monica, Calif.

Carlin's comedy career spanned a half-century, staring with years as a disc jockey in the 1950s and culminating with his selection last week by the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to receive this year's Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, a lifetime achievement award.

Over that time, he evolved from the more straight-laced member of a comedy duo formed with Jack Burns into a social satirist whose routines deliberately tweaked the social and cultural edge -- mocking religion, sexual prudery and American society.

Reading his books and listening to his material from the 1970's forward, you see a snapshot of American culture at various points in time, and one man's attempt to change those norms, values and beliefs. He was both counterculture and Merton's Strain Theory "rebellion" rolled into one.

Carlin became much more mainstream in the 2000's, but his "work at the edges" of society (along with comedians such as Lenny Bruce in 50's and 60's, Richard Pryor in the 70's, Andy Kaufman in the 80's, and Bill Hicks in the 90's), is the reason why we have Dave Chappelle, Eddie Izzard, Kathy Griffin and Chris Rock today.

Humor is uniquely sociological, and in that sense, no one was more sociological than George Carlin.

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