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George Carlin, 1937-2008: He Found Irreverent Humor in Language

AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: remembering a comedian who took a serious interest in language. George Carlin died of heart failure at a hospital in Santa Monica, California, on June twenty-second.

RS: The stand-up comedian, author and actor was seventy-one years old. He was known for his irreverent humor and was a counterculture figure of the nineteen seventies. Now, in memory of George Carlin, we play a WORDMASTER segment from July of nineteen ninety-nine.

AA: George Carlin can say some outrageous things -- years ago the U.S. Supreme Court found his "seven filthy words" monolgue indecent.

RS: But when he stopped at the National Press Club in Washington not long ago, George Carlin had other words to say.

GEORGE CARLIN: "I'm not here to advance any political, social or environmental cause. I am, in fact, blessedly agenda-free. I don't want to save the river. I don't want to save the bay. I don't want to save the canyon, the whale, the wetlands, the rain forest, or the flying, spotted dwarf something-or-other. I don't want to save the children, above all [laughter and applause]. Frankly, I don't care about many of those things. Between you and me, those battles were lost a long time ago."

RS: Dressed in black with his hair in a pony tail, George Carlin kept the Washington press corps laughing with his observations on how the politicians and lawyers in Washington speak.

AA: He says they use a lot of obscure terms and phrases to avoid saying anything substantive.

GEORGE CARLIN: "They don't actually say things. They indicate them: 'As I indicated yesterday, and as the president indicated to me.' But sometimes they don't indicate; they suggest: 'Let me suggest, that as I indicated yesterday ... I haven't determined that yet.' See, they don't decide; they determine. If it's a really serious matter, they make a judgment: 'I haven't made a judgment on that yet. When the hearings are concluded, I will make a judgment or I might make an assessment. I'm not sure; I haven't determined that yet. But when I do, I'll advise you.'

"They don't tell, they advise: 'I advised him that I had made a judgment. Thus far, he hasn't responded.' They don't answer; they respond: 'He hasn't responded to my initiative.' An initiative is an idea that isn't going anywhere [laughter]."

RS: George Carlin added that when legislation is delayed or a project is taking too long, some more terms come into use.

GEORGE CARLIN: "That's a big activity here in Washington: proceeding. They're always 'proceeding' or 'moving forward.' A lot of that goes on: 'Senator, have you solved that problem?' 'Well, we're moving forward on that.'

"And when they're not moving forward, they're moving something else forward, such as the process: 'We have to move the process forward so we can implement the provisions of the initiative in order to meet these challenges.' No one has problems anymore -- 'challenges.' That's why we need people who can make the tough decisions. Tough decisions like, 'How much soft money can I expect to collect in exchange for my core values?'"

AA: George Carlin says political scandal or wrongdoing calls for yet another set of euphemisms.

GEORGE CARLIN: "When they're in trouble, their explanations usually begin simply with words like miscommunication: 'What did you do wrong, senator?' 'Well, it was a miscommunication.' Or, 'I was quoted out of context.' Better yet, and more ironic, 'They twisted my words.' Such a nice touch. A person who routinely spends his days torturing the language complains 'they twisted my words [laughter].'

"Then, as the controversy continues to heat up, he moves to his next level of complaint: 'The whole thing has been blown out of proportion.' It's always the whole thing. Apparently no one has ever claimed that only a small portion of something was blown out of proportion. It has to be the whole thing."

AA: That was a WORDMASTER segment from July of nineteen ninety-nine. George Carlin died last week, just days after the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts announced that it would award him the eleventh annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

RS: The Kennedy Center, in Washington, plans to go ahead with the award ceremony this November, now as a tribute. And that's WORDMASTER for this week. Archives of our segments are at With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.