Monday, June 23, 2008

A master of words

Words. They communicate a little or a lot. Those who can't use words well struggle with everyday things while others seem to be so skilled with words that you wonder if they were weaned on the great wordsmiths like Mencken, Faulkner, or E B White. The ones who write words have time to ruminate, to ponder and erase, to write retractions.

Tonight's weather: Dark. Continued mostly dark tonight with widely scattered light in the morning.

Stand up comedy has few truly gifted wordsmiths. The medium is brutal to those who can't figure out what to say. The less talented rely on wisecracks, cheap shots, and the shock of the taboo. The ones who shine are the ones who can take the ordinary word and make it extraordinary.

Take refrigerator-freezer. It's too long; it should be refrigideezer.

George Carlin, who died of heart failure on Sunday, was one of those wordsmiths. His love of language was evident in everything he did in his performances. When I listen to the records he did during the seventies, I hear a joy of the world he hears around him of the noises that we call words.

How about cheese fon-don't for those who don't like cheese fondue?

His lament of how he couldn't perform his take on the voices he heard in the neighborhood he grew up in (Morningside Heights in upper Manhattan) struck me. He couldn't do the voices of the Puerto Ricans, the blacks, the Italians, the Jews because he was an "Irish white guy."

Hey man, where yo' ass at? Shee-it, my man ain't got no ass. How you keep dem pants up man? Shee-it, man ain't got no ass.

His paean to baseball versus football is a classic that makes every baseball lover adore him. His discussion of how to deal with all of his stuff appeals to every person who has ever had more than the bare necessities. And of course, there is his well-known list of seven words you can never say on television. His observations of the everyday were moments when you wanted to say, "Duh! I could have thought of that!" But you didn't. George did.

Now I've heard of a semi-boneless ham. It has a bone. And it's a BONE. Ain't no semi-bone. It's like military intelligence: it's mutually exclusive.

Who empties the wishing well?

I heard about an ad for a semi-truck driver. Now maybe it's someone who doesn't finish the course. Or it's a little guy: "Hey guys! Hey!"

There are three asses in the world. I've numbered them one, two and C. I never could number things. But there's one, the fat ass. Then there's the everyday you-seen-one-you've-seen-'em-all ass. Then there's the unfortunates like me, no ass at all. Gotta have a fat wallet and three handkerchiefs in your back pockets.

I've read his words but they don't have the same zing as when he spoke them. He presented his observations with a bevy of voices and faces. I imitated his voices as I repeated his lines.

You'd never see black guys in Harlem saying, "Oh gee whiz we won the big game today." Instead you'd have red-headed Irish guys named Duffy who'd be saying, "Hey man, what's playin'. Gimme some skin, man. You see what they doin'? Shee-it, man."

He was an angrier man as he grew older and at times his bitterness was hard to hear, but you listened because you knew that somewhere in that bile was that love of language. He said that we often use the word that is synonymous with loving someone to hurt others. It was better to use words to be kinder, to convey joy, to foster understanding. And of course, to laugh.

Hope you're having a good talk with God, George. I'm sure you have plenty to say.


Dave said...

Beautifully said -- bye, George, the world needs more people like you.

Sharon said...

he was a brilliant man--even at his angriest and most curmudgeonly, he could find ways to make us laugh at ourselves.