I have a weird reaction to George Carlin.
One of my friends refuses to read Terry Pratchett books. I love them – the Discworld series in particular – and I think my friend would like them too. I think they’d appeal to his sense of humour, especially the later ones where Sir Terry got into his stride and started really nailing the satire and observational elements.
Confident he’d enjoy them, I’d encourage him to read them, but each time he’d decline. When we were in our twenties – maybe early thirties – I asked him why. He explained that there was this kid at school who used to rave about these books – always going on and on about these damned books – and the more the Discworld Kid went on about the books, the more my friend became determined never to touch one of them.
We’re forty now. I must ask my friend if he ever got round to reading one…
Still, I offer this not to embarrass my friend, but as a point of comparison. Because that reaction, that resistance to something that’s being hyped, is something I’m prone to as well. When Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code was released – the book, I mean – the hype machine roared on for months. Years, even. And for a long, long time, I refused to look at that book, because the world just wouldn’t shut up about it. Seriously, it was weeks before I could go a day without hearing in mentioned, and in the end I set myself a rule: since I actually quite wanted to read it, but couldn’t bring myself to do it while I was basically being ordered to, I’d only let myself do it when I could go for three weeks without hearing it mentioned.
I think this is probably what’s at the heart of my peculiar reaction to George Carlin, and I feel much the same about Bill Hicks: whenever I hear them mentioned, it’s always in the context of how clever and edgy they were; how they were revolutionary iconoclasts who turned the world on its head and showed humanity in the raw, showed us our souls, challenged the status quo and toppled the establishment – they told it like it was, man! Pass the pipe, dude…
See? I can’t get through a paragraph about them without the sarcastic reaction coming to the fore. Why? Were they really that bad?
Actually, I have no idea. I’ve never really sat down and watched either of them at work. And I still don’t want to, even though I know I can’t properly assess them until I do.
I think it’s pretty clear that the response isn’t to them as performers; the response is to the people who now hold them up and revere them almost as messiah figures (something I believe Hicks in particular played up to quite happily) – especially given that in many cases the enthusiasm of the fandom seems at least partially based on the use of these men as status symbols. “Hey, I liked Bill Hicks! I really got George Carlin! Therefore, I’m an intellectual and a revolutionary non-conformist!”
Perhaps this was what my friend saw in the Discworld Kid at school. Perhaps it’s what I saw in the everybody in the frakking world who was clamouring on about The Da Vinci Code. Actually, it’s almost certainly what annoyed me about The Da Vinci Code – largely thanks to its twin implications for all its readers that “Hey, I know what really happened with Jesus!” and “Hey, I understand symbolism and coded messages!”
“We’re clever because we’ve read this book, and now we’re mavericks who don’t conform to the expectations of mundane society. Hey, read this: you should be a maverick, too!”
But then, on the other hand, by refusing to watch, and therefore adore George Carlin and Bill Hicks, am I just trying to be a maverick iconoclast, going against the pop-culture flow?
It’s all very complicated.