Take a Left at George Carlin
There’s a story in today’s Times about the effort to rename 121st Street between Broadway and Amsterdam after the late comedian George Carlin. Carlin grew up in the neighborhood, attending Corpus Christi Church and its parish school which share the same handsome building on that block. In his early career, he often made bitter jokes about Catholicism and the education he received. His animosity toward the Catholic Church, and religion in general, was hardly a secret. In fact, it was a staple of his comedy.
Corpus Christi’s current pastor, Raymond Rafferty, is a vocal opponent of the effort to honor Carlin in this fashion. “His early comedy made mockery of Corpus Christi parish and its priests,” Rafferty told the Times. “This is not someone who was oppressed.”
Corpus Christi, which is just around the corner from Commonweal’s offices, is perhaps best known as the church where Thomas Merton was received into the Catholic Church in 1938. Ray Rafferty is a good friend, a man of great hospitality and judicious opinions. It is not hard to understand his resistance to having the street where he lives named after a comedian widely celebrated for his vulgarity and impiety.
I’ve never been a big fan of Carlin’s humor, although I have friends whose opinions in such matters I respect who thought he was a very gifted comic. I found his comedy petulant, self-satisfied, and didactic. As it happens, however, I did have a sort of encounter with the comedian when I was a newspaper reporter. He was coming to a local theater to do his one-man show and I was asked to call him and write a brief “advance” for the event. Carlin had done thousands of these formulaic “interviews” in his career. Basically, he tells a few jokes, which the reporter is supposed to dutifully transcribe and work into a seven or eight hundred word article that gives a bit more of the relevant information about the show as well as his style and career. I was aware of Carlin’s tough Irish Catholic New York upbringing, and curious about it. In the course of what was to be a very brief conversation, I asked him several questions about growing up in Morningside Heights and going to Catholic schools. As I recall, at that time (the 1980s) he was making a career comeback after a battle with drugs or alcohol. I asked him about that, too, if in a very circumspect way. He did not take kindly to either inquiry, and using one of the seven words you can’t say on television he told me off in a characteristic New York sort of way and hung up. To be fair, he wasn’t taking my call to be asked questions about his childhood or New York, and perhaps he was right to take umbrage. Still, there was real malice in his voice.
Should they name that street after him? I don’t think so. Carlin made a career out of mocking pieties, including civic pieties. If you had a street named after you, you were probably the kind of Important Person he loved to ridicule. It’s exactly the sort of honor he would have gone out of his way to venomously mock.