A blog by the magazine's editors and contributors


Take a Left at George Carlin

Theres a story in todays 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 Christis 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 Commonweals 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.

Ive never been a big fan of Carlins 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 Carlins 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 cant say on television he told me off in a characteristic New York sort of way and hung up. To be fair, he wasnt 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 dont 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. Its exactly the sort of honor he would have gone out of his way to venomously mock.

About the Author

Paul Baumann is the editor of Commonweal.



Commenting Guidelines

  • All

Lighten up!It's true: George Carlin's edgy comedy stylings took dead aim at any and all social and/or religious pomposity - something the Catholic Church of his youth had in abundance, you'd have to admit.Whether it was the Seven Deadly Sins or the Seven Dirty Words, Carlin forced his audience to focus like a laser on our silly, even hypocritical, social conventions.Carlin's job, like any social critic and comedian, was to mock, make us laugh at ourselves, and question our most preposterous fantasies about our shared reality.I think that Corpus Christi parish located on 'George Carlin Avenue' would have a certain poetic justice to it. Almost like a needling from beyond the grave about all the reform and renewal the church needs.Just imagine what George Carlin's comedy routine about priests raping and sodomizing children would sound like!?! That collective painful "OUCH" you hear is probably coming from Fr. Rafferty and his fellow clerics.

Needling seems to be your favorite pastime. I have to say, when the suggestion to lighten up comes from someone who appears not to have a sense of humor, I think it can be safely ignored. (Yes, let's all try to imagine how hilarious Carlin's sexual-abuse jokes would be. What the what?)

I don't have strong feelings about George Carlin one way or the other, but I do want to note that our culture seems increasingly to equate celebrity with civic accomplishment. I am old-fashioned enough to think there is a difference in contribution between writing and performing a string of popular hits in the '60's or '70's, a la Sir Paul McCartney or Sir Elton John, and, I don't know, whatever Abraham Lincoln or Admiral Nelson managed to do.This thought is prompted in large part by the incredibly gauche giant Marilyn Monroe ... thing ... they've installed on N. Michigan Ave in Chicago.

"This thought is prompted in large part by the incredibly gauche giant Marilyn Monroe thing theyve installed on N. Michigan Ave in Chicago."Twenty grown men can hide from the rain under her billowing skirt. Can Lord Nelson say as much?

The earlier Carlin did have some substantial comedic skills. In some of his final shows he seemed as tired as his jokes. Although I am seriously for dressing down (clothing too) the bishops I believe Jesus and God should be revered. (Hallowed be thy name) It is the ultimate contradiction that those who mock God say they do not believe in God. Thus the buffoon mocks someone s/he says does not exist. Naming of streets like names on hospitals and other buildings is a tricky affair. Many rogues have thus been honored. In general the words of Jesus apply: "They have had their reward."George Carlin seemed in many ways a troubled person. May God have mercy on him.

" Put an Irishman on a spit and you can always get another one to turn him'GB Shaw..He knew how to deal with Irish honors..

"Twenty grown men can hide from the rain under her billowing skirt."I'm sure you are using "men" in the inclusive sense ... :-)Btw, when I was in Trafalgar Square, the young people lounging in the shadow of Lord Nelson had that impossibly-hip European je ne sais quoi that the poor mopes in Zuccotti Park, bless 'em, could never achieve in a million revolutions.

Evidently he studied under the Sinsinawa Dominican sisters and has always (so 2 of them tell me) been supportive of them and has assisted in some fund-raising events for them.

Since Carlin grew up on the block in question, I don't think it's inappropriate to name the street after him .

There'a certain irony in that Corpus Christi church, and clergy, were among the most open throughout the 20th century, and Ray Rafferty continues the tradition in this century. Carlin's problems may not have been with the church and the clergy (or the religious women)....

Celebrity is all that matters here. Celebrity covers up everything else. Are they going to call it "George Carlin" or just "Carlin"? All those "Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevards" across the country should warn them off the full name, but I bet it won't.

I'm with Paul Baumann on this one. Carlin's humor had a certain zip, but it got overdone and tiresome before too long.It's also interesting to note my gut reaction: don't mess with Corpus Christi! It took me through turbulent college years at Barnard, and was my first meaningful spiritual home; also where I married. Fr. K is right about CC's progressive stance, which was like water in the desert to me. Here's to Msgr. James Edward Rea, rest his soul (brother of David Rea at Dunwoodie, I think), ? Burke (senior memory), and all who made it a very special parish.I'm no slouch myself when it comes to mocking pre-Vatican II inanities, but 121st St. still sounds fine to me.

I'm thinking that Carlin would be appalled at the very idea of naming a street after him.

Just a couple of thoughts:I strongly agree that Corpus Christi has a long and excellent tradition as Catholic parishes go.That tradition has not diminished and I don't think naming a street after Carlin will deiminish it and fighting that probably enhances his post mortem status in the eyes of some.I have two questions: does Commonweal having such a good relationship with Corpus Christi maybe skew to some degre its view of parish life?And, was carlin's bitterness about the Church really reacting to the narrow type of Bronnx Irish Catholicism extent then (and even now in Bill Donahue New york)?

The Carlinites might want to take a cue from the Romans. Bernini, among many others, knew how to insult his clerical enemies. He positioned the rear end of an elephant so that his Dominican tormentors at the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva would have a scenic view. Some say that Pope Alexander VII, who apparently had little use for the Dominicans, was the true instigator."The Elephant and Obelisk, affectionately known as Bernini's Chick by the Roman people, is located in the Piazza della Minerva and in front of the church of Santa Maria sopra Minerva...A popular antecdote concerns the elephant's smile. To find out why it is smiling, the viewer must head around to the rear end of the animal and to see that its muscles are tensed and its tail is shifted to the left as if it were defecating. The animal's rear is pointed directly at the office of Father Domenico Paglia, a Dominican friar, who was one of the main antagonists of Bernini and his artist friends, as a final salute and last word."

Some CarlineseJust cause you got the monkey off your back doesn't mean the circus has left town.Fighting for peace is like screwing for virginityBy and large, language is a tool for concealing the truth Inside every cynical person, there is a disappointed idealist."Now I'd like to begin tonight with an opening announcement: Because of the FCC, I'm never sure what it is I'm allowed to say., I now have my own official policy: This is the language you will not be hearing tonight.You will not hear me say: bottom line, game plan, role model, scenario, or hopefully. I will not kick back, mellow out, or be on a roll. I will not go for it and I will not check it out; I don't even know what it is. And when I leave here I definitely will not boogie. I promise not to refer to anyone as a class act, a beautiful person or a happy camper. I will also not be saying "what a guy." And you will not hear me refer to anyone's lifestyle. If you want to know what a moronic word "lifestyle" is, all you have to do is realize that in a technical sense, Atilla the Hun had an active outdoor lifestyle. I will also not be saying any cute things like "moi." And I will not use the French adverb "tre" to modify any English adjectives. Such as "tre awesome," "tre gnarly," "tre fabou," "tre intense," or "tre out-of-sight." I will not say concept when I mean idea. I will not say impacted when I mean affected. There will be no hands-on state-of-the-art networking. We will not maximize, prioritize, or finalize...and we definitely will not interface. There will also...there will also be no new-age lingo spoken here tonight. No support-group jargon from the human potential movement. For instance, I will not share anything with you. I will not relate to you and you will not identify with me. I will give you no input, and I will expect no feedback. This will not be a learning experience, nor will it be a growth period. There'll be no sharing, no caring, no birthing, no bonding, no parenting, no nurturing. We will not establish a relationship, we will not have any meaningful dialogue and we definitely will not spend any quality time. We will not be supportive of one another, so that we can get in touch with our feelings in order to feel good about ourselves. And if you're one of those people who needs a little space...please...go the %$#* outside

@ Grant Gallicho:I'm not going to take the bait of your "oh so clever" comments about me personally and get into a blog p*&^#!g [one of George Carlin's unspeakable words!] contest when you can just edit me out at any time. Grant, if you want to belittle your readers and bloggers, you have to find a way to have at least a fair fight.More apt comedy stylings of George Carlin: "When youre born you get a ticket to the freak show. When youre born in America, you get a front-row seat."

First of all, "Indian Sergeant" was one of he funniest comedic routines of all time.But the real question is what did Carlin do that was so bad, so horrible that he thought he was beyond salvation. His hatred of the church and all things christian indicates that he was overcome with guilt. The poor man just needed confession.Anyway that's my two cents.greggbc

Thanks, Bill :0)

Thank you again, Bill.Those of you who have never heard Carlin's delivery won't get the full impact of that last long bit. Try the opening of this you tube video: "George Carlin talks about advertising" About 1/2 way through Carlin uses quite offensive and sexually crude language, so stop after you get a sense of Carlin's cadence for his linguistic riffs. YOU WERE WARNED.I highly respect Father Raymond Rafferty, who was my pastor at another NYC parish. But, knowing and liking him, it would surprise me if appreciation of "edgy" comedy were Ray's strong suit. I also know that Corpus Christi deserves very positive mention in American Catholic history. But like any parish it has it faults. I wish I had Carlin's help -- without profanity -- to phrase my frustration that well into the 1990s the director of music totally rejected gender-inclusive-language hymns. And, yes, I realize the parish was literally at the cutting edge of liturgical reform several decades earlier. I particularly appreciated Bill's mentioning Carlin's statement: "Inside every cynical person, there is a disappointed idealist. Since I believe in a God of inclusive love, I hope in heaven there is an astonished George Carlin. If so, perhaps he and God are having a chuckle about naming West 121st street after Carlin, who would have so cleverly derided the whole idea. Carlin was a life-long, deeply disappointed advocate for truth and fair treatment for the poor and oppressed. Surely the corpus christi for which the parish is named has room for Carlin. And I can imagine he would have had a profane, but funny, punchline for my last straight line.

Until the Marx Brothers are deemed worthy of a street name, I say nix on naming any thoroughfare after any comedian.If you don't know about George Carlin, go look him up on YouTube and see him in action. His routines from decades ago are over there. His early stuff was kind of clunky ("the hippy dippy weather man") and his later stuff was bitter and and obscene. But he was great in the 1970s and 1980s, swimming upstream of the "dress for success" and capitalism crowd. Here's his monologue on materialism from 1986: know if the often unfathomable French have honored their favorite U.S. comic with a rue Jerry Lewis in Paris?)

B. H. Andolson: The one responsible for the refusal to accommodate to the reinterpretation of the language was probably the pastor, Msgr. Myles M. Bourke, who was vigorously opposed to the bowdlerizing of the Bible (e.g., Ps 8:5, which I see that Robert Alter, in his recent translation, keeps as "What is man that You should note him?") or of classic hymns. So, if this was a 'fault,' it was Msgr. Bourke's. But, of course, you can't please everyone.

Add new comment

You may login with your assigned e-mail address.
The password field is case sensitive.

Or log in with...

Add new comment