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Viral Notes

Comedians, like viruses and tides, tend to peak and recede. It’s a natural law and even the late, great George Carlin wasn’t immune. He likely peaked prior to a bit he did on ‘saving the planet’ some years back, which was reflective of both his genius and a macabre tone he adopted in later years. It begins with him talking about human arrogance and the idea that ‘we’ can ‘save the planet.’ “The planet isn’t going anywhere .. we are. Pack your shit, folks — we’re going away.” It’s an observation based on common sense and science. The planet has been here billions of years next to our millions “Way over ninety percent of all the species that have ever lived on this planet are gone,” Carlin explains. “We didn’t kill them all; they just disappeared. This is what nature does.” He maintains the uncomfortable hilarity until the end of the routine when he speaks about environmentalists’ illogical obsession with plastic:

The earth doesn’t share our prejudice toward plastic. Plastic came out of the earth. The earth probably sees plastic as just another one of its children. Could be the only reason the earth allowed us to be spawned from it. It wanted plastic for itself .. didn’t know how to make it. Could be the answer to our age-old philosophical question ‘why are we here?’ (Adopting godly tone) “Plastic … assholes!”

It’s in finishing that Carlin gives nod to what would be his late undoing as a comic. He concludes that having invented plastic, “our job is done” and muses about what will do us in as a species. Viruses, he prophetically concludes, would be a fine guess. At that time it was AIDS, which had the added benefit of discouraging procreation. He jumps the shark with a single line — “I can dream, can’t I ?” — which shifts the tone from empathy to one of removed superiority. This was George’s prerogative as he claimed to ‘cherish individuals’ as he met them but ‘abhor’ the groups that they formed. By the end he was a mess, celebrating death and doing long routines on apocalyptic visions. People love laughing at the insinuation that we’re all doomed but when you put too fine a point on it you run the risk of overstaying your welcome. He probably knew his time was up, anyway, having suffered multiple heart attacks before the one that did him in at seventy-one.

Perspective, like Elton John’s persona, is a bitch. We’re all aware that time seems to move faster as we age but the real point is that it doesn’t hit hard until we get there. What took place prior to our birth, whether ten years or a hundred, seems inconceivably removed. No matter how significant or trivial the life, those who live long enough often include the word “folly” when reflecting. You invent the cure for all deadly viruses just as they’re blowing up the world or get the Russians to back out of Cuba just as a new bug appears. I think back a lot to when I was twenty-four and living in Italy. There was a young guy and a fellow student who I dubbed “The Big Turk.” BT chain-smoked unfiltered cigarettes and seemed above the general, shirking, university town vibe that permeated Corso Vannuci and the central plaza. “Hey Reeeeek,” he’d say, momentarily pulling the Camel from his lips, “I saw your girlfriend yesterday. She was wearing a Tom Petty teeee-shirrrt.” One time he described the mandatory military service in Turkey that kicked in for all young men at seventeen. “Eeet’s all bull-sheet,” he assured, “they make you sleep on a sheep for six months then send you home.” I’ve thought about him over the years and now wonder, if he survived the chain-smoking, whether he’s been able to get hold of some decent hand-sanitizer.

The flip-side to these disparaging observations about humanity is all that stuff that seems cliche and that many ignore as church-group babble. Turns out that doing for others is, in fact, its own reward. This may seem hard to wrap one’s head around as we try to avoid getting too close to the guy we’re duking it out with over a pallet of two-ply toilet paper at our local Costco. Turns out we’re far more interconnected than most are willing to acknowledge. My dad’s pontificating on the superiority of our (read: ‘his’) clan’s genetic line was, as I suspected, irrelevant. We’re all subject to being dragged down or elevated by virtue of strangers. So, how to best meld this with Carlin’s observation on the value of treasuring the individual over the group? Interact with more individuals in a pleasant, positive or helpful way. Do it from a safe distance if current times mandate, but do it anyway. Then let this spread, like a virus, to the larger group. Sure, you can’t all be pollyannas like me, but even the coldest winter has its spring.

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