Sidewalks by Tom Deignan
Rebels, like George Carlin, taught us how to laugh
Posted on Wednesday, December 09, 2009 at 12:19 PM
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In his new, posthumous autobiography, the late, great George Carlin writes about how his Irish Catholic parents brought the legendary comedian into this world.
“I was conceived in a damp, sand-flecked room of Curley's Hotel in Rockaway Beach, New York. August 1936. At the Paramount Theater in Times Square, Bing Crosby and Frances Farmer starred in "Rhythm on the Range.''"
“Meanwhile at Curley's Hotel on Beach 116th Street, Mary and Patrick Carlin starred in yet another doomed Catholic remake of Rhythm in the Sack.”
Carlin’s mom (Mary, of course) was the daughter of a cop. His dad (Patrick!) often “drank, got drunk (and) hit people.” Where the stereotypes end and the memories begin is obviously hard to say.
Carlin continues, “For several generations, Rockaway Beach had been a favorite weekend retreat for New York's alcohol-crazed Irish youth in search of sex and sun.
“Popular ethnic slurs to the contrary, the Irish do enjoy sex -- at least the last 10 seconds or so. But we must admit that Irish foreplay consists of little more than ‘You awake?’ Or the more caring, sensitive ‘Brace yourself, Agnes!’"
You can punish Carlin for pandering to negative thoughts about the Irish. But with this new book (completed just before Carlin died this summer) as well as the passing of troubadour Liam Clancy last week, I was reminded of just how rare it is to find authentic rebels who can also make you smile.
These days, so many so-called rebels aim to fire you up with their righteous indignation. Perhaps it’s always been that way.
All the more reason to cherish the likes of Carlin and Clancy, one a child of Irish New York, the other an adopted son by way of Tipperary.
Carlin and Clancy, like so many Irish Catholics of humble origins, had every reason to have chips on their shoulders.
But rather than shout and rage earnestly, they entertained, and along the way changed the world around them in profound ways.
It’s hard to say who had the more difficult task. Carlin aspired to be a comedian at a time when “heck,” was a dirty word.
Clancy wanted to play complex Irish tunes to audiences who wanted little more than sturdy classics such as “Molly Malone.”
A year ago it was my privilege to interview Clancy for Irish America magazine.
Clancy explained that his music was, at first, received coldly by many in New York’s conservative Irish community.
“Irish Americans weren’t really interested in us. Pete Seeger played with us. A lot of people said, ‘They’ve got a Communist up there.’ So most of our audience were folkies and liberal Jews.”
This could have made Clancy bitter. This could have turned him away from Irish Americans, and even Irish music.
But he understood that there was power and beauty and plenty of raucous comedy in the ballads the Clancys and Tommy Makem would make famous. They changed the way people think about Irish music.
Then there’s Carlin. Let me be clear -- he could at times be so stridently anti-Catholic, anti-church and, frankly, anti-human, that he was a little hard to listen to.
Doesn’t change the fact that, just as often, he was riotously funny.
Since Carlin liked to dabble in negative stereotypes about the Irish, we might as well dabble in a positive one.
He had a distinctly Irish love of language and its intricacies, and a fierce yet familiar loathing of hypocrites that stretches back to Jonathan Swift.
Swift, however, could never get a belly laugh like Carlin.
Carlin, of course, was famous for his expletives and his bit on “The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television.”
But way back in the early 1970s, he also performed a bit called “I Used to be Irish Catholic.” And it was not a rant against perverted priests and knuckle-bashing nuns.
It was a tender look at his own parish, which actually had a lot of progressive teachers who granted students a lot of freedom.
“In fact, there was so much freedom that by eighth grade, many of us had lost the faith. Because they made questioners out of us,” he said.
All of which means Carlin, like Clancy, might have had moments of tension with their fellow Irish. But in the end, being Irish is a vital part of their legacy.
(Contact Tom Deignan at email@example.com)