For some people, a signpost of time’s passage is the death of a politician or a movie star, perhaps because they grew up in a time when politicians and movie stars mattered. For my generation, the signposts may be the passing of TV and standup comedians. Recently we lost Harvey Korman, and now George Carlin is gone. They were two very different sorts, but was Korman’s caricature of Rhett Butler really much different in spirit from Carlin’s Seven Words You Can’t Say? In the Seventies, pop culture began to earnestly mock itself in a subversive way (back then, Gone With the Wind was still sanctified as The Greatest Movie Ever Made). Korman’s fits of unscripted laughter also broke a wall.
Mad Magazine and Cracked were also still big during the Seventies and greatly enjoyed for their relentless mocking of pop culture. As a kid, I consumed a steady diet of skepticism both pointed and silly. (Mad is still at it, but Cracked has evolved into a sort of “Book of Lists” format — another formative book in my education, incidentally.)
American life today has become so breathlessly Serious even while simultaneously becoming soullessly (as opposed to soulfully) irreverent. Carlin became too curmudgeonly for my taste in his latter years — but as he said, behind every cultural satirist you find a frustrated idealist. Although his career had been on the downswing for a while, his passing still feels like a milestone, like popular sanity has lost a champion.
(This post also represents a milestone of sorts for me. It’s the first time I’ve ever expanded a Twitter posting into a full blog post. This must be like what happens when Sean Kirst or Bob Niedt turns a blog posting into a column.)