Thursday, April 08, 2010

Pulling A "Carlin"

I came of age during a certain Silver Age of comedy. This would be roughly the '80s, with some catch-up work being done with comedians whose work started before I really got into it, but I went back and picked it up. I loved Steve Martin, Bill Cosby, George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Bob & Doug McKenzie, Jeff Altman, Robin Williams, Sam Kinison…the list could go on, but why should it? What I have to say doesn't entail having a complete list, but rather focuses in on 3 of them whose comedy was also philosophy: Martin, Kinison, and Carlin. Martin himself was actually a philosophy major in college, so the goofy existential nature of his stand-up routines followed what might be termed a natural course. Kinison was picking up on the rant-&-rage aspect of Carlin, pointing out things we all know and then taking them to ridiculous conclusions…but of course he died right at the height of his fame. Which leaves me with Carlin.

George Carlin. Y'know, I never knew what George himself found funny. Even after watching & re-watching his 13 HBO specials, after reading his books, and seeing him twice in concert…I never really saw him laugh. Robin Williams cracked himself up mid-routine, but George…he was a rock. Sometimes he seemed too angry to laugh (or to laugh AT), but some of his kookier dick-&-fart jokes were such side-splitters…but never once did he laugh at his own shit.

Not having Carlin in my life kind of leaves a hole, because I really treasured the man and what he had to say. He was so profoundly influential on my own sense of humor, and I grew up laughing too hard to realize how insidious he actually was. George was teaching me to think, in very specific ways, without ever giving the appearance of doing so. It's only now, with an adult's understanding of the world, that I realize how much of my thinking works the way it does because of Carlin's stand-up routines.

I think the best thing I ever saw George do was to take a normal set of circumstances, one we could all see and agree "Yup, that's the way things are!", and then exaggerate the hell out of it, following a particular course of action to its own (usually uncomfortable) logical conclusion. It was only after you were laughing yourself silly that you'd realize "Hey, he's serious about this!" And then you'd realize that George's comedy was often centered around rubbing people's noses in their own shit. Kind of like listening to Strange Fruit. Uncomfortable truths, brought to the light.

My best example of this was George's attitude about taking care of crime. Basically, he advocated fencing off one of those big square states that nobody really uses ("like Utah") and putting all the criminals inside. Put as many confiscated drugs and guns as you could in there with them. Then, to make things really interesting, put a gate in the fence every 50 miles or so, and have it programmed to randomly open once a week, for 45 seconds. The killer was that he saw all the commercial possibilities of this course of action. Certainly, you'd want video cameras all over the place, especially at the gates. Then, put the unedited video on Pay-Per-View! And use the money to pay for our schools.

See what I mean? He took a basic truth we all know about, something we all say "We really need to do something about that!", and then he followed it to a certain logical conclusion, to see if what we said we wanted turned out to be what we really wanted…or if it just turned our stomachs. "Hmmm…well, that would certainly relieve our over-crowded prisons and find a way to fund our schools, which are good things…"

I call this Pulling A Carlin. Take some idea, some set of circumstances that we all seem to agree on, then exaggerate the shit out it and follow it to its logical conclusion. Basically, play up the uncomfortable nature of who we are and what we say & think.

I'm certainly no comedian, but I'd like to Pull A Carlin on health care. Ready?

We say we value human life. It is our stated goal to preserve life, which means we don't throw Down's babies into burlap sacks and drown 'em in the river, and we don't take granny with Stage 5 lung cancer out behind the barn and put 'er down. Good. Now: how do we achieve the goal of showing how much we value human life? Does there need to be an equality to the way we consider our value of human life?

Take Person A ("Steve"). Steve is middle-aged, college-educated, works hard and makes a decent wage. Steve's employer provides health care, so that when Steve (or his family) gets sick, there's a co-pay to deal with, but basically the insurance company picks up the tab. They really don't, of course: the employer pays premiums for Steve, and Steve himself pays for some of his premium, and all the people together in that insurance pool pay for premiums, and out of that collection of money, the bill gets paid. Notwithstanding any large-scale catastrophic claims, everyone in that pool gets their health care taken care of.

Take Person B ("Sarah"). Sarah is middle-aged too, but she's lightly learning disabled. In another era, we'd have said she was "mildly retarded." Part of her disability is illiteracy, so she never went to college, and has difficulty in modern times keeping a steady job. The jobs she does land certainly don't come with health benefits, and she lives below the poverty line so she doesn't have the discretionary income to buy insurance on the open market. She's the legal guardian of her two young grandchildren, because her fuck-up of a daughter is addicted to drugs and lives in a car outside Tucson. One of the grandkids gets sick, Sarah tries to take care of it as best she can with OTC medicines she can barely afford, especially after she loses her job because she took too many days off caring for the sick grandkid. Finally the grandkid is so sick the only recourse is to take her to the emergency room, where doctors treat her for pneumonia and keep her for 6 days. Sarah naturally has no way to pay for this, so the hospital "absorbs" the cost by charging Steve's kid $50 for a fuckin' aspirin.

I don't have any way to make this funny, there are no hidden cameras to put it all on TV…but I still want to know what the logical next step ought to be. Is this system broken? If it's not, if this system works for everybody, then let's let sleeping dogs lie, and we can all use more and more of our income to prop up our existing health care system. That's fine. End of discussion.

If it is broken, though…what do we do? Do we honestly say "Fuck 'em, Sarah's kids shouldn't get sick!" as if it's actually a choice? Doing that would invalidate our claim to value all human life…which, again, if you wanna stand up and jump in that line, great: end of discussion. Unfortunately, you'll always be marginalized by society, so you've just sealed the deal on your life as a curmudgeonly hermit. Now, for the rest of us at the table…

Where is the solution? What do we DO for people who, for whatever reason that you or I don't know about, don't have the financial means to pay for health care? Do we let them die, thinking "Well, killing off those sick people will certainly clear up the gene pool!" Maybe we wouldn't be in this position in the first place if we'd let SARAH die back when SHE was a baby! "Sure, one less 'tard in the world who shouldn't have procreated in the first place, now there are FOUR people who won't suck dry the resources of honest, hardworking Americans!"

It's a thought problem. If things genuinely don't work right now, then there has to be a fix. What is it?


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