The 2009 film Milk, which was nominated for eight Oscars and won for Sean Penn’s acting and for its screenplay, worked laboriously to duplicate the music, fashions, and distressing hairstyles of the 1970s—but it slipped, and slipped unforgivably, when Sean Penn declared at one point that society should care for “seniors.” No one used the term at the time (the phrase was “senior citizens”), and it would not come into general use for another decade, when a heightened and anxious vigilance about language was roiling public life. It is ironic that a film devoted to the theme of changing attitudes should get this detail wrong. But attitudes and sensibilities are like invisible barriers: you only know they have been moved when you stumble over them. For this reason, audiences born after the 1970s have difficulty understanding American popular culture from the 1970s—the moment before what has come to be known as “political correctness” came to dominate every aspect of our cultural awareness.
I thought of this as I read Last Words, the posthumously published memoirs of George Carlin. Through a quirk of timing, it appeared just as Steve Martin’s Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life was issued in paperback.1 Today Carlin and Martin are mostly known for their acting work, but four decades ago they were by far the country’s most influential comedians, with carefully crafted sensibilities and performance styles that spoke to mass audiences as no stand-up before or since really did or has. Carlin offered blunt social commentary with his insistently personal humor. Martin was deliberately impersonal and studiously avoided any reference to politics or social issues. Carlin dominated comedy in the early part of the decade; Martin in the latter. The shift from the one to the other as the 1970s progressed—from Carlin’s urgent sincerity to Martin’s ironic insincerity—reveals something essential about the course of recent American history.
George Carlin (1937-2008) was the product of an uncommonly intense Irish Catholic upbringing in Manhattan. With an absent father and a working mother, he found his main source of authority in the Church, where he learned the Catholic doctrine that he could recite word for word throughout his life. As a child he quibbled over that doctrine with exasperated priests and nuns, just as he would later quibble with policemen and Air Force sergeants during his time in the service. This gave him his theme and method, which was to goad those who lay down the rules, in the implicit belief that if they were made to explain those rules in detail, the whole edifice would crumple hilariously into a heap of contradictions and hypocrisies.
Carlin’s special talent was in capturing the self-importance of intermediate authority figures. This was the origin of the routine that first brought him fame, “The Indian Sergeant.” His premise was that Western movies showed only two classes of American Indians, grizzled chiefs or half-naked braves, but no one in between. There must also have been drill sergeants, the crusty noncoms who attended to the paperwork and the tedium of turning raw recruits into warriors. (“All right, youse’ve all been given a piece of birch bark and a feather dipped in eagle’s blood. We want youse to write on the birch bark—with the feather—in the upper right hand corner. The upper RIGHT HAND corner. That’s your ARROW hand.”) The routine made Carlin a favorite on the television circuit, and he was soon exploiting every possible permutation: a drill sergeant with Columbus, with Robin Hood, with Santa Claus.
Carlin would not find his true voice until well into his second decade as a performer, when he dropped the artificial characters he hid behind, the drug-addled disc jockeys and TV weathermen that had come to dominate his act. His breakthrough was to speak to the audience in his own voice about serious things, going directly to the taboos that surround them. The liberation seemed to demand a physical transformation, and in short order the clean-cut, suit-and-tie-sporting Carlin became a long-haired, shambling hippie, albeit one 35 years old.
Carlin achieved national notoriety with his 1972 album, appropriately named Class Clown, with its celebrated “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television.” I was 15 when I heard the album in the house of a friend, and I can still remember the shock of it when Carlin, after a coy buildup, launched into the seven forbidden words, trilling through them like 16th notes and with the jewel-like diction that betrayed his early training as a DJ. Few of us then had heard these words spoken aloud by an adult, let alone at full volume, each syllable caressed phonetically. The effect was startling.
But it is unclear what startled us more—the taboo that Carlin punctured or the revelation that even in that forbidden terrain of profanity, there was no anarchy but only another set of rules, a kind of grammar of profanity. These are rules one learns intuitively and not formally. To spell them out as Carlin did in plain, clinical language—as one might recite the conjugation of a verb—was to achieve the greatest feat for any class clown: to become the teacher himself. Carlin may have presented himself as a merry anarchist, but he was as dedicated to finding out what the rules were as he was to breaking them. With Carlin, one hears not only the class clown from Catholic school but also the Catholic logician it produced, at once scatological and eschatological.
Last Words reveals how Carlin, from Catholic school to the Air Force, had a lifelong skepticism about the moral basis of authority. When he reinvented himself in 1972, this same skepticism had come to preoccupy American society at large, and for a moment his idiosyncratic point of view aligned with the Zeitgeist.
But the wheel of the Zeitgeist does not stand still. And three years later it had rolled on when Saturday Night Live debuted on October 11, 1975. Carlin, the most visible of counterculture comedians, was the inevitable choice to be the first guest host for the new comedy series. He deliberately chose a provocative subject for his monologue—religion—and tackled it with characteristically impertinent logic. “Maybe God is only a semi-supreme being,” he said. “Everything He’s ever made has died.” The routine culminated in an analysis of the custom of affixing a plastic figurine of Jesus on the dashboard of automobiles. Why, Carlin asked, did it always face the driver? Wouldn’t he be more helpful keeping track of the oncoming traffic? And above all, why was he forced to “look at a middle-class hypocrite like you”?
Religion, class, social hypocrisy: here were all the themes of Carlin’s career, compressed into a handful of words. But that night, the material fell oddly flat. Carlin’s earnestness seemed out of step with the absurdist antics of John Belushi, Dan Aykroyd, Chevy Chase, and Gilda Radner, the superstars who emerged from nowhere on that debut show and overwhelmed American popular culture almost instantly. Carlin’s comic sensibility seemed to have been formed in a different place. And after this debut episode, class consciousness and religion would vanish almost entirely from Saturday Night Live, where the humor was anchored not by moral urgency but by ironic detachment. Carlin was not invited back. Instead, a comedian of a different stripe entirely would become indelibly associated with it.
Steve Martin was born to Baptist parents in 1945 in Waco, although the family moved from Texas to Hollywood when he was five. At an early age he discovered magic and went to work in Disneyland’s magic shop, where he demonstrated card tricks to customers. Learning to brush off mistakes with jokes, he came to the same insight as W.C. Fields, who began his career as a juggler: a clever ad-lib always drew a bigger response than the trick itself. If Carlin’s verbal humor can be traced to his early years as a DJ, Martin’s derives from his magician’s training and its focus on the rhythmic control of movement and speech.
As with Carlin, Martin’s comic breakthrough took place in 1972. “Around this time I smelled a rat,” Martin put it. “The rat was the Age of Aquarius.” He decided that hippie political humor had played itself out and that the California hippie garb he had been affecting—complete with shaggy beard and love beads—was the costume of a soon-to-be extinct tribe. He stripped all political humor and topical references from his act. It was a gesture he regarded not as a sellout to the Man but as an expression of defiance against a prevailing cultural orthodoxy. Soon he even purged his routine of traditional jokes and punch lines, relying instead on pointless bits of physical humor and conundrums inspired by the philosophy courses he took in college (“How many of you have never raised your hand before?”).
Martin’s comic strategy was to place an anticlimax wherever a punch line was expected, and then to move briskly forward without waiting for a response. There was no room for jokes to fall flat since there were, strictly speaking, no jokes at all. The result was an uneasy experience, without any moment of catharsis, the laughs coming at offbeat intervals or not at all. The audience could never tell if he was foundering or succeeding wildly. This gave his humor a kind of Cistercian abstemiousness, which has been variously described as anti-comedy, Zen surrealism, or conceptual comedy. The public found Martin’s comedy something of an acquired taste, and he languished on the club circuit for five years before Saturday Night Live made him an overnight star.
It takes a feat of historical re-construction to see why he seemed so vital and fresh in 1977. His catchphrases have not aged well, nor has the mock indignation of “Excuuuse me” and the hapless Czech Lothario proclaiming along with his brother that “we’re two wild and crazy guys.” In large part, it was simply the weird novelty that made him so fascinating. Martin succeeded in turning upside down every convention of counterculture humor, i.e., everything that Carlin represented.
Instead of the stoned ramble, he offered a clipped precision; instead of the hirsute and slovenly pose, he cut his hair short and neat, let it go gray, and wore three-piece white suits. But above all, he stripped his performances of anything resembling content. With Carlin, one remembered the content; with Martin, it was the form. In the end, his performances offered something very much like an abstracted magic show—a series of defiantly meaningless stunts offset by absurd patter—except that there was not any actual magic.
Martin’s humor, like Carlin’s, was the product of a particular historical moment, but unlike Carlin, he knew when it had passed. After a few years, he exchanged comedy for film and never returned. Carlin would take longer to find a new footing. In both cases, the humor is remembered sentimentally by those of a certain age but is effectively inaccessible to anyone under 30.
What both Carlin and Martin neglect to explain in their surprisingly poignant and humane books is the convulsive change in national taste that embraced the one and jettisoned the other in the middle of the decade. Was it merely the oscillation of fashion, the unrelenting yen for novelty? This is not a question that can be answered by the popular view of the 1970s, which sees the decade as a long jubilee of pet rocks, smiley faces, disco music, and kinetic polyester plaids. Of course, that image is a polemic fiction, made to serve as a foil for the laurel-crowned 1960s. In fact, the 1970s were rather more complex and dynamic, as these books make clear.
Unless you were born around 1957, you will not have seen Tribes, a 1970 made-for-TV movie that showed the travails of a hippie in Marine Corps boot camp tormented by a drill sergeant. But those of us who were of that era certainly saw it, all 700 of my classmates, as I learned the next morning in school. For those of us in the eighth grade, with the hyper-alertness with which those on the threshold of adulthood view the looming world ahead, there was nothing more urgent than the draft. And this mild television film, which depicted nothing more harrowing than the shaving of the heads of the recruits, seemed to offer the one thing we craved: hard information about what it was like to be drafted.
And yet, in little more than a year’s time, it was clear to us all that Vietnam was not in our future. This great release of anxiety is the central psychological event of my age cohort, and out of it came much of what we think to be the culture of the 1970s, that is to say, its popular culture. It is not exactly correct to speak of the idealism of the 1960s and hedonism of the 1970s. The hedonism had always been there (as Carlin and Martin make abundantly clear), but the various liberations of the 1960s—from traditional morality, from sexual constraints, from gender roles—took place against the background of the Cold War and the Vietnam War. The threat of death in combat or in a nuclear exchange was the fixed reference point for these liberations, investing them with a moral dimension. This threat was the smoldering volcano around which the saturnalia revolved.
And then, in the first few weeks of 1972, the volcano went silent. President Richard Nixon’s visit to China was the end of a process that began with the lifting of the draft threat a few months earlier. For me and my contemporaries, the sense of relief was palpable, and it was felt broadly throughout the culture around us. Radio’s Top 40 had been filled with apocalyptic songs about the war, ecology, student protest, and police brutality; overnight, as if by a signal, these themes dropped. The comet of the youth movement fragmented into multiple causes and crusades but without its sense of coherence and propulsion. It was at this moment that strident moralism lost its purchase and no longer seemed hip to us, especially in humor. This would be the dead rat of Aquarius that Martin smelled.
The careening liberations would continue, however, for another decade or so, until a convergence of factors—in which AIDS, the raising of the drinking age, and a vast expansion in the reach of liability laws played the largest part—created a very different cultural moment.
Biologists use the term “type specimen” to describe the first identified member of a new species, against which others are compared and identified. Carlin and Martin were each a type specimen of a particular comic sensibility, and they embodied its traits to perfection. Carlin expressed with unusual clarity an East Coast sensibility, abrasive and volatile, tempered in the ethnic crucible of New York, and keenly aware of differences in class, religion, and language. Martin’s was of the West Coast, and likewise from its cultural epicenter, where the specifics of ethnic, religious, and geographic identity were not brooded upon. They stand on either side of that great divide that is the central fact, at least in cultural terms, of the 1970s. For those of us who came of age then, this is what the films and books about that decade never quite get right, which was the giddy sense that came from an unearned reprieve.
1 Steve Martin, Born Standing Up: A Comic’s Life (Simon and Schuster, 224 pages), and George Carlin, Last Words (Free Press, 292 pages).