Printer Friendly

George, Woody, Gary, and Homer S.: popular culture meets classical rhetoric.

One of the many advantages to having a deep familiarity with classical rhetoric--the figures of speech (tropes and schemes) and figures of thought--arises from the fruitful application of that taxonomy to the field of comedy. Doing so, we can better appreciate the often-artful ingenuity of the comics' material and, thus, the comics themselves. Unlike those of us who analyze the written and spoken word professionally, however, passive audience members or readers never go beyond what I call the first or second level of enjoyment-receptivity. With comedy, for instance, the first level is merely a non-analytical response to the humor: "Make me laugh; don't ask me to think." The second, deeper level involves what we might term a "pause moment" because of an intuitive understanding that something clever, something particularly witty, has been said (or written). The third level of appreciation goes beyond the merely passive and intuitive and is the province solely of those of us trained in the arts of language: linguistics, stylistics, rhetoric. We are best equipped to admire the artistry of the brightest of comics because we can identify the devices they use to amuse and astound us, and determine their effectiveness when so employed. Of course, not all humor is linguistically clever and, it must be admitted, outside of slapstick and other visual gags, all humor depends on the verbal, whether we encounter it in written form or in stand-up routines. Sometimes, the message contains the humor, as when George Carlin quips, "Jesus doesn't really love you, but he thinks you have a great personality" (Sometimes a Little Brain Damage Can Help hp); other times, however, the medium contains the humor. In other words, what is comedic is not always so much what is said but how it is said, and that is the brand of comedy with which we are largely concerned here. When we have a ready-made nomenclature, we can more easily glimpse the linguistic and other figurative machinery behind the stage, so to speak: the pulleys, levers, platforms, and ropes that enable the performance. This is not to say that all the verbal and persuasive manipulations enacted by the comic are equally brilliant: sometimes the figures are obvious and not necessarily cerebral (hyperbole, sarcasm, name-calling). Other times they are more subtle and clever, as with certain word schemes of repetition, addition, omission, and arrangement.

Some of the comics who have made a significant impact on American popular culture over the last three decades have done so in part because of their linguistic cleverness. George Carlin--the "thinking person's comic"--is foremost among them. In Brain Droppings, he admits what will not surprise anyone familiar with his work: "For a long time, my stand-up material has drawn from three sources. The first is the English language: words, phrases, sayings, and the ways we speak" (xi). Even a quick perusal of his four books makes clear his fascination with language. In When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops ? he complains about people using differential when they mean difference, devotes several pages to prepositional phrases, rants about what people have written on their bumper-stickers, and wonders why "There are caregivers and there are caretakers, and yet the two words are not opposites" (265). In Napalm and Silly Putty, he ponders for seven pages the unusual language of airline announcements, disputes the accuracy of the phrase "the winds are calm" ("if they're calm, they're not really winds, are they?" [31]), and devotes an entire chapter to "Expressions I Question" ("Legally drunk. Well, if it's legal, what's the problem?" [154]). In Brain Droppings, he sets aside a couple pages for food terms ("If drumsticks are for playing drums, you'd think breadsticks would be for playing bread, wouldn't you?" [13]), considers people's names for seven pages ("There are women named Faith, Hope, Joy, and Prudence. Why not Despair, Guilt, Rage, and Grief?." [22]), has more fun with prepositions ("Why do we turn lights 'out' when we turn most other things 'off'?" [74]), is frightened by the concept of the "walk-in closet" ("If I'm ever sittin' at home and a closet walks in, I'm getting' outta there" [83]), expresses his puzzlement through numerous rhetorical questions ("Why do we say redheaded but brownhaired?." [89]), gripes about television personalities "nibbling away at the English language" (115), points out the redundancy of the pre prefix in eleven words, deconstructs a number of cliches, tells us which people he avoids because of their speech habits, laments the absence of certain rhymes in songs ("Tonto/Toronto" [248]), sets aside a chapter on the correct definitions of certain words and phrases, and pedantically pulls out Webster's Third New International Dictionary to provide the proper meanings of explicit and graphic. Carlin's sardonic observations about the verbal habits of Americans also include complaints about euphemisms and oxymorons. In his books, we find dozens of examples of these two particular pet peeves.

Carlin is not the only U.S. comedian who engages in humor based on the linguistic. To illustrate certain rhetorical figures, and (in part) for purposes of comparison with Carlin, I have included some quotations from the cerebral Woody Allen, the brilliant cartoonist Gary Larson, and some much more obscure, but nonetheless clever, writers for The Simpsons. So let us look at the following (considerably abbreviated) catalogue to see how we can "deconstruct," or at least identify, a number of figures employed by American humorists. These figures are not always in themselves comedic; often the wit displayed involves the appropriation of those devices to serve the comic muse. This is not to say, though, that the entertainers in question are necessarily familiar with the names of the particular devices they happen to be employing. They will likely know the less esoteric terms; certainly Carlin mentions some of them explicitly (bathos, euphemism, oxymoron, rhetorical question)--one of his chapters in Pork Chops? is "Count the Superfluous Redundant Pleonastic Tautologies." I would guess that most comedians, no matter how cerebral they may be, do not know the majority of terms in my catalogue. Nevertheless, it is both instructive and fascinating to see modern entertainers employing, even intuitively, the schemes and tropes that those terms name. If they themselves are indeed acquainted with the nomenclature, then cognition extends to meta-cognition: they know they know the terms and what they refer to, which in itself contributes to their "invention strategies" when composing new material. And for those of us who are students of American humor, the terminology of classical rhetoric represents yet another analytical tool at our disposal. We can recognize a device at work then determine the comedic strategy behind it. We can also to some extent relate the use of certain figures to American literature and culture more broadly, as I attempt to do.

ANTANACLASIS: (1) punning repetition; (2) homonymic pun; (3) the use of one word (or phrase) in two senses, often contrasting, for comedy or "to drive a point home" (Frye et al. 38). Here are instances of this trope from Brain Droppings:
   in baseball if an offensive player touches the ball intentionally,
   he's out; sometimes unintentionally, he's out. (50)

   I've never owned a telescope, but it's something I'm thinking of
   looking into. (72)


In these examples, the humor arises from an unexpected turn or meaning in the second half of the sentence, a surprise unanticipated by the auditor or reader. Types: puns; repetition: words

ANTIMETABOLE: inverting the order of repeated words (AB:BA) to sharpen their sense or to contrast the ideas they convey or both. Like its twin sister chiasmos, antimetabole can be used to suggest ironic reversal; it challenges and, therefore, compels us to reconsider causal relationships:

I am wont to think that men are not so much the keepers of herds as herds are the keepers of men.... (Thoreau, Walden 38)

This device impresses with its syntactical ingenuity, for each clause is a mirror image of the other: "men herds I herds men." This figure is a favorite of U.S. politicians, but I have also found it in numerous American authors. Carlin likes it and, like Thoreau, occasionally uses it to point up ironic reversals:

I remember when they tried to teach me to tell time as a little boy. What they didn't know, of course, was that you don't tell time; time tells you. (Napalm 249)

Next, he employs the device to expose what logicians call the "fallacy of special pleading":

whatever room they put you in, there's usually a dresser or a nightstand, and there's never any room on it for your stuff. Someone else's shit is on the dresser! Have you noticed that their stuff is shit, and your shit is stuff? (Brain Droppings 39)

The exemplifications in other rhetorical catalogues demonstrate that Carlin is only one of the latest in a long line of linguistic wits who employed antimetabole and chiasmos, including Moliere, Johnson, Dryden, Pope, Bierce, and Macaulay. Gary Larson has also been inspired by this device, in one cartoon (see Fig. 1), he depicts an ant giving an oration to a colony h la John F. Kennedy:

"And remember ... ask not what your anthill can do for you, but what you can do for your anthill."

Why did Larson not use another type of animal or insect--say, a bee speaking to a hive's inhabitants? Because who else but an ant would employ ant-imetabole?

I have said it is a scheme admired by public figures--perhaps especially when it involves punning (cf. antanaclasis), as in the 1970s feminist slogan quoted by Gloria Steinem in her 2004 speech "Leaps of Consciousness":

"sink into his arms and you may end up with your arms in his sink."

Particularly clever in this example is not only the syntactical reversal but also the antistasis: the repetition of the word sink in a different sense. This sort of word play can break down the barriers of hostility: for those of us who love language, it is easy to appreciate the wit that such devices demonstrate. We can be made more open to the speaker and her message when we have enjoyed her humor and linguistic cleverness, which enhance her ethos.

Types: balance; repetition: words

THE FAR SIDE BY GARY LARSOIN

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

"And remember ... ask not what your anthill can do for you, but what you can do for your anthill."

APHORISMUS: a figure of thought: a concise, witty statement lull of meaning and often moralistic. The aphorism, which is sometimes in the form of a definition, is meant to challenge us and make us think, even jolt us. Nietzsche, once a teacher of rhetoric, cultivated an intensely aphoristic style, and perhaps no aphorism has jolted people more than "God is dead!" Emerson and Thoreau also loved the aphorism, and the latter provides a good definition of the term when hc says sentences should be "concentrated and nutty" and "suggest far more than they say":

The reason they call it the American Dream is because you have to be asleep to believe it. (Brain Droppings" 83)

It is no surprise that the iconoclastic Carlin should use the device to jolt us. Although they do not have to be, it is telling that Carlin's aphorisms are satirical. We cannot help but recognize the truth of what he is suggesting, as he sometimes displays psychological insight:

People who say they don't care what people think are usually desperate to have people think they don't care what people think. (Napahn 9)

AUXESIS: a trope, the use of a heightened word (or phrase) in place of an ordinary one (Lanham 26); magnifying the importance of something by referring to it with a disproportionate name (Corbett 452). People often inflate job titles, sometimes to avoid embarrassment. One Larson cartoon (see Fig. 2) has two poodles entertaining another poodle and her mate, a rather mean-looking junkyard dog. The hostess says,

"So, Raymond ... Linda tells us you work in the security division of an automobile wreckage site."

As part of his complaints about social ostentation in restaurant menus, Carlin turns the linguistic weapons back on their users:

Instead of asking for a glass of water, say you'd like a "cylindrical, machine-blown, clear drinking vessel filled with nature's own colorless, odorless, extra-wet, liquid water." (Brain Droppings 10)

Types: amplification; substitution: words

BARBARISMUS: a mistake in vocabulary, pronunciation, or grammar--an illiterate expression that violates the rules of a language due to ignorance or confusion (cf. malapropism). In Brain Droppings, the facetious Carlin provides an entire chapter on "Words and Phrases We Should Have":
   re-go = to return somewhere
   de-have = to lose something (133)


Type: ungrammatical, illogical, or unusual uses of language

THE FAR SIDE[R] BY GARY LARSOIN

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

"So, Raymond ... Linda tells us you work in the security division of an automobile wreckage site."

BATHOS: the Greek word for depth, an unintentional descent in literature when, attempting to be sublime, elevated or passionate, a writer overshoots the mark and drops into the insignificant, the ridiculous. The term is sometimes interchangeable with anticlimax. Bathos can appear intentionally when a writer uses it for comical or satirical purposes. Often expressed as paraprosdokian (see below), bathos is a staple comedic technique of Woody Allen (who is, like Carlin, a thinking person's comic):

Not only is there no God, but try getting a plumber on weekends. (Getting Even 25)

Allen's falls from the sublime to the ridiculous often appear in a philosophical context: they begin with some dark existential truth and then undermine its seriousness. Thus, the use of the device might go beyond its comedic function for Allen and represent a psychological coping mechanism, a comedic or existential equivalent of whistling in the dark while frightened. Perhaps surprisingly, we do not find a lot of bathos in Carlin, but here is an example that lacks the possibly psychological function of a Woody Allen exemplification but does demonstrate Carlin's expected irreverence:

A spokesperson for the Vatican announced today that in Rome a statue of St. Peter has come to life and is passing along fishing tips and veal recipes. (Napalm 21)

CACEMPHATON: a scurrilous jest, lewd allusion, or double entendre:

Just because your penis surgery was not successful is no reason to go off half-cocked. (Brain Droppings 88)

Type: ungrammatical, illogical, or unusual uses of language

CHOROGRAPHIA: the description of a nation. When Carlin engages in chorographia with America as his subject, we find him in the jeremiad mode. Hc provides an imaginary monologue from an airplane pilot:

"Ladies and gentlemen, we have just begun our gradual descent into the Los Angeles area, similar in many ways to the gradual descent of this once great nation from a proud paragon of God-fearing virtue to a third-rate power awash in violence, sexual excess, and personal greed...." (Napalm 16)

Type: description

CLICHE: a worn-out expression once cleverly original. This is not a rhetorical term, strictly speaking, and from the French rather than the Greek or Latin. Carlin is sensitive to them in his poem "A Modern Man," whom he describes as being

Behind the eight ball, ahead of the curve ridin' the wave, dodgin' the bullet, pushin' the envelope. (Pork Chops? 2)

He considers cliches at length in Brain Droppings. in one chapter, he deconstructs a number of them; elsewhere, he provides another list titled "More general lame overused expressions for which the users ought to be slain." They include

it works for me you gotta love it go get 'em, tiger! (144)

if you insist on employing a cliche, at least give it new life by providing an unexpected ending (see paraprosdokian)--or subvert it:

Remember, inside every silver lining there's a dark cloud. (Brain Droppings 210)

We may wonder if Carlin had been inspired by Thoreau, who also invigorates cliches to get us to see things in a fresh light:

clothes introduced sewing, a kind of work which you may call endless; a woman's dress, at least, is never done. (Walden 15)

DIATYPOSIS: recommending useful precepts, rules of conduct. This device is foregrounded in some of Benjamin Franklin's writings. His essay "The Way to Wealth," like his Autobiography, is an extended exercise in diatyposis. Many of his precepts have become cliches by now, they are so widely quoted: "God helps them that help themselves"; "There are no Gains, without Pains"; "he that goes a borrowing goes a sorrowing." Some of these precepts make a connection between religion and wealth, money and morality. The Protestant Work Ethic, so clear in Franklin's use of diatyposis, is very much a part of the mainstream American way of thinking. "The Way to Wealth" belongs to the genre known as prescriptive literature, which flourishes in U.S. culture.

Like Carlin, Simpsons writers sometimes like to emphasize the extent to which they believe America has fallen from its ideals. One way to do so is through a subverted--and therefore a satirical--diatyposis, as in this example of recommendations Homer gives to Bart:

"I want to share something with you--the three little sentences that will get you through life. Number one, 'cover for me.' Number two, 'oh, good idea, boss.' Number three, 'it was like that when I got here.'"

(Neil Scovell, "One Fish, Two Fish, Blowfish, Blue Fish")

Carlin combines diatyposis with paraprosdokian in this facetious example:

Keep your thoughts and ideas to yourself and don't ask questions. Remember, the squeaky wheel is the first one to be replaced. (Brain Droppings 217)

Types: devices of vehemence; example, allusion, and citation of authority; techniques of argument

EUPHEMISMUS: a trope--to avoid bluntness, the use of a pleasant term for an unpleasant term or fact. In one cartoon (Fig. 3), Larson has the Creature from the Black Lagoon telling his human date,
   "I rather resent being called a 'swamp thing.' ... I prefer the term
   "wetlands-challenged mutant.'"


Carlin has pages and pages of euphemisms, and in Brain Droppings tells us his feelings about them:
   Euphemisms are a form of lying. Fat people are not gravitationally
   disadvantaged. They're fat. I prefer seeing things the way they
   are, not the way some people wish they were.... Crippled people are
   simply crippled. It's a perfectly honorable word. There is no shame
   in it. It's in the Bible: "Jesus healed the cripples." He didn't
   engage in rehabilitative strategies for the physically
   disadvantaged. (161-62)


Carlin names the class of people largely responsible for this brand of political correctness: "politically sensitive language commandos" (162), "liberal language vandals," "white elitists," "failed campus revolutionaries" (163), "classroom liberals" (166). He exposes the sinister politics behind certain euphemisms:

If you want the individual to sound shady and suspicious, you call him an Eye-racky. If you want to upgrade him a bit, he becomes an Iraqi-American. lf you're trying to clean him up completely, you call him an American citizen of Iraqi descent. (Pork Chops? 165)

Still, he realizes their comedic potential, too:

Baseball bats are now the preferred weapon for many drug gangs and others who have a business need to administer behavioral reminders. (Napalm 159)

Types: devices of vehemence; metaphorical substitutions and puns; techniques of argument

HORISMUS: a clear, brief, pithy definition (sometimes antithetical). The use of this device for comedy and satire goes at least as far back as Ambrose Bierce's The Devil's Dictionary, which defines faith as
   Belief without evidence in what is told by one who speaks without
   knowledge, of things without parallel. (84)


The following example suggests that Carlin may have been dipping into Bierce:

Spirituality: the last refuge of a failed human. (Napalm 29)

Carlin sometimes provides punning horismus:

Woodpecker: A seventeenth-century prosthetic device. (Brain Droppings 64)

THE FAR SIDE[R] BY GARY LARSON

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

"Well, actually, Doreen, I rather resent being called a 'swamp thing.' ... I prefer the term 'wetlands-challenged-mutant.'"

Occasionally, his definitions involve antitheses:

Auto racing: slow minds and fast cars. (Brain Droppings 89)

Type: description

MEIOSIS: belittling a thing or person with a degrading epithet; generally, a lessening. Carlin's example employs seriation (listing) and illustrates the satirical possibilities of the device:

In reverse order, our last eight presidents: A hillbilly with a permanent hard-on; an upper-class bureaucrat-twit; ala actor-imbecile; a born-again Christian peanut farmer; ala unelected college football lineman; a paranoid moral dwarf; a vulgar cowboy criminal; and a mediocre playboy sex fiend. (Brain Droppings 206)

Types: metaphorical substitutions and puns; techniques of argument

MORPHOLOGICAL SET: a term from linguistics referring to a set of words linked on the basis of identity or similarity of shape. The shapes of words are often determined by groups of letters called morphemes, frequently prefixes and suffixes. A morphological set can indicate a sense of linguistic playfulness, and we should not be surprised to find that linguistic genius, Carlin, employing the device in his magnificent poem "A Modern Man":

I interface with my database; my database is in cyberspace; so I'm interactive, I'm hyperactive, and from time to time I'm radioactive.... But I'm feeling, I'm caring, I'm healing, I'm sharing. A supportive, bonding, nurturing Primary care-giver.... I've been pre-washed, pre-cooked, pre-heated, pre-screened, pre-approved, pre-packaged, post-dated, freeze-dried, double-wrapped and vacuum-packed. (Pork Chops? 2-5)

Centuries before modern linguists invented the term morphological set, classical rhetors had anticipated it. Dupriez, using instead the rhetorical term homoioteleuton, notes that this sort of linguistic play "delights English-speaking audiences" (210).

Type: repetition: letters, syllables, and sounds

I think Carlin would very much have enjoyed perusing this rhetorical catalogue. After all, when the host of Inside the Actors Studio, James Lipton, asked him the standard question "What turns you on?," he replied "Reading about language."

OXYMORON: "a witty, paradoxical saying," a "condensed paradox"; a "pointed stupidity" (Frye et al. 331). This trope is one of Carlin's many pet peeves. The oxymorons he detests lack the redeeming quality of wit; rather, they simply illustrate how sloppy and thoughtless modern speakers of English have become with the language:

Guest host is a bad enough oxymoron, but NBC raised the stakes when, a few years back, they installed Jay Leno as the "permanent guest host." Not to be outdone, Joan Rivers pointed out that she had been the "first permanent guest host." (Brain Droppings 87)

In the same book, Carlin provides several lists of oxymorons, attaching a little satire to a couple of the items: "business ethics," "holy war."

Type: paradox

PARALLELISM: a scheme of repetition--the putting of like ideas in similar grammatical form:

Conservatives want live babies so they can raise them to be dead soldiers. (Napalm 223)

Carlin seems to understand that a satirical observation in a short, pithy, parallel form has a stronger rhetorical impact than the same observation expressed in a looser syntactic arrangement.

Types: balance; repetition: letters, syllables, and sounds; repetition: words; repetition: clauses, phrases, and ideas

PARAPROSDOKIAN: attaching a surprise ending to a sentence or phrase, which strategy often makes the reader or hearer reframe the initial sentence or phrase. This figure of speech sometimes produces a sense of anticlimax; therefore, some of the exemplifications I provide for bathos from that comedic philosopher Woody Allen could also do double duty as instances of paraprosdokian. The device figures frequently in Side Effects', where humor would seem to be offered implicitly as an antidote to the gloom arising from our awareness of life's inherent meaninglessness:
   One is struck by an almost existential feeling of
   purposelessness--particularly since the massage parlors closed.
   (27)


Carlin is far less reliant upon paraprosdokian than Allen, but he uses it now and then outside of any philosophical context to reinvigorate cliches:

If you can't beat them, arrange to have them beaten. (Brain Droppings 193)

PLOCE: a scheme, the repetition of a word with few words between. Carlin exploits the device--for nearly six pages in Brain Droppings--to satirize America's consumer culture:
   Let's say you go to Honolulu for two weeks. You gotta take two big
   suitcases of stuff. Two weeks, two big suitcases. That's the stuff
   you check onto the plane. But you also got your carry-on stuff,
   pius the stuff you bought in the airport. So now you're all set to
   go. You got stuff in the overhead rack, stuff under the seat, stuff
   in the seat pockets, and stuff in your lap. And let's not forget
   the stuff you're gonna steal from the airline.... (39)


Clearly, the emphatic recurrence of a lexical item can suggest obsession, as the duplication of the word eye in Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" indicates the source of the narrator's monomania. So, in Carlin's classic monologue, the almost maniacal recurrence of stuff is a condemnation of the West's fixation on material goods. Carlin has found through a device of repetition a new way of expressing Emerson's aphoristic sentiment, "Things are in the saddle,/ And ride mankind" ("Ode Inscribed to W. H. Channing" 440). Thus, Carlin the counter-culture iconoclast connects with the nineteenth-century precursors of the hippy movement, the American Transcendentalists: it was Thoreau, of course, who admonished his contemporaries, "Simplify, simplify" (Walden 62).

Types: devices of vehemence; repetition: words

POLYPTOTON: a scheme of repetition--duplication of the same word or root as different parts of speech; same root but with different endings. Although not a comedic device per se, it certainly can be used to amuse by demonstrating verbal calisthenics. Carlin utilizes the device to complain about pretentious language:

I object to the use of usage when it's used in place of use. There's nothing wrong with using use; it's been in use a long time and I'm used to it. It isn't that usage isn't useful; I simply have no use for its current usage. The use of usage should be consistent with good usage: I'd prefer to say, "My use of the Internet" rather than "my usage."... And, as I'm using space on usage, I'll use some more on utilize. (Pork Chops? 183-84)

Indeed, what university instructor has not encountered in the essays of undergraduates who wanted to "authenticate" their academic prose the utilization of utilize when use should have been utilized instead?

Type: repetition: words

POLYSYNDETON: a scheme of repetition involving the use of conjunctions (such as and or or) in a series of words, phrases, or clauses. In the following exemplification concerning religion, that notorious atheist Carlin shows his power of verbal mimicry by reproducing the most foregrounded stylistic feature of the Bible:

religion has actually convinced people--many of them adults--that there's an invisible man who lives in the sky and watches everything you do, every minute of every day. And who has a special list often things he does not want you to do.

And if you do any of these len things, he has a special place, full of fire and smoke and burning and torture and anguish, where he will send you to remain and suffer and bum and choke and scream and cry, forever and ever, till the end of time. But he loves you! (Napalm 28)

Type: repetition: words

RHETORICAL QUESTION: a query not requiring an answer, which is usually self-evident. Exemplifications from Brain Droppings illustrate Carlin's keen sensitivity to lexis:

In a hotel, why can't you use the house phone to phone your house? (94)

We have mileage, yardage, and footage. why don't we have inchage? (194)

Typically, a rhetorical question is asked not to elicit information but to express emotion, as with erotesis (implying strong affirmation or denial) and epiplexis (to chastise). Corbett says it also "can be an effective persuasive device, subtly influencing the kind of response one wants to get from an audience"; thus, it can bc more effective than a direct assertion (454). Carlin's rhetorical questions, though, do not work in these oratorical ways. Instead, they get us to think more deeply about the English language. Corbett points out, in fact, that the device can indeed function to "challenge the audience, make them more alert" (292).

Types: devices of vehemence; techniques of argument

SERIATION: a scheme of repetition, this involves setting together grammatically parallel units--words, phrases, clauses, sentences--in groups of two or more. The following example of adjectival seriation also depends on antithesis:

I wanted to be a Boy Scout, but I had all the wrong traits. Apparently, they were looking for kids who were trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. Unfortunately, at that time, I was devious, fickle, obstructive, hostile, rude, mean, defiant, glum, extravagant, cowardly, dirty and sacrilegious. So I waited a few years and joined the army. (Pork Chops? 277)

Carlin knows how to employ nominal seriation with minimal satirical commentary. Below, the names themselves, and the way he has ordered them in an implicitly anticlimactic arrangement, enable the reader (or audience) to understand the critique:

Washington. Jefferson. Franklin, Madison, Adams, Hamilton. Things were going well. Then Ford. Quayle, Mondale. Agnew. Nixon. Clinton, Dole. Bush I. Bush II. What happened?

(Pork Chops'? 52)

Whether consciously or not, Carlin is working within the Swiftian mode of satirical cataloguing such as abounds in Gulliver's Travels. When Gulliver visits Glubbdubdrib, Swift explores the theme of humanity's progressive degeneration. In Book II, he depends upon a kind of extended antithesis, comparing ancient and modern men. The magical governor calls up for Gulliver the shades of long dead figures from history:
   I desired that the Senate of Rome might appear before me in one
   large chamber, and a modern representative in counterview in
   another. The first seemed to be an assembly of heroes and demigods;
   the other a knot of pedlars [sic], pick-pockets, highwaymen and
   bullies. (158-59)


Carlin also seems to subscribe to the theory of human degeneration. When that misanthropic old hippy combines seriation with chorographia, he often falls into the role of Jeremiah (from which he is never far):

Traditional American values: Genocide. aggression, conformity, emotional repression, hypocrisy, and the worship of comfort and consumer goods. (Brain Droppings 100)

In addition to Swift, another satirical seriator was Rabelais, but Carlin apparently rejected the term satirist when applied to himself, though to many of us he may seem to be oscillating between the Swiftian savage indignation of Juvenalian ridicule and the amused contempt of Horatian. It is an old understanding that satire has a moral foundation: it exposes human error hoping to correct it. The satirist is a guardian of moral, social (and sometimes aesthetic) standards, deriding those who stray from them. Even jeremiads usually hold open the possibility that reforms will initiate a brighter future. Without using the term, Carlin discusses satire in the Preface to Brain Droppings': "My interest in 'issues' is merely to point out how badly we're doing, not to suggest a way we might do better. Don't confuse me with those who cling to hope. I enjoy describing how things are, I have no interest in how they 'ought to be.' And I certainly have no interest in fixing them" (xii). He might argue that the terms misanthrope or nihilist suit him better: "I think the human game was up a long time ago (when the high priests and traders took over), and now we're just playing out the string" (xi).

Types: amplification; balance: description

SYNATHROESMUS: seriation involving the piling up of adjectives (Espy 137). Carlin's instance of the device is critical in "Proud Parents of Another Drone," a brief chapter about bumper stickers:

"We are the proud parents of an honors student at the Franklin School." Or the Midvale Academy. Or whatever other innocent-sounding name has been assigned to the indoctrination center [[left arrow]meiosis] where their child has been sent to be stripped of his individuality and turned into an obedient, soul-dead, conformist member of the American consumer culture....

And what about those parents who aren't too proud of their children? "We are the embarrassed parents of a cross-eyed, drooling little nitwit...." (Pork Chops? 244-45)

Descriptive words can be dyslogistic (negative), eulogistic (positive), or neutral. Carlin employs dyslogistic epithets in the second paragraph strictly for humor; however, those of the first paragraph are more Juvenalian in tone and the satire is broader in scope, showing Carlin in his customary jeremiad form where the nation is concerned. The humor in the Simpsons excerpt, below, lies in the unexpected twist that follows Homer's list of dyslogistic epithets:

'I saw weird stuff in that place last night. Weird, strange, sick, twisted, eerie, godless, evil stuff. And I want in." (John Swartzwelder, "Homer the Great")

Types: amplification: description

TAUTOLOGIA (tautology): needless repetition of the same idea in different words. Carlin complainingly provides quite a few examples. Here is a small selection (69):

emergency situation prison setting crisis situation

Later, in Brain Droppings, he wonders, "When they say someone is making a 'personal tour,' are they suggesting that, on the other hand, it is somehow possible to make a tour without actually being there?" (86). Carlin objects to cliches because of the mental laziness their use suggests; he objects to tautologies because of the mental sloppiness their use suggests. Like Thoreau, he would "endeavor to cure the brain-rot" (Walden 215).

Types: amplification; repetition: clauses, phrases, and ideas

ZEUGMA: a scheme of omission in which one verb, or another kind of word, is used in the same sentence for two or more objects to each of which it stands in a different relation: typically, a verb governs one or more nouns that are concrete but also others that are abstract. Many American authors favor zeugma: I have found it in Irving, Poe, Melville, Nathanael West, Chandler, Hammett, and Dickey. Some of Hammett's instances from his crime novel Red Harvest are a bit jocular, even satirical:

Along with these pieces of property he owned a United States senator, a couple of representatives, the governor, the mayor, and most of the state legislature. (8)

Dupriez is certainly correct in noting that this device "seems particularly well suited to humour" (475). Carlin also employs zeugma to display linguistic wit:

California: bordering always on the Pacific and sometimes on the ridiculous. (20)

In this use of zeugma, Carlin is in a direct satiric line that includes Pope, Dickens, Bierce, and Mark Twain. The exemplification just quoted may recall a more famous one from Pope's The Rape of the Lock insofar as both also illustrate bathetic paraprosdokian at the expense of their subject:

Here Thou, Great Anna! whom three Realms obey,

Dost sometimes Counsel take--and sometimes Tea. (87)

Elsewhere in Brain Droppings, Carlin provides multiple cases of what I call pseudozeugma as he ponders the many uses of the word take:
   We take time, we take heart, we take solace, medicine, advice; we
   take a job, take a break, take a vacation, a leave, a nap, a rest,
   a seat, we take a meal. (67)


It is not quite zeugma because he repeats rather than omits the verb after the first instance, but it still governs the following nouns differently (taking medicine means to consume while taking solace means to accept condolences or feel relief).

Types: subtraction, and substitution: words, phrases, and clauses; brevity

Carlin may seem to reject the role of satirist, or the use of the term applied to him, but all criticism is made against a preferred standard. The exemplifications above demonstrate what he acknowledges in Brain Droppings (xi) as the sources of his humor: language, the "little world" (everyday experiences), and the "big world" ("war, politics, race, death, and social issues"). As for the third, we have seen his tendency toward Juvenalian satire and the role of Jeremiah, especially where America is concerned; but we have concentrated mostly on language as a source of his comedy, supplementing our study of him with Woody Allan, Gary Larson, and Simpsons writers for comparison and contrast. As I said earlier, satirists are understood as being the guardians of social, moral, even aesthetic standards; with the inclusion of Carlin in that group--against his objections, no doubt--we can expand the definition to include linguistic standards.

Carlin's linguistic comedy falls into most of the categories offered by Lanham's Handlist of Rhetorical Terms. i can hear the skeptics: "But surely the verbal and written productions of any prolific comedian will sooner or later cover every conceivable rhetorical category!" I beg to differ. Most humor relies on the message rather than the medium, and even many of Carlin's earliest jokes do not rely on the linguistic flair of schemes and tropes: "If God really made everything, I'd say he has a quality control problem"; "Americans say they need oil, but every time it washes up on shore they complain" (Sometimes a Little Brain Damage Can Help np). The linguistic satirist becomes more dominant in his later work, which relies in part on devices of amplification including auxesis, seriation, synathroesmus (adjectival seriation), and the tautology. With the first of these, he ridicules inflated language. Hc employs the two devices of enumeration partly for the sake of name-calling and directs his satire towards the worlds of American culture and politics. He returns to linguistic considerations at great length with his rants about tautologies, pointing up the habits of mental sloppiness they suggest. The cliche is not listed in Lanham's groupings but it represents another of Carlin's pet peeves, as it indicates mental lethargy on the part of the users. The category of paradoxes also offers another detested device, the oxymoron. Some of Carlin's most extensive instances of seriation are lists of oxymorons. Although he never employs the device exhortation by imploring us to avoid them, he must certainly have hoped that modern speakers of English would clean up their language and think more carefully about its use.

As for metaphorical substitutions and puns, Lanham groups them together, and Carlin's exemplifications include euphemisms, meiosis, and antanaclasis. The instances of this third device are legion in his work. In addition to the samples from Brain Droppings, we find many in Carlin's first book, Sometimes a Little Brain Damage Can Help, under large yellow signs warning us to beware--"Groaner Area," "Puns at Large": "She was an earthy woman, so I treated her like dirt" (np). Meiosis involves the substitution of a lesser word, often a dyslogistic epithet (Carlin applies this device to American presidents); the opposite device is euphemismus, which involves the substitution of a pleasant term. We have seen his contempt for this device, especially its use in the social and political spheres. Auxesis, even more strictly a term antithetical to meiosis, entails a heightening of language, and Carlin ridicules its use in the social arena.

All of the figures mentioned so far demonstrate Carlin's magnificent sensitivity to prose written and spoken; the same is true of the devices of repetition: antanaclasis, ploce, polysyndeton, antimetabole, polyptoton, pseudo-zeugma. These last three especially impress because of the linguistic cleverness involved. Through its syntactical arrangement, antimetabole can point up ironic reversals and challenge us. Pseudo-zeugma, as Carlin employs it, stresses the polysemous nature of words (for instance, the many ways in which we can take things). His use of polysyndeton, that most biblical of devices, shows his powers of linguistic mimicry. Regarding the repetition of sounds, his parallel structures prove Carlin's sense of the rhythmic possibilities of prose: "Baseball begins in the spring, the season of new life. Football begins in the fall, when everything is dying" (Brain Droppings 51). The morphological set in "A Modern Man" parodies modern cliches and advertising language. As for the iteration of ideas, l have already discussed tautologies (the needless repetition of ideas). Categories opposite to those of repetition and amplification are those of brevity and subtraction. Zeugma illustrates both, but I have not found many instances in Carlin as he is more interested in the unnecessary elaboration of language than in its concision, which is normally considered a stylistic virtue rather than a vice.

Some of the figures we have found pertain more to the persuasive component of rhetoric than to the linguistic. Carlin's devices of argument include diatyposis and rhetorical questions. Interestingly, his rhetorical questions do not function for the sake of persuasion but are asked--not surprisingly--to get us to think more deeply about language: "How can crash course and collision course have two different meanings?" (Brain Droppings 91). As for diatyposis, such an iconoclast as Carlin will not likely depend on the citation of authorities, and the one example I provided is facetious. Any satirist, however, while rejecting other authorities, will at least implicitly offer him- or herself as an alternate source of wisdom and good sense, and Carlin's aphorisms have that effect: "Most people with low self-esteem have earned it" (Napalm 8).

Like his aphorisms, Carlin's devices of description challenge us: chorographia, horismus, seriation, synathroesmus. His lists are typically of nouns (both concrete and abstract) and adjectives. Like Swift, he employs lists for satire: "during the twentieth century, white, God-fearing, predominately Christian Europe produced Lenin, Stalin, Franco, Hitler and Mussolini" (Pork Chops? 154). Rather than provide commentary, moral indignation, he often lets the catalogues speak for themselves so that the audience can make the necessary conclusions. We have seen him play the role of Jeremiah when he combines seriation with chorographia--specifically, the description of the U.S.A. His instances of horismus are playful--"Professional soldiers are people who die for a living" (Napalm 248)--but not always satirical, as this Horatian quip is: "Disco--A large group of people sweating in nice clothes" (Brain Damage np).

Two categories remain. Carlin's devices that Lanham lists as emotional include diatyposis, euphemism,ploce, and rhetorical questions. We have seen that his use of rhetorical questions is for inquiry rather than vehemence. Ungrammatical, illogical, or unusual uses of language include cacemphaton, for which Carlin is famous (infamous?). Prudes should avoid rigorously his televised routines and books. We also include in this category barbarismus. Someone as careful about language as Carlin could only furnish illiterate expressions deliberately and facetiously: "firmth = firmness" (Brain Droppings 133).

Given George Carlin's obsession with language, it is a wonder this modem Jeremiah has not been the subject of scholarly studies. As we have seen, a rhetorical approach to his four books facilitates our analysis of language as a foregrounded feature of his comedy as well as some of his contemporaries'. Sometimes, Carlin comments on language itself, establishing himself as a satirist insisting upon higher linguistic standards. He challenges his audience. Elsewhere, he humorously draws attention to the eccentricities and inconsistencies of English, heightening our awareness of, and sensitivity to, the written and spoken word. Other times, he sportively employs tropes and schemes to dazzle with his rhythmic and syntactical ingenuity: his handling of his medium can be even more startling and impressive than the message he conveys. Critically perceptive and passionately obsessed with language, he would have made a gifted professor of style and rhetoric, but this linguistically inclined iconoclast never would have made tenure: no Dean or department Chair would have been able to keep him under control.

Works Cited

Allen, Woody. Getting Even. New York: Random, 1978. Print.

--. Side Effects. New York: Ballantine, 1975. Print.

Bierce, Ambrose. The Devil's Dictionary. 1911. London: Folio, 2003. Print.

Carlin, George. Brain Droppings. New York: Hyperion, 1997. Print.

--. Napalm & Silly Putty. New York: Hyperion, 2001. Print.

--. Sometimes a Little Brain Damage Can Help. Philadelphia: Running, 1984. Print.

--. When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? New York: Hyperion, 2004. Print.

Corbett, Edward P. J. Classical Rhetoric for the Modern Student. 1965.3rd ed. New York: Oxford UP, 1990. Print.

Dupriez, Bernard. A Dictionary of Literary Devices: Gradus, A-Z. Trans. Albert W. Halsall. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1991. Print.

Emerson, Ralph Waldo. "Ode Inscribed to W. H. Channing." Selections from Ralph Waldo Emerson. Ed. Stephen E. Whicher. Boston: Houghton, 1957. 439-42. Print.

Espy, Willard R. The Garden of Eloquence: A Rhetorical Bestiary. New York: Dutton, 1983. Print.

Frye, Northrop, Sheridan Baker, George Perkins. The Harper Handbook to Literature. New York: Harper, 1985. Print.

Groening, Matt. The Simpsons : A Complete Guide to Our Favorite Family. Eds. Ray Richmond and Antonia Coffman. New York: HarperCollins, 1997. Print.

Hammett, Dashiell. Red Harvest. 1929. New York: Vintage, 1992. Print.

Lanham, Richard A. A Handlist of Rhetorical Terms. 2nd ed. Berkeley and Los Angeles: U of California P, 1991. Print.

Larson, Gary. The Complete Far Side. 2 vols. Kansas City, MO: McMeel, 2003. Print.

Pope, Alexander. The Rape of the Lock. In Poetry and Prose of Alexander Pope. Ed. Aubrey Williams. Boston: Houghton, 1969. Print.

Sonnino, Lee A. A Handbook to Sixteenth-Century Rhetoric. London: Routledge, 1968. Print.

Steinem, Gloria. "Leaps of Consciousness." feminist.com. Omega/VDay. n.d. Web. 5 June 2009.

Swift, Jonathan. Gulliver's Travels. 1726. Boston: Houghton, 1960. Print.

Thoreau, Henry David. Walden and "Civil Disobedience." Ed. Owen Thomas. New York: Norton, 1966. Print.

Brett Zimmerman

York University
COPYRIGHT 2009 Northern Illinois University
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2009 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Zimmerman, Brett
Publication:Style
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2009
Words:7389
Previous Article:Racine in Mary McCarthy's a charmed life.
Next Article:Ekphrasis and lamination in Byatt's Babel Tower.
Topics:

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2019 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters