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How Do You Like Your Boy, Mr. Death?

Joe Holley

and what i want to know is
how do you like your blueeyed boy
Mister Death

from "Buffalo Bill's," by e.e. cummings

George Carlin, who died Sunday at age 71, was no Buffalo Bill, and vice versa, but for some reason I kept thinking of the famous e.e. cummings poem -- first line: "Buffalo Bill's defunct" -- when I was writing the obituary for the comedic curmudgeon. I suppose it's because the sworn enemy of smarmy euphemism often tweaked his nose -- euphemistically speaking, of course -- at Mr. Death himself.

Yesterday's Los Angeles Times quoted one of his typical death shticks: "'Older' sounds a little better than 'old' doesn't it? Sounds like it might even last a little longer. . . . I'm getting old. And it's OK. Because thanks to our fear of death in this country I won't have to die -- I'll 'pass away.' Or I'll 'expire,' like a magazine subscription. If it happens in the hospital, they'll call it a 'terminal episode.' The insurance company will refer to it as 'negative patient care outcome.' And if it's the result of malpractice, they'll say it was a 'therapeutic misadventure.'"

"I don't like words that hide the truth," Carlin said. "I don't like words that conceal reality."

Carlin and Mr. Death had more than a passing acquaintance. A bountiful abuser of pot, mescaline, cocaine and alcohol (20 beers a day) three decades ago, he almost did himself in, before he and his wife embarked on a successful drug-and-alcohol withdrawal program. He suffered a heart attack in 1978 and continued to have heart problems until his heart failed. In 1982, he went through the windshield of his rented Volvo on a rain-swept road in Ohio.

Jerry Seinfeld, writing in today's New York Times, recounts a curious conversation he had just a few days ago with his longtime friend and fellow comedian. They were making death jokes, talking about Bo Diddley and Tim Russert, Seinfeld recalled, and Carlin said, "I feel safe for a while. There will probably be a break before they come after the next one. I always like to fly on an airline right after they've had a crash. It improves your odds."

So the pony-tailed guy in black believed in straight talk, but he was no more eager than the rest of us, it seems, to buy the farm, kick the can or pass. When Death slipped into his hospital room Sunday afternoon, with no intention of leaving unaccompanied, I hope the angry, old funnyman stuck to his guns. I hope he rared back and spit in his eye.

By Joe Holley  |  June 24, 2008; 2:40 PM ET
Categories:  Joe Holley  
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