I just finished watching a new documentary on the life of legendary comedian George Carlin (which I highly recommend) …and there was a nugget in it from late night talk show host Stephen Colbert that resonated with me…and I thought it might resonate with you.
It will help if you’ve heard of “The Beatles.”
Colbert called Carlin, “The Beatles of comedy.”
And I guess it helps if you’ve heard of George Carlin…but it’s not required to have heard of Carlin or The Beatles to get the gist of this post…I’ll fill you in on both…and I believe a comparison like that deserves some additional exploration.
Comparing anyone or anything to The Beatles is as good as it gets.
We often use Mount Rushmore to spotlight a “top four” in anything…sports figures, historical figures, movies, books etc.…and yes, even copywriting (you may recall that I have TWO Mount Rushmore’s of copywriters, one for the first 20 years of my career in direct marketing and one for my second 20 years).
I couldn’t help myself…I needed to construct a second mountain.
40 years of working with the best copywriters in the world deserved a minimum of eight honorees. There are many more who are worthy.
Creating a Mount Rushmore is hard work. 🙂
But referring to someone as The Beatles of their craft?
That’s a mountain of one.
Whether you like the Beatles music or not (and if nothing the Beatles ever composed ever moved you in some way, it’s OK to stop reading this post now), you still need to respect what they created over seven years (which felt like a century) of accomplishment.
Not to mention all four of them having extensive careers on their own after their breakup (more on the breakup in the P.S.).
Paul McCartney just did a concert to celebrate his 80th birthday—with guest appearances by Bruce Springsteen and Jon Bon Jovi—as an indication in the here and now of The Beatles longevity and influence.
What did it really mean when Colbert compared George Carlin to The Beatles?
It meant that Carlin stood alone, looming over the thousands of comedians that came before him and after him, in the areas of innovation, exploration…and being a voice for multiple generations.
At least that was my interpretation.
Of course Carlin has some famous “bits” and classic jokes that stand the test of time (check out “7 Words You Can’t Say on TV”)…just as everyone has at least one (probably dozens) of favorite Beatles songs.
But it’s bigger than that.
What Carlin is to comedy and The Beatles are to music transcends their respective mediums into a world of contribution never seen before…or after.
That is, a stand-up comic and a rock and roll band becoming writers…then philosophers…and ultimately icons.
That’s why they don’t have to share a mountain with others in their fields.
I’ll repeat this for effect:
They are each a mountain of one.
Note that “writing” is part of the equation…how Carlin observed the world in his own words is something he shared with every comic who preceded him; but how he wrote about it, dove deeper than all others, while changing with the times, is something that sets Carlin apart (and it’s what set The Beatles apart as well).
Writing while the world is changing around you—and staying relevant—is never easy.
It should be noted that Carlin and The Beatles were often left for dead or obsolete (as “old news” living in the past)…only to rise again with a new piece of work, never before seen, setting a new standard for excellence, and a higher bar for others to clear.
Carlin changed with the times and always had something to offer with his writing (and performances) that shocked you into paying attention…and he got more sophisticated (albeit a bit darker) as time went on.
Throughout his career he was always a “Master of Wordplay”, culminating with as his career came to an end, with his last filmed concert, “It’s Bad for Ya” (recorded a few months before he died). It is as dark as anything he had done before but people still talk about it as much as his early work.
Everything he did was timely—not including the times he was told he was obsolete—but he used those accusations that he was no longer relevant as a battle cry (i.e. motivation) to get off his butt to get with the times.
And to write (and then perform) with his head and his heart being one.
The same was true with The Beatles, who took us from light and airy (I Want to Hold Your Hand and Love Me Do) to a different view of the world and people with songs like Back in the U.S.S.R. and Maxwell’s Silver Hammer.
There’s a lesson here from these icons:
Both light and dark writing can be attention grabbing…each for a purpose…and should always be consistent with the period when it is written.
Making the leap from “writing during radical change” into being seen as a philosopher is something that was explored in the Carlin documentary…and it’s a leap very few can make…and Carlin and The Beatles did just that.
I went to The Google for a definition of “philosopher” that fit nicely into what I am referring to:
A person [or rock group? 🙂 ] whose philosophical perspective makes meeting trouble with equanimity easier.
An expounder of a theory in a particular area of experience.
There was certainly “trouble to be met” in the 60’s and 70’s when both The Beatles and George Carlin were doing their thing in their prime …and they created calmness, composure and evenness of temper (the definition of equanimity) in their audiences with their work…often using a confrontational style, kind of like “we don’t care if you like they way we are presenting this issue to you but you need to hear it”…and just as often using fun and entertainment to convey the same message.
In addition, both The Beatles and Carlin would reinvent themselves multiple times after the 60’s and 70’s and that’s why their music and ramblings and everything else they left us (and are still leaving us) is as timely today as it was when they originally created it.
That’s what defines their journey…from writers…to philosophers…to icons.
And what it means to be The Beatles of anything.
P.S. There is an eight-hour documentary that came out this year entitled, Get Back…which chronicles, through new found video, a month of working sessions with The Beatles as they wrote an album, performed a concert…and then broke up.
I found an article, 15 lessons on creativity (and life) from The Beatles, written by a “comedian and writer” named Matt Ruby, although in the spirit of George Carlin, maybe he should change his title to “writer and philosopher (who happens to be a comedian).”
While dissecting The Beatles through these “Get Back Sessions,” Ruby mirrored many concepts expressed in the George Carlin documentary, specifically:
- The creative process is tedious and boring
- If someone’s on drugs, then their story is about drugs
- You can’t expect past people to have today’s values
- Deadlines and constraints are the secret ingredients to creativity
These are some ingredients, broad and granular, that lead to genius, whatever your life’s mission might be. I encourage you to read the article here.
More importantly (for the purpose of this post) it links the genius of The Beatles to George Carlin in some additional ways.
They both toiled with their writing while always staying present; they both used drugs which undermined them but eventually made them stronger and more productive when they came out the other end; they understood that if you don’t stay current you will have a career of one year repeated over and over versus a career of accumulated and compounding success; and they learned to embrace deadlines.
Hmmm. Except for the drugs, this sounds like a prescription for a successful marketer, copywriter or entrepreneur.
Now that I think about it, many marketers, copywriters and entrepreneurs have a story about drugs too…I know some of them personally who have been through that gauntlet…and while painful at the time, the experience made them better in the long run through their survival story.
Another way Get Back links The Beatles back to Carlin:
I talk often about collaboration being the key to success in business; however, these two iconic acts proved that collaboration has limitations too.
The Beatles eventually couldn’t work with each other anymore (despite Lennon and McCartney being one of the most prolific music collaborators in history); and Carlin was always a lone wolf.
What their behavior proves is that it’s difficult (and for some impossible) to “write by committee” (whether it’s music, jokes…or a 12-page sales letter).
And even when it works, too many writers writing on the same piece of work for any length of time eventually falls apart.
I’m not condemning collaboration…just making an observation.
And no matter what, we all need advice, editing and counsel “by committee.”
Despite the collaboration shown in Get Back, you can still see the friction between Lennon and McCartney (and George Harrison) when they were attempting to write as one; and Carlin talked about the loneliness of writing in his documentary.
In the end, the final “products” created by The Beatles and George Carlin will last forever.
And I hope there was a tidbit or two from this post that will enable you to create for eternity as well. 🙂