George Carlin, who died Sunday at 71, was one of the best sports humorists around.
It was less than a sideline, almost an afterthought, for a comedian far more famous for bringing stand-up comedy into the hippie era, for the hard-edged social commentary of his later years and for the "Seven Dirty Words" routine that brought his act to the chambers of the Supreme Court.
But when he had something to say about sports it was funny and, sometimes, like the rest of his humor, it could make you think while you were laughing.
Sometimes it was just silly wordplay. He'd do characters in the '60s and '70s, when he was a frequent guest on network variety and talk shows. Al Sleet, the Hippie-Dippie Weatherman, was the most memorable, but he also did a sportscaster who'd say, "Here's a partial score: Notre Dame 6."
The kids are scratching their heads. They don't do this anymore -- maybe because of Carlin's joke -- but broadcasters sometimes used to refer to scores from in-progress games as "partial scores." I think it was a wire-service term.
Carlin dismissed hype about the undisputed heavyweight championship: "If it's undisputed, what's all the fighting about?"
He had a routine in which he said that there really are only three sports: baseball, basketball and football, and he gave reasons for why various other sports are really games or activities. Hockey? That's three separate activities: Ice-skating, chasing a puck around and beating people up.
Swimming? "Swimming is a way to keep from drowning?" Sailing? That's transportation. "Riding a bus isn't a sport, why the fuck should sailing be a sport?" Running? "For Christ sake, my mother can run. You don't see her on the cover of Sports Illustrated, do you?" Gymnastics? Forget it: "Gymnastics is not a sport because Romanians are good at it. It took me a long time to come up with that rule, but goddammit, I did it."
Carlin's most famous sports routine was a comparison of baseball and football. "In football you wear a helmet," he said. "In baseball you wear a cap." And so on. "In football you receive a penalty. In baseball you make an error ... Football has hitting, clipping, spearing, piling on, personal fouls, late hitting and unnecessary roughness. Baseball has the sacrifice."
Silly stuff, a lot of it based on language -- that strain in Carlin's humor was cited in the announcement last week that he'd won the Kennedy Center's Mark Twain Prize. But, as with much of Carlin's humor, there was keen observation behind the silliness and linguistic nitpicking.
"Baseball and football are the two most popular spectator sports in this country," he said. "It seems they ought to be able to tell us something about ourselves and our values."
They surely do. Thomas Boswell plowed the same field in his classic 1987 piece "Why Is Baseball So Much Better Than Football?" Carlin didn't explicitly take sides the way Boswell did, and he was funnier.
He also may have summed up the contrast better than anyone ever has:
"In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy's defensive line.
"In baseball the object is to go home!"