george carlin immunity and Germs

George Carlin thought on Germs and Immune System

On February 6th, 1999, George Carlin did a standup special in New York City. It was recorded and released later that year on CD as “You Are All Diseased.” There is a section about six minutes in where he goes into the type of rant that made him famous. It was about germs.

Though “You are all Diseased” was recorded over 20 years ago, this section sounds like it was written for people today. George Carlin felt that people were too afraid of getting dirty and coming into contact with germs. He worried that by being super clean, we were making our immune systems weak. His theory was that we need to expose ourselves to bacteria to build up our immunity system’s strength. It turns out that he might not be the only person who thinks so.

Take a look at this excerpt:

Besides, what do you think you have an immune system for? It’s for killing germs! But it needs practice; it needs germs to practice on. So listen, if you kill all the germs around you, and live a completely sterile life, then when germs do come along, you’re not going to be prepared. And never mind ordinary germs, what are you going to do when some super-virus comes along?

Sound familiar? In “You are all Diseased,” Carlin commented on how Americans were afraid of germs. Because of this fear, they sanitized everything, repeatedly washed their hands, and overcooked their food to avoid conflict with germs. Carlin was a comedian, but he wasn’t alone in his thinking. Last year the New York Times published an article called “Your Environment is Cleaner, Your Immune System Has Never Been So Unprepared.” For example, here is a quote from that New York Times article from Dr. Meg Lemon, a dermatologist who helps people with autoimmune disorders and allergies, “I tell people, when they drop food on the floor, please pick it up and eat it.” And here is a quote from George Carlin on the same topic, “So personally, I never take any special precautions against germs. I don’t shy away from people that sneeze and cough, I don’t wipe off the telephone, I don’t cover the toilet seat, and if I drop food on the floor, I pick it up and eat it! Yes, I do. Even if I’m at a sidewalk cafĂ©! In Calcutta! The poor section! On New Year’s morning during a soccer riot!”

The Hygiene Hypothesis

In medicine, there is a phrase for this way of thinking. It is called The Hygiene Hypothesis, and it dates back to 1968. (Interestingly, this was right about when George Carlin was first starting to earn his fame as a comedian.) Medical researchers have long speculated that some of the modern diseases that people suffer from comes from an excess of hygiene. The increasing rates of conditions such as allergies, autoimmune disorders, and metabolic syndromes could be a consequence of our decreased exposure to germs and illnesses. The Hygiene Hypothesis specifically looks at childhood exposure to microorganisms, beginning in utero and to about school age. Not surprisingly, George Carlin had something to say about that too.

Let me tell you a true story about immunization okay? When I was a little boy in New York City in the 1940s, we swam in the Hudson River and it was filled with raw sewage, okay? We swam in raw sewage! You know, to cool off! And at that time, the big fear was polio; thousands of kids died from polio every year. But, you know something? In my neighborhood, no one ever got polio! No one! Ever! You know why? Because we swam in raw sewage! It strengthened our immune systems! The polio never had a prayer; we were tempered in raw shit!

One Strong Immune System

George Carlin claimed that he had an extra-strong immune system because he only washed his hands at most a few times a week didn’t shower every day. In his words,

And you know something? In spite of all that so-called risky behavior, I never get infections. I don’t get them; I don’t get colds, I don’t get flu, I don’t get headaches, I don’t get an upset stomach, you know why? Cause I got a good strong immune system, and it gets a lot of practice.

There have been studies on children in Gabon, a West African country with a high rate of bilharzia, a disease caused by parasitic worms. Researchers have found that infected kids have lower incidences of allergies than other children in their class who were not infected. In addition, West Africans have a relatively low rate of rheumatoid arthritis, an autoimmune disease. Could this be because, as Carlin said, their immune systems had something to practice on?

Carlin died at the relatively young age of 71, but it wasn’t due to an infectious disease. He had a history of heart disease and died after his third from a heart attack.

See a YouTube video of George Carlin’s performance from “You Are Diseased” where he discusses germs

Or read a transcript of the whole performance, here:

Works Cited

(1) Roduit, Caroline, et al. “The Hygiene Hypothesis – Environmental Influences on the Immune System.

(2) Maizels, RM, et al. “Helminths in the Hygiene Hypothesis: Sooner or Later?” PubMed Central (PMC),