George Carlin with Tony Hendra, 2009
Every year I make a point to read a book about a famous comedian, and for 2021 that person is one I admired from my teen years onward- George Carlin. Comedians- the best ones- expose us to ideas that poke fun at the world around us and give us the freedom to call BS on the absurdities of daily life. George Carlin definitely fits that bill, though I don't necessarily appreciate some of his later work.
"Well, if crime fighters fight crime and fire fighters fight fire, what do freedom fighters fight? They never mention that part to us, do they?"
Carlin began his autobiography nearly ten years before it was published, but he never got to finish it. He died of a heart attack, (one of many) in 2008 at the age of 71, and was still performing sold-out performances up until the end. After his death, Tony Hendra, who knew him well, took the notes that Carlin had written years earlier and released this autobiography- Last Words. The book gives us a cradle to grave look at how George Carlin became a comic legend, and how his mind worked through the big ups and downs of his comedy career.
"The very existence of flame-throwers proves that some time, somewhere, someone said to themselves, You know, I want to set those people over there on fire, but I'm just not close enough to get the job done."
George Carlin was born in 1937, well before the baby boom generation, and recalls his strict Catholic upbringing and memories of air raid drills during World War 2. His alcoholic father left the family when George was very young and died soon after, so George was raised by his mother Mary, who didn't quite get his comic and class clown tendencies. Carlin never graduated high school, choosing instead to enter the Air Force, where he was court martialed twice and demoted numerous times for insubordinate behavior. It was while in the Air Force that Carlin found his first performing gig as a radio DJ, and made up his mind to try comedy for a living.
"I went to a bookstore and asked the saleswoman, 'Where's the self-help section?' She said if she told me, it would defeat the purpose."
Carlin teamed up with Jack Burns in 1959 and performed as a duo for a few years before figuring out that he was meant to be a solo performer. He struggled in the early 1960's as a standup comedian, getting his big break on the Merv Griffin Show in 1965. From there he got exposure on many early television shows including Mike Douglas, John Davidson, Ed Sullivan, and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. (He was on the Tonight Show 130 times, more than most other comics) Carlin's early work was very different from his later stuff- it was clean, obscenity-free, observational, and occasionally goofy. One of his first big hits was Wonderful WINO radio with the hippy dippy weatherman, Al Sleet.
"Weather tonight: dark. Turning partly light by morning."
Carlin tried his hand at acting several times both on television and movies, but unlike most comedians he stuck to standup, moving from television performances to Grammy winning comedy albums to HBO specials. He excelled in getting up on stage alone and pontificating about how weird, crazy, and clueless people can be. In 1970, Carlin underwent a transformation from a clean-cut, necktie-wearing establishment comedian to a long- haired, bearded, counter-culture hero who blasted sacred cows of the time. His "Seven Words You Can Never Say on TV" got him both notoriety and fame as he broke the big taboo of saying curse words on stage.
"Isn't it a bit unnerving that doctors call what they do 'practice'?"
Carlin talks about his personal life frankly in the book, and it was as rocky as you can imagine. He abused alcohol and drugs as did many other performers at the time, and finally had to get help for his addictions later in his career. He was married twice and had one daughter, and the first marriage was a rocky one where his wife Brenda abused alcohol and drugs almost as much as he did. She died in 1997 and her death may have led to his darker tone in later years. Carlin talks frankly about his struggles with money- coming close to bankruptcy several times and owing huge sums to the IRS because of bad management. He had his first heart attack in 1978 at the age of 41, and would go on to have many heart problems leading up to the one that killed him in 2008.
"The reason they call it the American Dream is because you have to be asleep to believe it."
In addition to reading this book, I watched eight of Carlin's HBO specials, all given to packed houses and popular at the time. Most of Carlin's specials are rants on one topic or another. His goal as stated in his autobiography wasn't just to make people laugh, but to engage their minds. He chose idea-driven and provocative material that looked at taboos that people either don't think about or don't talk about. Carlin covers heavy topics like war, abortion, suicide, homelessness, corruption and religion alongside his pet topics- language and the simple oddities of living. He avoids current events and topical humor for the most part, and rarely talks about relationships, sex, or his own struggles. I didn't find myself laughing very much during these specials, but Carlin goes places few others dare to go, and it certainly made me think.
"I'm completely in favor of the separation of Church and State. My idea is that these two institutions screw us up enough on their own, so both of them together is certain death."
By the time Carlin gets to his HBO special on death- Life is Worth Losing- (performed in a graveyard full of tombstones), his comedy gets too dark for me and I yearn for the sweetness of the frantic Robin Williams. Towards the end Carlin gets downright nihilistic- making fun of voting, public health, environmentalists, and anything that might make things better. That his audiences eat up this dark, cynical stuff tells a lot about where America is in the 21st century. The world sucks, people suck, so F*&k 'em.
"You know the good part about all those executions in Texas? Fewer Texans."
George Carlin struggled with his different persona's- the straight laced Tonight Show performer versus the obscene counterculture icon. He was a complex, brilliant man and unafraid of speaking his mind and engaging his audience. He pointed out many bizarre things that need to be pointed out, and that is why we need smart, brave comedians. Here are some other interesting facts from the book.
- Carlin starred in Shining Time Station as Mr. Conductor, a show geared to toddlers starring Thomas the Tank Engine. It was a much softer Carlin than seen anywhere else.
- He was the first ever host of Saturday Night Live in 1975, and was supposed to be a regular rotating host with Richard Pryor and Lily Tomlin. That never happened, and Carlin was only invited back one other time to host in the 1980's.
- Carlin relates that he was almost aborted as a fetus by his parents, and he and his wife aborted their second child due to financial difficulties in the 60's before abortion was legalized.
- He credits acid and hallucinogenic drugs for his big change in direction in the 1970's, and research since then has shown some of these drugs to have profound effects on people.
- The George Carlin Show was a situation comedy that ran on Fox from 1994-95, and he claims he was glad when it got cancelled.
- Lenny Bruce was a huge influence on Carlin when he was coming up in the business, and they knew each other and were arrested together one night.
- When he died, Carlin was planning on a big Broadway show that never got off the ground.
"Frisbeetarianism is the belief that when you die, your soul goes up on the roof and gets stuck."
My favorite part of the book comes near the end, and Carlin writes a story about how he came to think like Mr. Conductor.
"When we're in the womb, we're in the oceanic state, we are completely part of nature. We are attached to nature, literally, physically. You are at one.
Then you get torn out of this fucking place and there's pain and screaming and the violence starts. You are out of there, not attached, not cool, not one with anything.
The rest of your life is spent yearning for reunion. To join the One again. That's where religion perverts a very natural longing in people.
But we civilized people have this loss, this loss of union this loss of oneness. And we look for it and dream of finding it, but in all the wrong places. In religion, in sex, in success..."
I recommend reading this book and listening to some of Mr. Carlin's performances, which are readily available in many formats. It will make you laugh some and think more.