Last Words by George Carlin with Tony Hendra

by Michael E. Ross

15 March 2010


A Liberating Lack of Censorship

A Liberating Lack of Censorship

In a brisk, readable style—not quite stream-of-consciousness but thoroughly conscious of narrative flow—Carlin moves us through a dizzyingly productive and eventful time in the funhouse of the ‘70s

Carlin’s impact on pop culture, and the money that followed, took a toll on his health and his family life. Cocaine, the chemical lingua franca of ‘70s L.A., was a constant fixture. A new house in Pacific Palisades put him in direct proximity with the coke culture of the time (“The only celebrity I ever ran into was Peter Lawford. We did a lot of lines together.”)

Carlin’s growing success eroded his relationship with wife Brenda. With the candor we witnessed throughout his career, Carlin frankly documents her “Jekyll and Hyde” mood shifts while on alcohol and cocaine, his own dalliance with prescription drugs, and the presence of ten year old daughter Kelly as “the arbitrator between us”. Carlin is an unsentimental guide to his own marital tragicomedy of errors:

A lot, a lot, a lot of cocaine. We would each have some—separate stashes—another of those deceptive practices you think will keep the peace, but which actually leads to more conflict. I would use all of mine up and I would want some of hers. So she would hide hers, or if I knew she’d finished hers, I would hide mine. Then we’d start looking for each other’s stash. Then we would forget where we had hidden our own.

In a brisk, readable style—not quite stream-of-consciousness but thoroughly conscious of narrative flow—Carlin moves us through a dizzyingly productive and eventful time in the funhouse of the ‘70s: Brenda’s successful detox; his triumph as the first host of Saturday Night Live; his frequent Tonight Show visits; more albums; the first of several specials for HBO; a mild first heart attack in 1978; a failed attempt at producing a movie; and his skills as a parent who discovers, and enables, daughter Kelly’s avid pot smoking. “The bud doesn’t fall far from the plant”, he says.

By 1980, Carlin’s career had deflated. “[T]here was no new, inventive, exciting direction, and the number of empty seats I saw over the footlights each night was growing”. A close friend, Jerry Hamza, took charge of Carlin’s management and tangled finances, easing Carlin’s return to prominence over the next few years, then the next two decades.

A new comedy album, A Place for My Stuff, and a triumphal 1982 performance at Carnegie Hall (recorded by HBO) ushered in a new George Carlin, mostly past the medicated days of the ‘70s, a man in the vanguard of the new cable frontier. For the rest of his life, and using his HBO specials as his new multimillion-household soapbox, Carlin brought a sharpened sense of the current to his comedy material, going after identity politics, the era of Reagan rule, environmentalism, religion, and the ways in which language is constantly manipulated as an extension of human nature.

Carlin at Carnegie was the real beginning of a relationship with HBO that over the next twenty-five years first incubated my artistic development and then set the seal on it. Without that anchor I don’t know how exactly I would have evolved as a performer and an artist…And HBO’s absolute lack of censorship was liberating. (...)

HBO’s Carlin at Carnegie special was the last time I ever recorded a version of ‘Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.’ There was no need. For the first time, all seven were on television.

Carlin doubled down on his appetite for risk and the edge, not with drugs and drink but with the words and language he loved. With a wisdom only years on the stage can bestow, he recognizes the relationship between performer and audience:

[T]he audience shapes the material. They are part of the process. I write, they edit. (...)

But when you’re in front of an audience and you make them laugh at a new idea, you’re guiding their whole being for the moment.. .for that moment, that tiny moment, I own them. At the same time I’ve had to surrender myself to that moment, and it’s a communion. A genuine, momentary communion. Which they wouldn’t have experienced without me. And I wouldn’t have experienced without them.

Hendra, an accessory both before and after the fact, gets great credit for not having killed Carlin with kindness. A biographical shadow and amanuensis less sensitive to Carlin’s conversational rhythms and anomalies would have lost his idiosyncratic flavor, and probably butchered it on the authority of a stylebook.

Hendra has the good sense to let Carlin be Carlin. The energy of the story moves swiftly and with great, sometimes cinematic detail. We’re the audience in a confessional, at an onstage performance and in a shrink’s office, the comedian both on the couch and in the shrink’s chair at the same time. And we’re clearly in the hands of a student of the telling phrase. In one passage, Carlin recalls a promising casual arrangement with the Café Au Go Go: “to be a regular when the mike was open, two nights here, four nights there, drop by of an evening”.

The phrase “of an evening” is the giveaway: a lovely classical locution you rarely see in the context of the more ribald lexicon of the standup comic. Yet there it is: not meretricious and out of place, but a word that seems to derive organically from the narrative. Like Ogden Nash, Beckett and Joyce, George Carlin delighted in the felicities and mysteries of the word. Like Lenny Bruce, Carlin employed the corrosives of the language to glimpse ugly basic truths. Like Mark Twain, George Carlin borrowed from the American narrative in order to re-explain the American narrative. On his terms.

Carlin’s previous books—Brain Droppings, When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? and Napalm and Silly Putty—are celebrations of Carlin’s embrace of the language and his kaleidoscopic views of various aspects of the human condition.

Part raucous credo, part comic pilgrim’s progress, Last Words is Carlin’s celebration of his own human condition: its madcap cast of characters, its personal and professional resilience. It’s maybe the best evidence of how he transcended the stand-up comedy he revolutionized, ultimately becoming not so much a comedian as a conscience.

According to his death certificate, George Denis Patrick Carlin died at St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., at 5:55PM, on 22 June 2008. His heart failed him. According to the sometimes hilarious, often deeply moving story of this fractious, soulful, brilliant, gifted, necessary American life, it’s clear: George Carlin’s heart never failed us.

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