The Word According to George
Writing the book that caps your 50 years in the entertainment business, a book you know will probably serve as your valedictory address, can be a very liberating experience. You get to settle old scores, to set the record straight. You get to define the universe, or at least your universe, on your own terms.
“Few things dramatize the face-off between loner and group more starkly than the artist before the audience,” George Carlin says near the end of Last Words. “[I]n those moments, I am more than alone—I am the only thing in the universe.” He continues,
The creation of material is the ultimate freedom because that’s creating the world I want. I’m saying to people: the world you imagine isn’t really true… I am momentarily changing the world to THIS. I am reinventing the world because I can. So long as you’re down there and I’m up here: freedom is: WHAT I SAY GOES!
Carlin, a stand-up comedian with a refreshingly singular view of words and the modern world, was a relentless diarist, writing notes constantly in his years on the road. Over the years, he recorded conversations with Tony Hendra, author (Father Joe), satirist and early voice of the National Lampoon. Last Words, the now-published product of that 15-year oral history/literary conspiracy, is Carlin’s “sortabiography”, a spirited mashup of recollections, self-analysis and rant, both a parting gift and a parting shot.
That wacky coinage “sortabiography” points to Carlin characteristically going his own way. In the introduction, Hendra insists it’s not a memoir (a Gallic stuffed-shirt of a word Carlin and Hendra both hated) nor an autobiography (“George didn’t want to call it an autobiography: lonely pinheaded criminal business pricks and politicians wrote autobiographies.”). It illustrates the love of wordplay Carlin had from almost the beginning.
Carlin was born the son of Pat Carlin, an advertising executive at The New York Post and also a renowned motivational speaker with a flair for the melodramatic, and Mary Bearey Carlin, an ambitious, self-centered social climber and fan of high culture and literature, and the one who “passed on to me the love of language, an immense respect for words and their power”. The Carlin marriage was rocky, characterized by some domestic violence and “long separations, punctuated by sudden brief reconciliations and occasional sex-fests”—one of which, “in a damp, sand-flecked room of Curley’s Hotel in Rockaway Beach, New York, August 1936,” led to the birth of a certain comedian in New York City in May 1937.
Pat’s personally erratic behavior and his drinking (“my father had trouble metabolizing alcohol. He drank, he got drunk, he hit people”) eventually ended the marriage when George was ten, though the boy hadn’t seen his father since he was a few months old.
What followed for George and his brother Patrick was an upbringing informed at every turn by the presence of his mother, “a woman with decidedly aristocratic pretensions, indoctrinated with the idea that she was ‘lace-curtain Irish,’ as opposed to the shanty kind with its stereotypes of drinking, lawlessness, laziness, rowdiness”. Carlin was a cunning student of his Irish Catholic heritage, the sturm und drang he encountered in navigating its traditions and insistences. One of his routines distills it perfectly: “That was one of the things that bothered me about my religion. That conflict between pain and pleasure. [The Irish priests] were always PUSHING for pain. You were always PULLING for PLEASURE!”
Once, at the age of 12, spurred by casual encounters with the language of the streets of New York, Carlin started a list of phrases he heard on those streets.
Sure enough, my mother found the list—with dire results: she threatened me with psychiatry. But twenty years later the list bore fruit. It contained all of the ‘Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,’ aka the ‘Seven Dirty Words…Which in turn spawned all the pieces on the ways we use, misuse and abuse words I’ve done in the thirty-odd years since.
His rebel tendencies showed early. An indifferent student in high school, Carlin went into the Air Force and trained as a radar technician in Louisiana before a series of courts-martial and other disciplinary measures led to what Carlin calls his “no-fault divorce” from the military in 1957. A series of jobs at radio stations in Shreveport, Boston and Fort Worth, Texas eventually connected him with Jack Burns, his comedy-team partner. The pair moved to Los Angeles in 1960, and toughed it out for two years before going separate ways.
As a solo act, Carlin made the rounds, working the various stations of the cross in Hollywood: from a young comic working the L.A. club scene to a frequent guest on The Ed Sullivan Show, The Mike Douglas Show and the Carson-era Tonight Show. After two indifferently received albums, Carlin catapulted into the wider culture with FM & AM. The 1972 record, which reached gold status quickly, was, from his perspective, the right record at exactly the right time:
The AM-to-FM premise seemed to click with people. In the early seventies, the feeling that something freer and fresher was emerging from the violence and confusion of the sixties was pervasive. (...)
By the time FM & AM came out I was already hot to do another album. The FM part of me was bubbling over with truly authentic material: autobiographical stuff, school memories, first-person, outward directed commentary…All in my voice. George Carlin was finally front and center in my act.
This emerging from his own cocoon had ramifications he couldn’t have imagined. His next album, Class Clown (also out in 1972) featured what may be his most celebrated routine, “Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television”. What began innocently enough as a pointed, provocatively whimsical study of the absence of the use of shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits over the broadcast airwaves—and more generally, a standup treatise on the double standards of our language—would become a cause célèbre for his fans, especially after Carlin was arrested in Milwaukee in July 1972 and charged with violating obscenity laws after performing the routine.
Carlin’s use of similar words on the 1973 album Occupation: Foole (and a replay of the track on a New York radio station) eventually led to a 1975 FCC ruling that sought to define “indecent” language as, generally speaking, crude or sexually suggestive words uttered when there’s a chance that children might be around. The radio station owner challenged the ruling and won in appellate court, the FCC appealed to the US Supreme Court, and in July 1978, George Carlin made pop-culture and legal history when the Supremes ruled that seven words of the American idiom of the English language were pre-emptively, inherently unfit for broadcast television. “The Court was banning not just words, but ways of thinking, acting, speaking, communicating with one another”, he writes.
The main reason to outlaw indecency, wrote Justice [John Paul] Stevens in his majority opinion, is that ‘broadcasting is uniquely accessible to children, even those too young to read.’ Which in turn means that the only thing you can safely broadcast anytime, anywhere, in any medium, is material that’s suitable for kids. Could this be why our society shows so many signs of arrested development?
FCC v. Pacifica Foundation has become a standard case to teach in communications classes and many law quotes. I take perverse pride in that. I’m actually a footnote to the judicial history of America.