[15 March 2010]
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. “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.
A Liberating Lack of Censorship
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.