Monday, June 23, 2008
George Carlin, 1937-2008
One of our most free-thinking, opinionated, accomplished, and funny practitioners of comedy, George Carlin died yesterday at age seventy-one. Carlin perfected the art of comedy as social commentary (and vice versa) and was well into his fifth decade at it, always bringing new and fresh material to the stage. I had two brief brushes with Carlin during his career. As the local radio disc jockey for an FM rock station, I had the honor of introducing Carlin on stage at one of his live concerts in the mid-seventies. Years later, standing on line at the NBC studios one afternoon for a taping of the Conan O'Brien show on which Carlin was a guest that night, I remember Carlin arriving at NBC with no entourage, not even an assistant, just the ultimate everyman in jeans, with ponytail and briefcase.
Much has already been said and written about Carlin since the news of his death this morning, but the appreciation that really struck a chord with me is one written by music industry veteran and prolific cultural commentator, Bob Lefsetz in his Lefsetz Letter, the complete text of which is reproduced here with permission.
The last time I saw George Carlin was at the Universal Amphitheatre. As I watched him stride the stage with his mic, I thought what a great job this was. You get an agent to book the gig, you drive to the venue from your house, you do your show and you take ALL THE MONEY!
I'm sure George loved that. After all, he invented the format. Oh, the Borscht Belt comedians preceded him, but George wasn't a member of that club, hell, he wasn't even Jewish. He didn't depend on favors from singers, and he had a gold-selling record career. George Carlin didn't tell jokes, he specialized in the TRUTH! And one thing the baby boomers recognized was the truth. They flocked to George. Once he gave up trying to please their parents and just said what he felt on the inside.
I can't remember whether it was '67 or '68, but around seven o'clock on a Sunday evening, with school still in session, my parents dropped me off at Sacred Heart University for a concert. One of those five act extravaganzas like the one featuring the Beach Boys, Buffalo Springfield, the Soul Survivors and...that I went to at Fairfield University the fall before. The headliner was Vanilla Fudge. Actually, I saw Carmine Appice a couple of weeks back at the Kenny Chesney show. Playing second was Connecticut's biggest local act, NAIF, the North Atlantic Invasion Force, but in the middle, on around nine, was the performance I truly remember. George Carlin took the stage. Did the Hippy-Dippy Weatherman. He was funny. I kept my eye on him. When he exploded in the seventies it wasn't news, but the preordained success of someone who worked hard, bucking the system to ultimately be successful in another system, that of youth culture.
Sure, he was about ten or fifteen years older than his new audience, but he was seen as one of them. A God. Quoted ad infinitum from his Little David records.
Seinfeld's observational comedy? That's all derived from Carlin. I don't want to hassle Jerry here, he admits it. Carlin was the first to look at our screwed up world and question it. The only comedian doing this today is Chris Rock. Cable TV killed live comedy and while everybody with a modicum of talent looked to star in, or write for, a sitcom, today's generation was subjected to the inanities of Dane Cook. A harmless gentleman, but that's just the point... Dane's about jokes. Carlin was much more than jokes, he actually inspired people to think, to question.
Save the planet? SAVE YOURSELF!
I think of Carlin's routine every time I hear people pontificate about the environment. George said the planet's been around for millions of years, it will survive. Isn't that an interesting thought? An Earth without people? Instead of thinking about whether your kids will get cancer, think of human beings going the way of dinosaurs.
And, of course, the difference between football and baseball... Sudden death and extra innings. The gridiron as opposed to the field. Baseball is a pastoral game...
And what about the routine about STUFF? Buying stuff, hoarding stuff, moving stuff. As someone addicted to my stuff, I think of George's words whenever I debate throwing something away. Do I really need it? Is my identity really rolled up in my possessions?
And then there was the Friday night executions. Maybe it was Monday night. But you remember that HBO routine. God, that would generate ratings! Begging the question, would executives put ANYTHING on television if it delivered ratings? In the years since, Carlin seems a seer. Hell, it's almost not a joking matter. They have vigils, TV reports, whenever they execute another inmate.
From a distance, it looked like George couldn't break through into TV or movies. The obituaries are saying it was his choice. I'd like to agree with this, if you're sui generis, if you're making a difference, can you play any role but yourself?
I looked forward to those HBO specials.
I must say, in the recent one, George was a bit off his game. Maybe his health was affecting his talent. Then again, we don't reevaluate Sinatra based on his final tours. Frank's legend was cemented over and over again, from the forties to the sixties. And George Carlin's legend was cemented from the seventies to the nineties. He wasn't the voice of a generation, he'd hate that description, rather he was the trusted observer, removed, sitting on high, taking the pulse of a nation.
You might say he was secondary to Richard Pryor. I love Richard, but their acts were different. Richard was a storyteller nonpareil. Carlin's talent lay in his insight, in questioning what the fuck was going on through humor.
If you look at Carlin's track record, it's akin to the Beatles'. He was more consistent than the Stones, even though he worked just as long. And even though we loved his greatest hits, we always wanted to hear his new stuff. Carlin wasn't calcified, he was positively alive.
Sure, he took drugs to cope. But, he also had a wife and a child and a level of normalcy that left him out of the "Behind The Music"/"E! True Hollywood Story" exposes. With Carlin, it wasn't about the drugs, but the talent. We marveled at the talent.
It's funny when a guy like Carlin dies. Because he still lives. Not only all those HBO specials and records, but the routines in our minds. He's changed our lives. You see, Carlin's comedy never got dated. Because being human never really changes.
But now Carlin is gone. Kinda weird, because he was an inspiration, a beacon for all us wannabe truth tellers. If Carlin could do it, maybe we could too. Now, the path is only illuminated by his legacy, there will be no more new words, no more new routines. No more appearances on late night TV where he questions the conventional wisdom, where he states he doesn't vote because it doesn't make a difference. I'm a big believer in casting my ballot, but I can see that George is right. The fat cats win no matter what. The little guy is squeezed out. George was not a star who wanted to live above the fray, he never forgot his roots, he was interested in the little guy, and the little guy loved him for it.
Everybody I know who interacted with Carlin said they had a conversation. His stardom did not eviscerate his humanity. But his poor heart stopped him cold.
Seventy one is too young to die. Seems old, but when you get there, or see that a man running for President is that age, you realize that as a septuagenarian, you've still got a lot of living to do. Hopefully.
George's candle has been snuffed out, but his memory will live on. If I think of my pantheon of inspirations, I put him right up there with Tom Wolfe and Frank Zappa. Wolfe the observer and Zappa the questioner. That's what George Carlin was. An observer who was not afraid to question the status quo. I will be continued to be inspired by him. Hopefully, you will too.
Thank you Bob for that, and thanks for the permission to reproduce it. Here is one of the classics for which Carlin will always be remembered:
George Carlin's website.
The Lefsetz Letter archive.
Subscribe to the Lefsetz Letter.