Introduction to Last Words
By Tony Hendra
“I have this real moron thing I do? It’s called thinking.” —GC
For the last half century, somewhere in America, night in night out, George Carlin stood on a stage, raging, explaining, berating, sniping, purring questions, snarling answers, kicking holes in the polyester pants of hypocrisy, puking down the nice clean tux of conventional wisdom, doing what none of the interchangeable comics who shuffle across Comedy Central’s various interchangeable performance areas ever do: “this real moron thing—thinking.”
A mild-mannered and approachable man offstage, the riled-up, baffled everyman he played onstage was the final step in the evolution of an intelligence that, like no other, got under the skin of the American Dream.
“It’s called the American Dream because to believe it, you have to be ASLEEP!”
All his life he yanked the Band-Aids off that bruised and battered carcass, and poked savagely away at what he found underneath. In the seventies he did it by probing his own history in classic works like Class Clown, becoming a prime mover in a kind of comedy saddled with the term “nostalgia” but which was actually something far more interesting and ambivalent, fond memories of absurd repression. During the Reagan imperium his attention began turning outward to politics, violence, language, especially official and pseudo-official language, not to mention that central social issue, pets. In the nineties and the Bush years—the zeros—he took on more general symptoms of the folly of his species: war, religion, the planet, consumerism, cataclysm, death, divinity, golf.
Unlike many of his peers, he died uncorrupted, uncompromised and unbowed. He was urban not suburban, live not prerecorded, raw not precooked. His voice always vibrated with the energy of the Harlem streets from which he sprang, cutting through middle-class crap like a fine old ivory-handled straight razor. Because he did this alone, without fanfare, live, often in lowbrow locales like blue-collar clubs and Las Vegas, the proposition that George Carlin was a major artist may raise the brows, even the hackles, of the artist-ocracy. But that is what he became in his maturity: a unique creative force, equal parts actor, philosopher, satirist, poet—a real man of the people, not a multimillionaire media travesty of one. An artist whose designation “comedian” describes his work as inadequately as “painter” describes Francis Bacon or “guitarist” describes B.B. King.
It isn’t the purpose of this book to make that case, though I have tried to shape the narrative—as far as another’s first-person narrative can be shaped—to show how an acutely perceptive young performer with an ear as sharp as surgical steel became first an accomplished writer, then a master craftsman and finally a mature artist who could not only make you laugh till you were gasping but then take your breath away once you’d caught it, with the hard-edged poetry and coruscating variety of his language. No one I ever met in the business of being funny, and I’ve met a few, was more the antithesis of Happy the Carefree Clown than George; no one understood bet-ter that comedy at its finest is a dark and beautiful art.
For me this book is first and foremost a labor of love. More than fifteen years ago George asked me to help him tell the story of his life, and for a variety of mostly logistical reasons, I never got to finish the job. And while George told many bits and pieces of his story to various people at various times, he always wanted to get the whole thing down in one place at one time, packaged, polished and perfect. He made no secret of being anal in his habits, and he liked his works put away neat and tidy up on the shelf of his lifetime achievements. This book is one of the very few that never made it up there. Until now.
I first met George in mid-1964 when he was starting out as a co-median and I was too (actually half of one: my partner Nick Ullett and I were a comedy team). It was in the legendary, if unfortunately named, Café Au Go Go on Bleecker Street in Greenwich Village. The Go Go was Greenwich Village in the sixties. Grotty and gloomy, with black walls and a bare-board stage, it was dark enough that at a corner table, you could actually suck on a furtive joint. Music greats as diverse as Stan Getz and the Blues Project recorded classic albums there, folkies like Stephen Stills transitioned into rockers there, up-and-coming comedians like Richard Pryor and Lily Tomlin cut their comedic milk-teeth there.
George was one of them: the Go Go was his New York base—“my laboratory.” Off and on for a year, he’d been developing material for what would soon be an Apollo mission of a television career. Nick and I had also appeared at the Go Go a couple of times, notably opening for Lenny Bruce earlier in the year. It had been our first booking in America—and a delightful introduction to America it was. The third night of the gig, undercover NYPD cops arrested Lenny as he came off stage—allegedly for obscenity but as likely for being too funny about Catholics. He made bail and went back to work the next night with the same act. So the next week they busted him all over again.
The Go Go was one bond with George; Lenny was another. We’d gotten to know him quite well during his disastrous run; and Lenny had given George his start in showbiz four years earlier when he too had been half of a comedy team (with TV producer Jack Burns). We all idolized Lenny’s brilliant, risk-taking material, the Zorro-like satiric slashes he left on the asses of his targets. Lenny was who we all wanted to be when we grew up.
Throughout the rest of the sixties George and we were friendly competitors. We played the same nightclubs as he did across America—Mister Kelly’s in Chicago, the hungry i in San Francisco. We got our first TV break like him, on the old Merv Griffin Show. We endured the same vapid wasteland of sixties variety TV— especially the purgatorial torments of The Ed Sullivan Show. Shows that censored out all mention of the social turmoil and revolutionary tumult going on outside their studio doors.
George was a hit in the wasteland (more than us), but the repressive environment triggered in him—and me—a major self- reinvention as the sixties became the seventies. George transformed into the groundbreaking satiric stand-up we knew and loved; I signed on as an original editor of the brand-new humor magazine National Lampoon. Again we were competitors—this time for the vast campus audience the Baby Boom had created. The only time I saw George now was in Atlantic records’ ads for his comedy albums in our pages; they were often next to house ads for the Lampoon’s own hit comedy albums, the first two of which I produced. Then, for a decade, our paths diverged.
In the mideighties, I took a sabbatical from satire to write about satire: a book called Going Too Far, dealing with the antiestablishment humor that had emerged in the midfifties and given rise in the sixties and seventies to an extraordinary generation of comedic voices. In an unguarded moment I described this to my editor as “Boomer humor”; he insisted I use the wretched term throughout the book. Among the many comedy stars I wanted to interview, George was by now in the top rank.
George best typified a crucial element of my premise: that Boomer humor—because of its fundamental message of dissent—had always had an adversarial relationship with Official America’s most powerful weapon, television. In its origins it had tended to be a humor of the page or the stage—whether concert, nightclub or theater. A live, largely uncensored affair, often improvised and by definition unrepeatable, the very opposite of recorded entertainment. To get it, you hadda be there.
Like a few other major comedians—Richard Pryor, Lily Tomlin, Steve Martin—George had remained faithful to this principle, working almost exclusively in live performance since the early seventies, appearing on television only as “an advertisement for myself.” His most notorious comic essay, “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” deftly defined the antagonism—and Boomer humor’s core appeal. And he’d stuck to his guns—except for a brief lapse in the late seventies when he was at risk of becoming Johnny Carson’s doppelganger. By the mideighties he was almost alone among major comedians who still worked live all the time.
For George the stage hadn’t been stasis or stagnation. Quite the contrary: the uncensored freedom of live performance was what fed his ever-broadening and deepening work, gave it such flair, range and demotic force. He sharpened his art for and with real people, not the anonymous zero of a camera lens. He disseminated his comic vision by spoken word, gesture, inflection, the raised shoulder or eyebrow, the pause, the beat, the word not spoken, all those elements of performance the camera cheapens, falsifies or simply misses. He was building a devoted following of millions, a few thou-sand at a time. He had learned that laughter, like politics, is always local. To get George, you hadda be there.
And George gave good interview. He was the most articulate of all my subjects about his craft, his artistic development and his co-medic view of the world. Furthermore, his life onstage and off were one and the same. This was a man who lived through his craft and his material.
Even with giants of Boomer humor like Dick Gregory or Jules Feiffer, my interviews usually ran around an hour. With George we became so engrossed in our conversation that we recorded cassette after cassette over a period of a week or more, covering his development from his childhood in wartime Manhattan to the movie he’d just completed (Outrageous Fortune, starring Bette Midler): a more than forty-year period for which his recall was phenomenal.
Great for my book. Far more exciting though was discovering, after a decade in very different areas of comedy, how much we had in common. We’d both had Catholic backgrounds, we were both loners obsessed with the nature and practice of comedy. We shared comic loves, hates, preferences, insights and experiences, for instance those ghastly sixties variety shows. (There was no one in my rather literary comedic circle with whom I could share the terror recollected in tranquility, of The Ed Sullivan Show.) This around we weren’t just professional colleagues. We really hit it off. And laughed a lot.
George turned fifty in 1987 and soon after caught the autobiography bug. In 1992 he asked me to read what he’d written so far. He wasn’t happy with it. “It” was a hundred double-spaced pages covering the first six years of his life in copious, often funny de-tail, interlarded with many rather self-consciously “writerly” pas-sages. The hundred pages were continuous: they were the opening chapter. I pointed out that by this math, his first sixty years would run a thousand pages. even in an era of morbidly obese memoirs it would stand out. That was why I was reading the fucking thing, said George. He needed someone to help.
So began the long, wild, meandering, erratic and almost always hilarious process of documenting the life, times and oeuvre of George Denis Patrick Carlin. I already had ten to twelve hours of great stuff from Going Too Far. Over the next ten years we added forty to fifty hours more of taped conversations and as many unrecorded ones. It was an unpredictable process. Right after we’d done our initial sessions, I became editor in chief of Spy and George went into preproduction on his Fox sitcom, The George Carlin Show. Work was limited to spur-of-the-moment meetings when we happened to be in the same city. After a year, Spy expired, followed not long after by The George Carlin Show. Work resumed—the body of material grew both on tape and other notes and I began to rough out some early chapters.
The genre of what we were creating, since it intersected some-what with our modus, came up. George didn’t want to call it an autobiography: only pinheaded criminal business pricks and politicians wrote autobiographies. We also tossed the narcissistic Gallicism “memoir,” which we decided was a linguistic mongrel of “me” and “moi.” Because George wanted to place himself in the context of important movements in comedy over what was nearly a forty-year career, I started adding interstitial pieces of that cultural history. so a few years in, with a book emerging that was part biography, part autobiography, we hit on our genre: it was George’s sortabiography.
And that’s what we called it ever after.
In early April 1997, George’s wife Brenda was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer. She declined rapidly and died just five weeks later, the day before George’s sixtieth birthday. Partly because she had figured fairly prominently in the sortabiography, partly because of the yearlong depression he went through in the aftermath, we put it aside for a while. That year he also published his first hardback humor book, Brain Droppings. It was a big best-seller and George relished the role of author. He began planning a second book, Napalm & Silly Putty. We’d get to the sortabiography, all in good time. We continued to see each other in our normal ad hoc way, discussing new developments in his life and work for possible inclusion and refining what we already had.
Napalm & Silly Putty was to come out in late April 2001. Part of the planned launch was an event at the Writers Guild Theater in L.A., one of a prestigious lecture series called Writers Bloc. George asked me to do the evening with him as an onstage conversation about the book, but also about his life and work. We set the intellectual bar quite high—the audience included a number of distinguished members of the WGA—and after some initial discomfort, relaxed into a fascinating dialogue. As it developed, both of us realized the same thing: we were good at this because we’d been doing it for years. It was a public version of the free-ranging conversations we’d had about the sortabiography, which would often take us to completely unexpected places. The audience seemed to enjoy the ride and the evening was a success. (Though the distinguished Writers’ questions didn’t quite make it over our intellectual bar: “What do you watch on TV?” was one; “What do you think of the current crop of comedians?” was another.)
The experience put the sortabiography back front and center and we began discussing doing it as George’s next book. This back-and-forth generated a classic George Moment.
He usually initiated contact with me by sending me an e-mail of mind-bending prurience. Whenever I saw on AOL the screen name “sleetmanal” (for Al sleet, the Hippy-Dippy Weather-man) I knew I was in for some truly revolting images. I would try to top him and disgusting e-mails went back and forth until we’d decided on a place and time to meet or to have a phone conference.
This time George decided to cold-call my New York apartment. I wasn’t there, but my eleven-year-old son, Nick—who as a kid always had an unusually deep voice—was. The conversation went as follows:
GC: Is Tony there?
NH: No. Who’s this?
GC: This is George Carlin. Who’s this?
NH: This is his son, Nick.
GC: Hey, Nick, how the fuck are ya?
NH: Pretty fucking good. How the fuck are you?
An hour later when we finally spoke, George—not as a rule exactly pro-kid—said he was impressed by Nick’s lightning powers of repartee. I said it was hardly surprising: Nick had grown up roaming the same Upper West side streets and basketball courts George had fifty years earlier.
We discussed what was needed to bring the book up to date. George seemed to feel his work on it was largely done. He’d covered the first sixty years of his life in great detail and depth; he’d told me many things about himself and his life he’d never told anybody else and we’d uncovered a lot of other stuff in our conversations. Nothing that remarkable had happened in the last few years except Brenda’s death. We could either deal with that or cut the book off before it. There was no rule you had to include everything in your life in a book like this. By that logic, anyone who wrote an autobiography couldn’t finish it until they were dead.
We decided to see how Napalm & Silly Putty did and regroup in the fall. On top of his book tour and normal concert load, George had an upcoming HBO special in November to plan. As things turned out, we never did regroup. 9/11 intervened, causing George major headaches for his HBO show (and adding a darkly comic episode to the sortabiography). Napalm became another huge best-seller, staying on the New York Times best-seller list for twenty straight weeks; the audiobook won George his fourth Grammy. Meanwhile I was on the best-seller list too, having become involved with a fast-track 9/11 book, a photographic tribute to the FDNY and the 343 fire-fighters who died at the World Trade Center, called Brotherhood, which I edited and cowrote with Frank McCourt. (Rudy Giuliani and Thomas van Essen provided forewords. The proceeds went to FDNY charities.)
By the time I next saw George, at his HBO special in November, our literary landscape had changed. His publisher wanted an-other humor book like Napalm, and by now I was in the process of selling my own semiautobiographical book, the account of a life-long friendship I’d had with a saintly and funny Benedictine monk named Father Joe. Not to worry, said George, our book was great and it wasn’t going anywhere. It would get done.
It was mid-’03 before I surfaced from writing Father Joe and made contact with George again. In the meantime he’d experienced more heart problems—arrhythmia, requiring a procedure called an ablation. He was also doing a new humor book, When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?, a title designed to be offensive to all three Abrahamic faiths. (When it came out in 2004, the only religious institution it offended was Walmart. Because the cover lampooned the Last supper with George seated at the table, waiting for Jesus, they refused to rack the book.)
George was always a long-term planner, and a new idea now entered the picture, involving an ambition of his we’d discussed occasionally, of capping his career with a Broadway show. The model for it would be Lily Tomlin’s brilliant, virtuosic performance in Jane Wagner’s The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe, which she’d premiered in 1985 and had since performed all over the world. His new idea was to use childhood stuff from the book as a basis for the Broadway show; then when it opened, finally publish the sortabiography itself. The success of one would feed the success of the other. This seemed an excellent approach, especially since he wanted me to work on the Broadway end of it too.
004 came and went, and by the time we spoke again, George had been through rehab and was working again as hard as ever. But he had begun to talk more and more about slowing down, about someday soon getting off the road. Then he could devote the time he needed to the “Broadway thing.” His health began to decline—after the 2005 HBO special he suffered heart failure—but whenever we spoke the plan for the next stage in his long and extraordinary career remained the same.
George didn’t live to fulfill his dream of homecoming, of taking his hometown by storm on Broadway, the magical place where he scampered as a boy from stage door to stage door, filling a fat auto-graph book. But at least the story of his life has made it to the light. In his own words.
Words—the thing he loved most