In my lifetime, I’ve only cried at the deaths of two public figures: John Lennon and George Carlin. (The Kennedy’s made me sad, but I was probably too young to really understand what was going on.)
Lennon requires no explanation. For those of a certain age, his assassination signaled the end of an era and the irrevocable loss of our youth. My grief might have been as much about me as it was about him. (I’m self-absorbed that way.)
Carlin, as anyone who knows me will attest, was my comedy god, a comforting thread whose influence has run through almost my entire life. I first caught him in the mid-60s on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Back then, he sported short hair, a business suit and ribbon tie, and favored us with bits like “Wonderful WINO Radio” and “Al Sleet, the hippie-dippie weatherman.” (Typical vintage Carlin: “Tonight’s forecast – Dark. Continued dark throughout most of the evening, with some widely-scattered light towards morning.”) That kind of wordplay, a Carlin trademark, hooked me from the very beginning.
I lost track of George for a few years until he resurfaced as a long-haired, bearded, tie-dyed genuine counter-culture spokesman in the early 70s. His reinvention coincided with my teenage years and contributed mightily to my nascent rebellious streak. Listening to classic routines like “The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” (late at night on my GE portable record player) from the albums “FM & AM” and “Class Clown,” opened my eyes and ears to a completely different kind of comedy. These weren’t traditional setup/punch line jokes in the Bob Hope vein. George and other burgeoning comedy legends like Richard Pryor and the Smothers Brothers had more on their minds as they fearlessly took on all taboos, including politics, religion, American culture, racism, and the sad state of the human race. (George came to believe that we’re a failed species, stuck in an evolutionary dead end.) Nothing was off limits.
The first time I saw Carlin live was with a group of friends at Cal State Northridge in the San Fernando Valley, circa 1975. We sat on the floor of the gym for what must have been three hours (George was like the Springsteen of comedy). I can remember pounding the floor as the tears streamed down my cheeks, my breaths coming in short gasps and my stomach spasming from the sheer force of unrelenting laughter. By the end of the show, there was nothing left of me. But I still wanted him to go on.
A few years later, Carlin hosted a comedy workshop at the Sherwood Oaks Experimental College in Hollywood. For the grand sum of $50, you could actually sit in a classroom with 60 or 70 other fans and get tips from the master. During the Q & A session, I managed to croak out a question, possibly something about his comedic influences. I have no idea what he said because the blood was pounding too loudly in my head. But I know he answered graciously. Can you imagine a top comedian doing something even remotely like that today?
In the ensuing years, I kept up with George through his 14 HBO specials (he was unbelievably prolific; most comics are lucky to have a couple hours’ worth of material), as well as his best-selling books “Brain Droppings,” “Napalm & Silly Putty,” and “When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?” – the cover of which shows George Photo-shopped into the Last Supper clutching a knife and fork. I almost didn’t mind watching “Thomas the Train” with my grandson because George did the voiceover narration. On a subsequent interview, he explained it was an easy way to pay back his IRS debt.
As he grew older, Carlin became ever-more bitter. (Typical later Carlin: “The wrong two Beatles are dead.” It doesn’t get any darker than that. Or more spot on.) But, unlike political observers such as Mort Sahl, he never lost his sense of humor. Even when there were dry stretches during a particularly-long rant, George was always interesting. He could hold your attention and make you think between the laughs.
I think of George often, especially when I watch the news. He would have had a field day with BP and the Tea Party and the Great Recession. We need a guy like him now more than ever. Recently, I was gratified to hear that he had finished his memoirs just before he died (that seems to happen a lot.) George, a consummate wordsmith to the end, called it a “sortabiography.” I’ve ordered “Last Words” from Amazon. George never believed in an afterlife, but, for me, this is a little gift from the great beyond.