Rest In Peace, Harlem's George Carlin—1937-2008
We knew we weren't going to have him for long very early in the game.
George Carlin. comedian, monologuist , and member of the “Willie, Mickey and the Duke” troika of dazzling comedy talent of the sea-changing 1970's has passed away—although, as Hubris says downpage a touch—“What (are we) thinking? George hasn't passed way, we didn't 'lose him'. He didn't go to the other side. He's dead.”
Which is a perfectly apt, Carlin-esque way of summing it up.
George Carlin IS dead. And we should thank our lucky, brick wall-backdropped stars that we had his talent for as long as we did. By my count, he'd suffered at least three heart attacks (that we knew of) and kept bouncing back from those should-have-been-life-stealing-episodes to bring us the funny, make us think—and yeah, give everyone who listened a little lesson on writing with wit in the english language. And mind you, those debilitating health issues didn't just crop up as he wizened into a raging old lion trodding the comedy circuit boards. No. He was just shy of forty and at the peak of his popularity when he first dodged death's swinging scythe pointed at his fragile heart, and basically called the black-clad ender of things, word number six—“Motherfucker”—to his face, and then proceeded to keep on steppin'. He would duck and slide away from that bastard's blade at least two more times we knew of, and still he returned to entertain and challenge us again and again.
I referred to him up-page here as “a member of the “Willie, Mickey and the Duke” troika of dazzling comedy talent of the sea-changing 1970's”, and he absolutely was—with Richard Pryor as Willie Mays, Carlin as Mickey Mantle, and the great Robert Klein as Duke Snider. If you don't get that reference, it's to the great trio of Hall of Fame major-league center-fielders who all played here in New York during the halcyon 1950s and were immortalized in the song, “Willie Mickey and the Duke”. If that's too “in” for ya, think of heavyweight boxing in the seventies when it was ruled by colossi like Ali, Frazier and Foreman. Pryor, Carlin and Klein were like those three in the comedy world—dominant, mega-talented forces who changed the game for everyone who followed in their wake. Now, only Klein remains. But if you're a comedy newcomer, or managed to be unlucky enough to miss 'em when they—and particularly George Carlin were hurling thunderbolts of laughter from the heavens, you need to understand just how good these three were and how their work changed the game.
Pryor, who I have discussed at length before, was the most protean talent of the three in my mind. For all of his unfortunate bacchanalian excesses, there may have never been a more all-around gifted comedian and yes, no-holds-barred social commentator. A rubber-face and body, a keen intellect and sense of unsparing anyone for their transgressions—especially including himself, and finally, a sense of verbal rhythm that made him the “Charlie Parker” of the comedy game—were the formidable weapons Pryor brought to the stage, and no one as far as I can see, ever outgunned him. You throw in as an extra his having perhaps the most tuned-in observational powers of regular folks ever bestowed by the creator on a funny person and you get the magic that was him—so much more than dirty words and a bushy 'fro as some liked to discount him as—he was damn near a Will Rogers 2.0, tearing away the veil of false propriety on America's issues of race, sex, class,and justice. He did this not by impersonating the famous, but rather—by channeling the voices of WASPS, winos, and women. Dogs, doctors and Dracula. An old, Black man, a young spotted giraffe, and even a horny spider monkey on the loose in the palm tree fronds canopying Hollywood. And tapping into ALL of those people, animals and more, (yes, he even personified a heart attack trying to kill him), he soared to prominence in the early seventies. But he wasn't alone...
The Bronx's own Robert Klein also came down the pike, and he too was a student of the observational school. But Klein was effectively the first, great, post Borscht-Belt, post-Goodman/Cheney/Schwerner Jewish comic. Relying on the old archetypes of irony and self-deprecation, he flipped the script in dealing with subjects as Joe McCarthy, the stupidity of cold-war excesses and of course, his beloved whipping post of Watergate, in which he took on a president in ways the late Vaughn Meader could only hint at. He took the old cadences of the Catskills and ran the new subversive material through them, while also subtly mocking the style to boot. It was unabashedly “Noo Yawk”-ey, yet it had a deciely college-educated vibe running through it as well, and his exasperation with the world he grew up in, only to see it replaced with the crazier world he was now an adult in only heightened the laughs. His work was finely-crafted and yet...had that corduroy-ed college professor prowling the stage at the lecture hall vibe, riffing on history and seeming to discover some wild, new shit right there in front of you as he spoke and fairly explodied with new energy to “hip” you to his breakthrough. What a time that was.
And we come to the great Carlin, (who was from what he joked was “White Harlem”, aka West 121st Street—the “Morningside Heights” section of the nabe)...who may have been the best pure wordsmith of the three. I am hard-pressed to think of another comedian who worked harder at perfecting his craft than George Carlin did. In his peak years, he Pryor and Klein ALL busted their asses coming up with new material, but it was Carlin who chiseled at the marble more, with finer tools and then buffed it to a glowing finish better than any of 'em. He workshopped his material so hard as he toured the country, and with such a discerning eye for pacing, and just the right phrasing and even intonation, that by the time you saw him at a big venue of on one of his annual HBO specials, you were watching something pretty damned close to stand-up perfection.
You see, every comedian's goal/wish/dream/necessity is to come up with “a fresh fifteen” every three months or so. A “fresh fifteen” being a new, and solid fifteen minutes of new material—staggered in such a way that at the end of every year, you'd end up with a different hour's worth of stand-up than you had the previous year. (Ostensibly so that when you hit spots on “the circuit” for the second time within a year's cycle, you're not booed off the stage for bending ears with the same old stuff) That's a damned hard thing to come up with, that whole new hour—but it starts with that supremely difficult “fresh fifteen” every three months, and Carlin was fucking superhuman at this. He would work from a handful of index cards when starting a new quarter's worth of material, stuff he painstakingly wrote himself, testing it, floating it and then honing it or ditching it based on the audience's reaction. He crafted his sets with an architect's eye almost, with special attention to pacing—when to run for twenty seconds breathlessly, and then, when to pause for a long beat, and hit with that one-liner with the vocal curl up at the end.
Which would of course, push the verbal boulder down the mountainside to start the next run of funny anew.
Where Pryor was an improvisational wizard, springing new additions from his basic outline of things, Carlin wrote these perfect pocket symphonies of comedy. Arranged just so, and when performed by the master—himself, they were quite simply brilliant. Especially when mated with that well-honed stream-of-consciousness, slightly buzzed delivery of his. (He would abandon much of that “stoner” timing as his work got sharper in tone over the years.)
And that goes without even dipping into the nature of the material itself—another observational genius, he—Carlin was also an unabashed observer of language itself. Playing with it, noting it's foibles and inherent silliness in how we fuck it up every damned day. Not to mention his constant highlighting of words' power, and how we as a society constantly mis-ascribe power to certain words to make points beyond the words' meaning.
Thus, we get Carlin's most infamous and subversive bit—“The Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television”. You know 'em...
“Shit, piss, fuck, c*nt, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits.
The routine itself is damn near a doctoral dissertation on the words and the hypocrisy of the so-called “affronted” so outraged by their use. It's a masterful piece of wordplay, timing and knife-edged in way that simultaneously draws the guffaws while ridiculing the posers who would stand in judgment. It also drew the ire of those posers who held power in media here in America, placing Carlin right where he wanted to be—diametrically opposite them, but also NOT exactly where he wanted to be—which was in a fucking courtroom with these stodgy bastards fighting this shit out like some property-line case in Levittown. Carlin, something of a Lenny Bruce acolyte (who yes, was there in the club the night Bruce was arrested on obscenity charges, and in defending Bruce wound up going downtown with him in the same cop car!) believed whole-heartedly in using language to challenge, and did so with that bit. However, in the most classic case of “You can't fight City Hall”, not only did the powers-that-be use all of their “oomph” to keep their verbal ban in place, but they then ascribed huge fines for broadcast outlets that dared flout said ban—fines in the hundreds of thousands of dollars for usage “on-air”. I know from that ban close-up. The radio station I worked at for years here in NY had on the wall of the Master Control room (and still does to this day) an ‘Olde English” scroll featuring the calligraphed words you must not ever fucking say displayed in plain view, lest you bankrupt the joint with fines. The ironic thing was that their fighting Carlin on this only gave him that much more fame, and in the end—respect—and it only helped him far more than it ever hurt him. Folks don't give a shit about the “rightness” of the government in it's crusade for morals per se—they remember Carlin's routine, and that cadence of how he rolled those words off the tongue—“Shit, piss, fuck, c*nt, cocksucker, motherfucker and...tits.”, and how he stuck it to the man.
And of course, he'd have the ultimate last laugh in doing his routines unexpurgated on TV whenever he wanted thanks to the birth of Cable which didn't have to hew to the FCC's whips and thus gave Carlin (and other envelope-pushing funnymen) bigger audiences than ever with his perennial one-man shows, centered around his anti-bullshit mantra. He tackled with rough hands society's hang-ups over sex, religion and violence, while brutally making light of our superficial ways of dealing with the supposedly bad outgrowths of those things. He railed—far longer than I ever thought he would, considering his repeatedly failing heart—against those hypocrisies and was damn near as sharp now at it as he was at his youthful peak.
Maybe even sharper.
Having worked professionally in comedy for twenty years, I can say with no doubt that this is a loss of huge proportions for the biz. He was a professional's professional, and cared enough about the craft to keep honing his shit, and never gave in to the temptation to be a lazy-ass, and fall back on lame-ass material because he didn't respect his audience—the ultimate stand-up no-no that some so-called “pros” shittily engage in, as noted by one of my favorite bloggers, Mark Evanier:
It's just the nature of comedy to deflate the privileged and the powerful. It was the Marx Brothers tormenting Margaret Dumont, not the other way around. Lately, Dennis Miller seems to be trying to reverse this principle. I used to really like Miller, though not all the time. One of the "not" times came after I saw him perform years ago at the MGM Grand in Vegas. Rita Rudner was the opening act and she was funny and fresh and giving it her all. Miller came out next and did horribly dated “topical” material — nothing I hadn't heard him do a dozen times — with an attitude of, “Gimme my check and let me get out of here.”
What struck me when I saw Miller on with Leno the other night was that given the state of the world right now, a comic who decides to not joke about the President really hasn't got a lot to say. He started his Tonight Show spot by hauling out his joke about Michael Jackson and George Hamilton officially crossing on the pigmentation chart. It's a joke that has now been rerun more often than the I Love Lucy about John Wayne's footprints and one that really shows its age. I suspect that were it not for Miller and that joke, George Hamilton would not have been mentioned on network television in the last decade.
That's a disease that afflicts many of today's comics—be they big names or guys booked at “The Yuk-Yuk Hut” on Route 11. There's an ugly laziness there, and sadly now—minus the borderline-crazed professionalism of a George Carlin, there's one less person working to point to as a sterling example of “how it should be done”. It's no mere coincidence that in the first year of NBC's Saturday Night (the show's REAL name at first before the change to a bunch of things ending with “Saturday Night Live”), he, Klein and Pryor would be guest hosts, and that Carlin himself would host the very first episode . “Willie, Mickey and the Duke” indeed. And damned if he didn't hit some serious tape-meausre shots like “The Mick” did when he prowled the stage with a mic.
He was a giant. A pro's pro, and as someone who also values the weight and worth of “the word”, I shall especially miss him, as we all should. Because I think we're all a little bit dumber, and a little less brave without his needling, cranky and “How could we not notice this?” presence.
“Sigh!” I guess I'll have to find “a place for my stuff” all by myself now. Damn.