R.I.P. George Carlin
The Toronto Star thudded to my doorstep today with news that was already out of date. The front page blurted something I was already way well aware of. George Carlin had passed away on Monday at the age of 71 due to heart complications. With the front page and the pages that followed, I had a couple of issues with the Star. Firstly I’m pretty sure that George only had 14 HBO specials and not the reported 140 The Star printed. But my biggest problem was with the front page headline
“Shock Comic Carlin Dies”
There it was in print, right there beneath the date and the weather for today. That truly was all the information I needed today: This is what day it is. This is the weather you should be expecting. One of the reasons that you’re a stand-up comic today is dead.
What truly irked me with the headline was the wording. To me, “shock comic” does not describe what Carlin was about. The Star article referenced Lenny Bruce, one of Carlin’s main influences, as a “shock comic”. Okay that I agree with, since many at the time found Lenny’s material and delivery so shocking they incarcerated him. But by Lenny being that outlandish and that groundbreaking, Carlin could not be seen as “that” shocking. Even in the court cases that Carlin faced, his language was deemed “indecent” but not “obscene”. Certainly not a “shock comic”. Also referenced in the article was “shock comic” was Sandra Bernhard, who I don’t see as a “shock comic” in as much as “shockingly bad”. Just my opinion. Everyone’s got one. I don’t like her stand-up. I’ll bet she doesn’t like mine. I’m okay with that.
“Shock comic” just doesn’t cut it. I always picture shock comics as the sort that will say anything, liberally talking about taboo subjects like war, abortion, euthanasia, drugs, alcoholism, stuff that you probably shouldn’t mention during Thanksgiving dinner, and talking about it in a manner that is underlined by the mutterings of “Honey, get your coat. We’re leaving” as the faint of heart decide to find some Disney-based entertainment to salve the wounds. But to me, the word “shock comic” also paints a picture of someone who is typically shocking but certainly not funny, relying on the discomfort brought on by the subject matter to replace laughs. Andrew “Dice” Clay, I’m looking in your direction. To say this of Carlin does him a huge disservice in that he talked about all of the things society deemed you “shouldn’t”, but still never left out the funny. You might as well dub Jesus as “a fairly competent magician”.
I was first introduced to George Carlin at the age of 10 when I bought a K-Tel album called “Just for Laughs” (not named after our festival, because remember, I was 10. So the album is reeeeeally old.). It had on it fantastic acts; Abbott & Costello, Richard Pryor, Flip Wilson, Jonathan Winters, and the first track on side two was George Carlin’s “Wonderful WINO”, a spoof on hepped-up DJs playing on a Top 40 station, dripping in two of Carlin’s favourite weapons; satire and rich use of the English language. From this, as with all addictions, you grow to the need for more frequent and stronger hits. Me and my friends bought his albums (again…vinyl…old) and listened to them non-stop in bedrooms at low volumes so as not to get the parents in the house wondering if in fact they HAD heard a word that you can’t say on television. Not having HBO in Gananoque, and being in Gananoque, we repeatedly rented, the only videos of his the local rental shop had: “Carlin at Carnegie” and “Carlin on Campus”. We wore out the copies. “Playing with Your Head” would be a tape I’d listen to in the car and fall asleep to so that I’d know when exactly I fell asleep. “Oh, the last thing I remember him talking about was trying to find your keys in a corn muffin. Then I was out.”
Like every electronic act credits Kraftwerk as influences, every comic owes a lot to Carlin. He made it almost mainstream to talk about everything. He maintained the highest quality control of his material, and held true to the strongest tenets in comedy. Be funny, and keep trying to be funny. I had the opportunity to see him recently at Roy Thomson Hall, his last show in Toronto, I believe, and he still had it. Was still funny. Was still taking chances. Yet another life-changing moment witnessed. You don’t have to be the same style of comic to appreciate what he did for every comedian. He made it okay to perform. He and Lenny took the hits so that we for the most part didn’t need to. Kinda like Jesus, but with a different sermon from the mound. And probably a different name for Judas.
In an interview with The Star, he answered two questions that stood out for me. When asked what advice he would give to young comics, he said “Get out in front of the audience as often as you can.” As someone still trying and learning, it meant much to me to hear him validate what my thoughts were, but also see him recently put it all to practice. He needed no reason to tour but he did because he, like every other comic, needs to. The other quote that got me was his reply to the question “If you could give a wake-up call to America, what would it be?” His reply: “I’d say go back to sleep. It’s over. It’s turned into a race of consumers, a race of people selling things to each other. That’s all we’re interested in. It’s over.” That’s what bugs me most about his death. He’s seen the back of the book, he knows how it’s all going to end, but now he’ll never be able to see it all fall apart. What’s the point of seeing the guy put dynamite in the building if you miss the explosion? It goes back to one of my favourite George Carlin moments. He was doing panel on Letterman when Letterman was still on NBC (old…old…old). As soon as he sat down, Letterman said, “You seem to be in a good mood. What’s going on?” “Well, Dave. I finally got the family to switch over to a gel toothpaste.”
Not knowing how important it would be, I purchased the box set “All My Stuff”, a collection of every HBO special he did about three weeks ago. There were only 14 in my box. I’ll wait for The Star to send me the remaining 126, I guess. I had no idea when I bought it how important it would be. As I look at it now on the shelf, it makes me sad knowing that there’s nothing more to come after that.