Sunday, June 22, 2008

America's fastest rising young foole

Award-winning comedian George Carlin dies

from the outset there were indications of an anti-establishment edge to his comedy. Initially, it surfaced in the witty patter of a host of offbeat characters like the wacky sportscaster Biff Barf and the hippy-dippy weatherman Al Sleet.

--quote from The International Herald-Tribune

This is the kind of news that truly...well, I'm not joking or exaggerating, when I clicked onto the Yahoo! main page just now and saw it as the featured story, there was a sharp intake of breath from me.

I would've said "Oh my god," but given his rather negative feelings about religion it doesn't seem a fitting tribute. So I'll do my best with what I have.

This may be a little scattershot, but I want to get it down while the news is still fresh.

I'm a George Carlin fan from way back. Better to remember the immortal Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television:

I look at that list, written in the early 1970's (when Carlin was once arrested for using them onstage), and I realize that in 2008 there's only four left you can't say, and then you can't only on non-cable, network television.

He was also fired in Vegas, as he once put it, "for saying a town where the big game is called 'craps."

On an HBO special paying tribute to Carlin's then 40-years in comedy (he made it to 50), host Jon Stewart, then a few years away from taking over The Daily Show, said something about Carlin that I have always remembered (of course, I have the show on tape and have watched it many times, which helps).

He said that for comedians, Carlin was "Part of our holy trinity: Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor...George Carlin. The rest of us are just congregation."

Of course, Carlin had made spoof newscasts ("A man attempting to walk around the world...drowned today.") part of his live show before The Daily Show or Saturday Night Live's "Weekend Update."

Speaking of SNL, I haven't started reading the obits yet (as I write this), but I'll betcha every single one of them mentions he was the show's first host ever.

Paul Provenza on the commentary track to the Aristocrats DVD said that Carlin was one of the very few comedians he likes to listen to talk about the technique of comedy.

(Here's the trailer for that film)

Stewart also spoke with Carlin in that same tribute about the older comedian's love of language, so obvious in his work. I think of a routine which I don't know is as famous as some of his others, but to me it was a great example of the comedian as truth teller.

In it, he showed how we misuse language to bleach the humanity out of it, using the changing terms we've used to describe the same condition from war to war for an example, slowly morphing "SHELL-SHOCK" into "post-traumatic-stress-disorder."

There were other ways in which he showed up the inconsistencies (not to say absurdities) in the way we speak, act, and indeed live. For instance he once questioned the illegality of prostitution thus:

Not for nothing was it announced last week that he would receive the Mark Twain Prize, it's an honor he deserves at least as much as anyone who's ever won it. I just wish they'd done it last year, so he wouldn't have to get it posthumously, but I shall try not to be bitter...unless I can get a good joke out of it.

But for all his skill with language, it should not be forgotten that he also had a neat line in funny faces, observe:

"There are three ingredients in my comedy," he said in a 1991 interview with the Los Angeles Times. "Those three things which wax and wane in importance are English language and wordplay; secondly, mundane, everyday observational comedy -- dogs, cats and all that stuff; and thirdly, sociopolitical attitude comedy."

You've already seen examples of the first two, here's some of the best of the third, in ten minutes from a 1991 (IIRC) special.

Here's the next 10 minutes of that special, as George moves from the big things that divide us to the little things we have in common. Or do I mean the little things that divide us, and the big things we have in common?

But besides his full routines, one of the reasons I was such a big fan and could still enjoy my tape of his specials even after I knew all the jokes, was all the flips he would put in just to "start a new paragraph," almost as an aside: "But let me ask you this, my interesting Judeo-Christian friends..."

Among the many reasons this is such shocking news is that I've been waiting years for a book to be written about Carlin. It's unquestionable that there will be one, probably more than one, but I'd hoped he'd live to tell his own story in his own way. At least now whoever takes up the task will have an ending.

Then there was Carlin the actor, I think at his best in the films of Kevin Smith, who clearly worshipped the comedian and wrote for his voice. His small role in Smith's Dogma is one of the most memorable in what is, itself, increasingly beginning to seem like the writer-director's best film. And in Jersey Girl (which isn't) Carlin's performance is one of the best, if not the best, things in the movie.

And as a good '80s man, I have to mention how awesome he was as Rufus in the Bill & Ted movies, especially the first one (IIRC, he'd been sick just before the second, which accounts for his limited participation).

I am so happy I got to see Carlin live. This would have been in Cupertino, California, around 1989, with Faith, my girlfriend of the time. I wish I could say I remembered some great routine that he'd done that night and which I later saw on one of his HBO specials, but the truth is I don't. But I was there, and I saw him.

Here he is about 16 years before that.

Another memory: On the last track of Carlin's Occupation: Foole ("I understand your son is a foole, Mrs. Carlin.") album, there's a great moment when, while in performance, he is given a note telling him that his previous album has won the Grammy for comedy.

Getting back to that tribute special again (I told you--I know it real well) in it Carlin describes his feelings about his fame as like being in, and part of, a big, collective family--a family he never had growing up, he added. People would approach him, he said, and say things like "Georgie! I saw you back in '89, and you remember what you said..." "Did I? Oh yeah..." Finishing up by saying "I guess I'm in the family, man., I guess it's okay."

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