I only just found out about an hour ago that one of my all-time favorite American stand-up comedians, George Carlin, has died due to heart-failure. He was 71.
I first heard of him sometime in the early 80s, when browsing through one of those HBO 'what's-on-this-month' guides they used to send out. My aunt & uncle had cable TV, which seemed really 'modern' and advanced back then--definitely an enticement to want to stay over, besides hanging out with my cousins. Carlin was doing another of his umpteen HBO-televised specials (I think he was a pioneer of that format), but since I didn't really know who he was, I wasn't really interested in seeing it. Not that my aunt and uncle would let me anyway, even though they were a bit more liberal than my parents. A few years later...New Year's Eve 1984/'85, I heard my first Carlin album (or cassette, to be exact). It was On The Road, his 1977 record. My oldest cousin decided to have a tiny party over at his folks' place, as my aunt & uncle were going out for the evening. His friend, who was a few years older than me and a lot more 'hip', brought along some booze and some smoke. Not much happened, other than those two drinking quite a bit, my oldest cousin offering me and his younger brothers a cup each of blackberry brandy...and a few minutes of the de-scrambled Playboy channel, before it became static-ed out again. My cousin's friend also brought along some weed and had smoked a joint (or two). I hadn't been initiated yet and was very much against "drugs" at that point in my life. He wanted to hear some music, so he walked into my cousin's room and put Dark Side Of The Moon on the stereo (first time I ever heard that as well...). After a while, he took another cassette out of his pocket, put it down on the stereo and left the room, presumably to get more to drink. I looked at the tape, it was the Carlin album. I remembered his name and was curious about hearing him, so I popped the cassette in the player and listened for a bit. I'd like to say that I "got it" right away and had a comedic epiphany--but really I didn't understand a lot of Carlin's routines, especially the bits about getting high. Still, I liked the sound of his voice and his command of language.
I had received a clock/radio as one of my birthday gifts when I was 13 and I had already started tuning in to the local rock stations. One of them had a comedy program that was broadcast on Sunday nights. I started to listen regularly and started to hear more Carlin routines. One of my favorites was Ice Box Man, from the A Place For My Stuff album. It's a brilliant piece about the state of refridgerators and the foibles based around them. It's observational humor at it's incisive, but unassuming, best--the sort of thing Jerry Seinfeld and many others would base a career around, later in the 80s and early 90s, only not half as witty. I also was able to hear many of his 'classic' routines from the deservedly heralded early 70s records, like FM & AM, Occupation: Foole and Toledo Window Box. That moment on Class Clown, his album released in 1972, where he gets the audience to "pop their cheek" at the same time, is still one of my favorite moments on a record.
Carlin's own story has been told many times...born into one of the "Irish" sections of New York City, Morningside Heights, he started mimicking radio announcers at an early age. He atteneded Catholic school, which would provide him with a lot of material when his stand-up career really took off. He developed an interest in jazz and African-American culture and he would often hang out in Harlem, adopting the hipster slang and dress..and first experimented with marijuana, which would also influence his comedy later on.
He started up a comedy team with Jack Burns, when they both worked at a radio station. Burns and Carlin performed together for a few years in the late 1950s/early 60s and then Carlin struck out on his own. Carlin was able to land a few television appearances and he became quite popular, with some of his routines touching on counter-culture topics that would become the mainstay of his act in the early 1970s. His debut solo album, Take-Offs And Put-Ons, was released in 1967 and Carlin still looked like a "typical" comic of the time..suit & short hair and no facial hair. Around this time, he began to become disillusioned with playing the "whiskey joints" full of "squares". He seemed to embrace the counter-culture whole-heartedly--he grew his hair and a beard, wore tie-dye shirts and faded jeans and talked in a mellow, stoner purr.
Carlin's main notoriety derived from the infamous Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television sketch that appeared on the "Class Clown" record. Carlin was arrested in Milwaukee in 1972 for performing the bit at a show. WBAI, a radio station in New York, was fined by the FCC for playing Filthy Words, a routine from the follow-up to "Class Clown", "Occupation: Foole". He continued to perform and release albums throughout the 70s and early 1980s, and started his run of cable TV appearances. As the 1980s wore on and a new generation of comics took over the spotlight, Carlin's popularity declined a bit. His albums, like Playin' With Your Head and What Am I Doing In New Jersey, were largely ignored. Carlin concentrated on an acting career and his appearance in Bill And Ted's Excellent Adventure, in 1989, sparked a bit of a revival in interest in Carlin.
He appeared in a few more films in the early 1990s and threw himself vigourously back into stand-up with even more HBO specials, like Jammin' In New York and Back In Town. It seems that the conservative counter-revolution in the 80s had a big impact on Carlin. He lost his 1970s hippie-dippy demeanor and derided human foibles with a cynical sneer. I must admit that while I still thought he was spot-on with most of his attacks, I missed the gentle way that Carlin would poke fun of his chosen targets. He seemed far too angry and prone to ranting and it seemed to distill some of the essence from his comedy. I was still glad he was around and making his sharp observations. Now he's gone--another of the humans I most admired has left the planet. Rest in Peace, Pope George...say "Hello" to RAW, Albert Hofmann, Tim Leary, Terence McKenna and all the others.