Sunday, March 27, 2011

George Carlin's Last Words

I tore through this "sortabiography" (as Carlin put it, because "memoir" sounded pretentious and "only criminals and politicians write autobiographies"). It reads with the same breezy tone, layered thoughtfulness, and brutal honesty as the last 15 years of his stand-up concerts had; it was like getting to see one last Carlin concert.

I've been a big, big fan of George Carlin for a very long time. What's funny is that I discovered him basically by accident, when my library started to carry comedy albums and I started randomly checking them out and found out exactly what my comedy needs were. This happened when I was in junior high, about the same time Nick at Nite started airing SCTV and Rowan and Martin's Laugh-In and The Best of Saturday Night Live, so this is when I was really discovering what I liked in comedy, and finding people who have influenced my life in various ways.

When it came to George Carlin, I knew I'd really found someone I would always be listening to. I actually started with the albums What Am I Doing in New Jersey? and Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics, and they were a revelation. So much of what I was beginning to feel about the government, about the world, about the cruel and selfish way people often dealt with one another: brother Carlin was laying it all out. In a lot of ways, those albums helped shape who I became and how I viewed the world (with a mixture of weary sadness and suspicion).

As I journeyed through Carlin's discography, I was actually not that interested in his earlier work, because so much of it was just observational, occasionally amusing riffs on bodily noises or childish habits. My mainline drug was the political stuff, the wry and angry look at how people value property over each other, the way language is used to soften the truth or outright lie.

It's interesting to read, then, in Carlin's final expression, that he only felt he really understood the artistry of his comedy in the 1990s and after. He's honest enough with himself to admit that, after a couple of really good albums in the 70s (Class Clown and Occupation: Foole), he was pretty much coasting. A lot of it was the marijuana and especially the cocaine, and problems at home with an alcoholic wife and a strung-out daughter whom he felt it would be hypocritical to parent.

He's very frank and open about the mistakes he made, the shit jobs he did, and the way drugs ran his life for over a decade. I think one of the more interesting things about the book is how matter-of-fact he is about those mistakes and what they cost him. He's not defensive about it, nor is he introspective to the point where he takes chapters and chapters detailing it. He just cops to it, talks about it, and then goes on to some other thing. It's a beautiful work, because it comes across as the story of a life by someone who thinks it's pointless to lie but doesn't need to pat himself on the back for being so honest, either. Here's my life, here's how I felt then, here's how I feel now, and here's some other stuff.

The best aspect of the book, I think, is the way Carlin talks about how his comedy developed over the years: beginning with his characters in the 60s, moving on to the honesty and then the laziness of the 70s, developing his mind and getting it back together in the 80s, and finally reaching his true artistry in the 90s. He's able to analyze why he did what he did without sounding dry or doing too much navel-gazing.

Tony Hendra, the National Lampoon and Spy great, organizes all of this marvelously, creating a flow through careful editing. As I said, the book is breezy; it's well-paced and fun to read. Carlin and Hendra worked together on this book for 15 years, right up to Carlin's death, and it's a testament to Hendra's talent as an editor that the book's voice is authentically George Carlin's. It doesn't feel like a product left over from interviews and notes, with someone pretending to be George. Hendra's too talented for something so shoddy.

The only lingering sadness is the final chapter, in which Carlin talks about how he'd like to turn the book into a concert and do the concert on Broadway. His triumphant New York moment. It's sad that this show's never going to happen. But in Last Words we don't really get a dream unfulfilled; we get a life discovered, and the final work of a brilliant, honest man who found what he wanted to say and wasn't afraid to say it.


Some Guy said...

Something that has been fun for me is when my wife and I are listening to my iPod on shuffle and a Carlin bit comes on and I get to hear her laugh for the first time to things I have been laughing at for years. I still believe that--of the people I have never met in person--he has had the most influence on me and how I look at the world. I will be picking up the book soon.

Jaquandor said...

It's a fine book. Carlin's death was one of the more dismaying celebrity passings of recent years.

Kal said...

I was really into comedy albums as a teen. A buddy and I would produce our own radio show where we talked about whatever came to our minds. Between topics we would insert songs or snippets of comedy from George, Bill Cosby, Richard Pryor, Steve Martin, Cheech and Chong and the old Mel Brooks/Carl Riener stuff. This was the 70s. You just don't find stuff like that anymore.

I too always liked Carlin's stuff. In one sentence he could make you laugh AND think. Like you I think many of my opinions about government and society came from him. My empathy too. He was the Godfather and our world was better for him being in it. Great Post.

Johnny Yen said...

I grew up listening to my parents' copies of "Class Clown" and "Occupation Foole," but as I got older, found the stuff he was doing currently much more incisive and brilliant. When he got off drugs and started seeing what was going on around him, he got angry and observant. I particularly loved the way he constantly observed the way we use words to avoid dealing with reality.