Thursday, July 15, 2010
Last Words by George Carlin with Tony Hendra
”An audience is the only group I can tolerate, because an audience wouldn’t be a group if it wasn’t for me. Which extends to every other audience that has ever liked me. More and more as I get older, when people come up to me in public places to tell me how much they enjoyed some piece at a concert or a club as long as forty years ago, I mentally see an audience of millions stretching away into the darkness. Individuals who in a sense I’ve met and some spark has passed between us, actual humans in whose presence I’ve been and who’ve been in mine, 1,500, 2,000, 3,000 at a time, but also one-on one. Whenever they laughed, in that moment, I was speaking to them directly.” — George Carlin
By Edward Copeland
A year or so before Carlin’s decades-long struggle with heart problems robbed the world of his humor and his brilliance, I was fortunate enough to be one of those millions when he gave a concert here. One of my many regrets when my own health problems hospitalized me for four months in 2008 and placed this blog on one of its first forced hiatuses was that it prevented me from writing the obit salute to Carlin that I felt I more than owed him. Last Christmas, I received Last Words, his self-described “sortabiography” that was published in November 2009. Because of further health problems, frequent headaches and a desire to kick-start the blog that meant focusing mainly on movies and television, I didn’t finish the book until last weekend. Now though, I can give it its long overdue review and, at the same time, make up in my own way for what I’ve felt I’ve owed George for more than two years.
Before I discuss Last Words itself, which Carlin had been working on in the years prior to his death with his friend Tony Hendra, I feel the need to discuss Carlin’s role in my own life. I’m not certain when he assumed such a place in the hierarchy of my artistic idols but I do remember a specific moment in my junior year of high school when our English teacher was asking us about our favorite comedians for some reason and I immediately named Carlin. She asked why and I replied that it wasn’t just because he was funny but because I loved his use of language and the way his mind worked. Reading Last Words, I see this was one of Carlin’s greatest obsessions and the time I was making this comment was one of particular evolution for him to being something even greater than just a mere stand-up known for “The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.”
Last Words works much as his routines developed over the decades, particularly in the later years of his life: With brutal honesty. He doesn’t sugarcoat his own failings or soft-pedal his feelings toward others he encounters in his path. (When he hosted Saturday Night Live the second time in a later season, he was touched when Martin Short complimented his ability in a sketch, since Carlin always dreamed of comedy as a stepping stone to acting, but he found Billy Crystal to be an absolute asshole when he told him maybe he’d see him in Hollywood and they’d make a movie and Crystal replied, “That’s not in my plans.”)
He’s quite open about the toll his cocaine abuse took on his career and his role as a husband and father. Much of the late 1970s was lost to him and when his own daughter became a teenager with drug problems of her own and an abusive boyfriend, he was completely torn between doing the right thing as her dad and appearing to be a hypocrite.
While the details of his growing up and personal life are fascinating, what really makes Last Words stand out from other show business autobiographies is the detail with which Carlin describes the evolution of his own thoughts about his comedy and about his goals. To me, the most surprising revelation was that at the beginning of his career, he planned to use stand-up merely as a stepping stone to an acting career that he envisioned could make him another Jack Lemmon. While I admire Lemmon and worship Carlin, those are two artists I would have never put together in a similar wavelength, but George Carlin did and, frankly, I’m glad he didn’t succeed because the world needed another good actor a lot less than it needed the singular talent that was Carlin.
As I mentioned before, Carlin doesn’t hold back from criticizing himself, especially what he considered silly television appearances in the 1960s on things such as Perry Como specials and how some of his later comedy albums in the 1970s, when he was in the midst of his big cocaine period, basically were coasting compared to the early ‘70s classics that took him into the stratosphere. We really get inside Carlin’s head as he understands the metamorphosis of his art beginning in the 1980s, where he began to really have something to say and realized he could measure success from an audience in ways other than merely laughs, as he channels what’s been building for years into coherent routines. He even titles a chapter “I Get Pissed, Goddamit!” He explains how he honed his routines on the road, describing himself as the writer and the audience as the editor when they warned him he was going farther than they were ready to go.
He discusses how his natural leftward leanings politically really morphed into annoyance at all sides. Carlin truly valued dissent but found most parties pretty much full of bullshit. In one passage, he takes on the dogma of both sides:
”I felt discomfort at having received positions on issues, simply because of my preference for the left of center, for people’s rights over property rights. I was beginning to find a lot of my positions clashed. The habits of liberals, their automatic language, their knee-jerk responses to certain issues, deserved the epithets the right wing stuck them with. I’d see how true they often were. Here they were, banding together in packs, so that I could predict what they were going to say about some event or conflict and it wasn’t even out of their mouths yet. I was very uncomfortable with that. Liberal orthodoxy was as repugnant to me as conservative orthodoxy.”
Still, it was the right who became most uncomfortable with his somewhat anarchic, misanthropic routines, which pretty much avoided specific topics of the time because he wanted to be able to refine and use the routines forever.
In the 1990s, he began to receive many awards recognizing him for the legend he was, but as nice as they were to get, he had little use for them and summed them up fairly well, especially given the disasters the Oscars, Emmys and Tonys have all turned themselves into.
”Most awards are just an excuse for a television show. Showbiz congratulating you but also congratulating itself for being so relevant and important and having the good judgment to pick the best. There’s more than a whiff of that empty showbiz bullshit I used to hate in my sixties nice period, the celebrity club pretending to know and admire each other in their acceptance speeches.”
The final chapter of Last Words details what the next stage of George Carlin’s transformation might have been if his heart hadn’t finally failed him on June 22, 2008. He was returning to the idea of acting and the characters he used to portray in his early comedy, constructing a semi-autobiographical Broadway show that he tentatively titled New York Boy. Sadly, that dream will never come to fruition.
Even if you weren’t a Carlin fan but are interested in the evolution of an artist, Last Words really is a must read. I may never have met him one-on-one, but I feel fortunate that I did get to be part of his imagined audience at least once.