When I was a kid, or a teenager at least, George Carlin was my unquestioned favorite stand-up comedian. I remember a conversation back then where I was speculating that someone or other might well have risen to being my second favorite comedian, and I was asked why “second” favorite. I was taken aback momentarily, because I hadn’t thought it necessary to state the obvious that Carlin was number one. It was like once you become aware of popular music you realize there’s the Beatles and then everyone else, or once you become aware of boxing there’s Muhammad Ali and then everyone else.
I remember regarding Carlin that way, but oddly enough I don’t remember a lot of his actual material standing out to me as superior to various other comedy I liked. Maybe it was more what he represented. He was edgy and used a lot of dirty words and talked about politics and such. I don’t know that he was any funnier to me than five or ten or maybe more other comedians of whom I was a fan, but I somehow thought of him as more “important,” as someone it was cool to like.
As I got older I gradually moved on. There wasn’t anything specific that drove me away, but for some reason he didn’t have the staying power of other significant figures from my youth. I still liked him when I saw him on TV and such, but I didn’t go out of my way to watch him. I gravitated more toward Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, Steven Wright, Emo Phillips, Judy Tenuta, the sketch comedians of SCTV, and various others. When I did occasionally catch part of, say, a Carlin HBO special, I thought he was pretty good but also seemed to be getting increasingly curmudgeonly in a way that wasn’t always clever enough to outweigh its negativity.
Last Words is an autobiography pieced together posthumously from tapes and notes Carlin left behind. But it doesn’t have the incomplete or slapdash feel to it that that might imply. Had I not known otherwise, I’m sure I would have assumed Carlin wrote it in its entirety.
It’s pretty conventional and straightforward in structure, with Carlin telling the story of his life chronologically and understandably. It’s “straight” in that sense, but it’s not straight in the sense that Carlin drops the humor and adopts a different persona. It’s still Carlin, and he still jokes and rants and curses, more effectively than not.
I think it matters that he was making these tapes and such near the end of his life. This isn’t a perfunctory, “let’s get this celebrity to tell the story of his life at the peak of his fame” market-driven autobiography. It’s a thoughtful, inward gazing retrospective, a taking stock of life, an examination of “Who am I, and what made me what I am?”
I was at least moderately interested throughout the book, but my sense is he cared the most about understanding and conveying the story of his childhood and the ups and downs of his career. Or at least that’s when I felt most engaged. It’s not that he leaves out the other stuff—marriage, daughter, drugs, health problems, etc.—but he seems to feel an urgency to dig around in his beginnings as he nears his end, and he seems to be the kind of person obsessed with talking about his career.
There is indeed a great deal of detail about the development of his career, but it’s not just “this happened, then this happened, then this happened.” It’s deeper than that, as he talks about why he did what he did, and how he felt along the way.
He’s honest about caring whether he is liked and admired by audiences, critics, and his peers. He seems to have shared my perception that for a time he was the clear champion of stand-up comedy, and he makes no effort to conceal the fact that when Steve Martin arrived on the scene and blew everyone away, he felt jealousy and competitiveness about it.
He achieved success as a touring stand-up act, as a talk show guest, as a sketch comedian on Saturday Night Live, and as an occasional comic actor, but where he made his biggest mark was arguably taking comedy albums and hour-long commercial-free cable TV stand-up comedy specials to a higher level both artistically and commercially. It matters to him that he got to certain places before his peers did. He takes great pride in it. He blazed the trail with those art forms, just as Richard Pryor established that a stand-up routine could be successfully converted into a feature-length concert movie.
He’s just as honest about the distress he felt when his career was in a rut, and how much he was stung by the disapproval, parody, and ridicule sent his way by the likes of Rick Moranis, National Lampoon, Cheech and Chong, and various critics. Stung, because he knew there was considerable truth in their depiction of him having gone astray in obsessing about navel lint and peas and such, as if the less important and less noticed something was, the more we needed to examine it in excruciating detail and find humor in it.
This is not primarily a tell-all, settling scores sort of book where he’s revealing secrets and trashing people page after page. But on the other hand he doesn’t pull his punches. If he thinks someone famous is an asshole (e.g., Ed Sullivan, Lorne Michaels), he says so.
Normally when a writer is as frank as Carlin, including admitting his egotism and other imperfections, it humanizes him for me and makes me feel more of a connection to him. I felt that here and there in this book, but somehow there is also something vaguely off-putting about Carlin the writer. Like in his act in his later years (what little I saw of it), there’s something about his negativity that sometimes isn’t fully redeemed.
He comes across at times as a vaguely judgmental, stressed, tightly wound, self-obsessed guy. It feels like if you knew him, he’d be the type who cares whether he’s better or smarter than you, and whether you agree that he is, the type who doesn’t relax easily, and doesn’t make you feel very relaxed around him.
I’m just not sure he’s someone that one could get close to (or at least that someone like me could get close to). There were times reading this that I found myself admiring him more than liking him.
There does seem to be considerably more substance to him than to the vast majority of celebrities. I could imagine philosophy major Steve Martin getting into the kind of stuff you find in this book, but most comedians I picture more like Jerry Seinfeld. Talented, funny guy, but not one who’s going to challenge you, teach you, provoke you. Indeed, probably more the type to think it would be pretentious of a comedian to even try.
I’m glad Carlin and a few other comedians have not shied away from digging beneath the surface. I appreciate that in this book Carlin tries to be analytical, and to convey whatever wisdom he’s acquired as he nears the end.
I’m not going to say he’s always right, or that everything he says is profound and brilliant. But it’s apparent that he has a good to very good, even if not great, mind, and that he’s not afraid to open up and take his best shot at the issues he deems most important. If you have a sharp mind and a willingness to speak it, that’ll take you a long way, comedian or not.
I liked the whole book, but one of the passages that I found most striking occurs near the end. For me, it’s Carlin at his best, expressing something true and important that reflects a key part of how I see the world but that I’ve never been able to articulate nearly so well. So I’ll close with a lengthy quotation:
Outside of my audience, groups repel me, because for the sake of group thought, they kill individuality, that wonderful human oneness. I’m wide open to individuals. Fine with individuals. Individuals are just great. Even the most evil man on earth, who’s just eaten a whole dog, I find fascinating and interesting. I’d love to spend a minute or two with him. Discuss the preparation. “You put a little salt on that? Used a little cream?” I’d look in his eyes and his eyes would be someplace God knows where in the universe and yet for that reason fascinating.
Every individual set of eyes you look into gives you something, whether it’s a blank wall or an infinite regress of barbershop mirrors. Just as fascinating. There’s something in all individuals. I make room for them psychically—even though I might want to get away after a minute and a half. People are wonderful one at a time. Each of them has an entire hologram of the universe somewhere within them.
But as soon as individuals begin to clump, as soon as they begin to clot, they change. Sometimes you have a friend and you say, “Gee, Joe is a great guy. But when he’s with Phil he’s a real jack-off.” Or, “Now that he’s with Linda, the fucking guy is different. He’s changed, he’s not the same old Joe.”
Groups of three, five, ten, fifteen—suddenly we have special little hats, we have arm bands, we have a marching song, a secret handshake and a list of people we don’t agree with. Next we have target practice and plan the things we have to take care of Friday night.
The larger the group, the more toxic, the more of your beauty as an individual you have to surrender for the sake of group thought. And when you suspend your individual beauty you also give up a lot of your humanity. You will do things in the name of a group that you would never do on your own. Injuring, hurting, killing, drinking are all part of it, because you’ve lost your identity, because you now owe your allegiance to this thing that’s bigger than you are and that controls you.