Monday, June 23, 2008


George Carlin was one of the formative influences of my youth, largely because, as with most formative influences, he happened to be there at the time. My father, the guy I get my sense of humor from (so blame him), had a pretty decent collection of comedy LPs back in the seventies. One of my earliest memories, in fact, is of standing frozen with horror in the bathtub listening to Tony Hendra's imitation of John Lennon's primal scream shrieks (as conceived by Michael O'Donoghue) as Dad played the first National Lampoon album, Radio Dinner, in the next room. As I got a little older, I used to sneak that record, along with the first few Cheech & Chong albums, out after school before the folks got home and giggle surreptitiously at all the drug and sex jokes I barely understood and smirk pseudo-knowingly at the political stuff I understood even less. (In fact, I listened to Radio Dinner again not long ago and I still don't quite get "Profiles in Chrome.") Later on came the Steve Martin albums that Mom dutifully bought him every Christmas, which were great gateway drugs for my nascent comic sensibilities - goofy and silly enough for an eight-year-old to appreciate, with a detatched, ironic undertow that gradually revealed the machinery underneath as I got older. And then there was that trio of records with that slightly crazed-looking longhair on the cover, contorting himself in wacky poses, looking out at me with a glazed, goofball gaze, and simulating sticking his middle finger deep into his nose shirtlessly seated in front of a blackboard. Those three releases - FM & AM (1972), Occupation: Foole (1973), and especially the one that came between them, Class Clown (1972) - were the first stand-up comedy records I ever heard (though I think we had a stray Bill Cosby collection floating around somewhere, too), and it's safe to say they warped my mind and got into my bloodstream with insensate speed.

The big hook, of course, was the final track on the second side of Class Clown, the bit advertised with a big red mock-disclaimer on the cover: "Warning: This Record Contains Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television. Hearing It Could Infect Your Mind, Curve Your Spine And Lose The War For The Allies." Again, I didn't entirely grasp the whole message - I looked in my atlas and couldn't figure out what country these "Allies" come from - but I knew there was a big, overhanging branch full of forbidden fruit in those grooves, in the form of naughty words, and what eight- or nine-year-old could resist that particular allure? Heck, the word "poop" still sent me into convulsive giggles. And I just knew this crazy guy was playing with much heavier artillery than that. So, one afternoon when there was no one else in the house, I carefully removed Class Clown from the wire rack underneath the Sears Silvertone (noting its position among the Simon & Garfunkel, Bob Lind and Neil Diamond records so I could return it without getting nabbed), set the volume knob just under "one," gingerly lowered it onto the turntable, dropped the stylus onto the appropriate groove, and, trembling slightly in dry-mouthed, transgressive glee cut with loads of apprehension, crouched down and put my ear to the woofer in the giant right speaker. I hear a slightly spacy preamble about words, thoughts being fluid, whatever, c'mon, man, get to the swearing before Mom gets home! Then, heading into the subject at last:

"There are four hundred thousand words in the English language... and there are seven of them you can't say on television. What a ratio that is! Three hundred and ninety three thousand, nine hundred and ninety three... to seven. They must reeeeallllly be bad. They'd have to be outRAGEous! To be separated from a group that large!"

Yes, yes, they are! Get to them already!

"Ya know the seven, don't you, that you can't say on television?"

Well, I'm pretty sure I know three or four of them... Okay, deep breath, here they come...

"Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits!"

YES!!! I exploded! Shivering with goose-bumptious joy! Shoulders shaking! Trying to hold back that geyser of giggles that started gushing out, for fear that one of the neighbors, or maybe the teacher who had driven by the house one night and busted me to my folks the next day for having the TV on in my room after ten watching a show I didn't really understand either but I could tell was pretty naughty itself called Monty Python's Flying Circus (something faintly ribald about its very name to my unformed mind), would happen by and overhear, after which I'd get sent to some institution for pre-teen miscreants where I'd have my mouth washed out with Irish Spring every hour on the hour and cane-whipped twice a day and wind up ceremonially immolating my 35-cent Alfred E. Neuman poster until I straightened up and flew right. It wasn't just the words themselves - well, no, it was the words themselves, as I could only say with authority what the first two of them actually meant and I had a vague but growing suspicion about the last one, but it was also the beautifully arranged, rhythmic manner of their speaking, so musical, the scat at the root of scatology. Such a wonderful, even joyous, sense of release there, unleashing that current of taboo syllables! And once the initial thrill wore off, a further realization - what's the big deal? I played it again immediately afterwards and soaked in the message, spelled out as clear as the day I had closed the rec-room curtains to hide from: "(There are) no bad words. Bad thoughts. Bad intentions. And words!"

Well...yeah! Right! Words are...just words! An epiphany! My first of the week! (My second was a day or two later, when I tried to put my newfound understanding into practice and got disabused of it in no uncertain terms by my dad, the very guy whose stash I'd purloined it from. He never hit me; he never had to. His look was enough to send me, cringing, to my room to hide for the rest of the day. The gap between idealism and reality was delineated then, and that right quick.)

I kept coming back to those records frequently after that, reveling in not just the "strong" language but the language itself, the absurdity of phrases we all take for granted ("'jumbo shrimp' - like 'military intelligence,' the words don't go together, man"), the torrents of meaningless cliches and non-sequiturs rushing by us in mainstream discourse (his game show, DJ and newsman parodies), a rich vein of observational humor that extended to the silly rules and rituals we grow up with (his epic reminiscence about growing up Irish Catholic on Class Clown being one of the best examples) and even to something as insignificant as the sound you make when you swallow.

He even led to my first comedy performance - I found a promotional 45 of one of his news routines (the one that kicks off 1975's An Evening with Wally Londo Featuring Bill Slaszo), memorized it, and stole it more or less in toto for my 4th grade talent show to huge response. I even somehow managed to pass Carlin's work off as my own, though in retrospect I'm sure my teachers had to have been a trifle dubious that a ten-year-old came up with lines like "Terrorists blow up Central America and leave a note."

From then on, Carlin remained a comedic eminence grise, even if I wound up drifting away from him in favor of his own influences (Lenny, Mort) and delving into the harder, rawer stuff proffered by both contemporaries (Pryor) and followers (Hicks). I even, sadly, found myself taking the man for granted. Oh, I happily parked in front of the set for his tri-annual-or-so live HBO specials, appreciated his thoughtful, articulate talk-show appearances and print interviews, and smiled at his periodic movie cameos (perhaps the only non-cringeworthy thing in Kevin Smith's Dogma - where he, appropriately, played a short-tempered, foul-mouthed cardinal - was his growling delivery of the line "All right - mistakes were made"). Heck, I think I even watched his Fox sitcom once. But for too long, Carlin seemed to be just there, a weathered landmark on the landscape, a usually amusing but hardly revolutionary figure given to more and more insignificant observations delivered in a querilous, burned-out singsong. (Rick Moranis' impression of him on SCTV captured - somewhat meanly, but not inaccurately - this wheel-spinning image of the man.)

Silly me, really. I barely noticed how, once he cleaned up his coke habit and started his comeback in the 80s, he gradually, even subtely, started interlacing his act with more barbed social commentary, to the point that, by the turn of the millenium, he resembled nothing so much as a hyper-curmudgeonly prophet of doom, stalking the stage clad in black and delivering more concentrated venom at a stretch than a busload full of Bill Hickseses. (His 1999 HBO special, You Are All Diseased, all but singed my eyebrows.) He mellowed slightly after that, but still kept the skeptic's faith up to the end - his "Modern Man" bit from a few years back showed that he lost none of his ability to process the vagaries of contemporary jargon into a dazzling crazy-quilt ("I'm a hot-wired, heat-seeking, warm-hearted cool customer; voice-activated and bio-degradable. I interface with my database; my database is in cyberspace; so I'm interactive, I'm hyperactive, and from time to time I'm radioactive. Behind the eight ball, ahead of the curve, ridin' the wave, dodgin' the bullet, pushin' the envelope..."), and his last special, It's Bad for Ya, though not quite as scorched-earth as before, ranks with some of his best work.

And now he's gone, at age 71. Sad, certainly, but not tragic - he leaves behind the most full-bodied testament to the art of stand-up; a varied, variable, but always forthright and honest path through the thickets of contemporary society, untempered by commercial considerations and the sickening bugaboos of timidity and political correctness. Comedy fans and comedy creators owe an immense debt to the man - he's certainly been an inspiration to me (I mean, Christ, look how long this fucking blog post has become!) and, if I feel sad right now, it's mostly because, as everything spirals ever faster around the drain, I have the strong feeling that he'd regret missing the show. Rest in shitting, pissing, fucking, cunting, cocksuckering, motherfucking, titting peace, good sir.

The obligatory YouTube embeds - first, the early but still-hilarious "Wonderful WINO" routine, as performed by a clean-shaven, short-haired Carlin on The Hollywood Palace in 1966 (hosted by Jimmy Durante!):

Next, Carlin doing his "God" routine on The Mike Douglas Show - interestingly, more or less the same routine that got SNL its very first outraged phone calls when he performed it on its debut a few months later, but presumably didn't raise many housewife's eyebrows when he did it in the middle of the day:

And finally, a more-or-less random ten minute chunk of You Are All Diseased. Safety glasses recommended:

* * * *

On the brighter side of things, I'm happy to announce that my pal and colleague Hayden Childs' entry in the oft-excellent 33-1/3 series of books, Shoot Out the Lights, is out now. It's great; you should get it. And hey, my name's in it, too! Thanks, buddy!


Anonymous said...

So when you said that we need safety goggles to watch the clip of You Are All Diseased I thought, "Yeah, yeah, getting a little melodramatic because the old bastard is gone. How bad can it be?"

Jesus Buttfucking Christ. I've never seen that special, but you were right. That was some seriously angry shit.

Robert said...

As I said in my text message - inspirational stuff here, my brother. Keep up the good work.

Hayden Childs said...

What a fantastic post, Bill! I especially laughed my ass off at that last clip.

And of course the book mentions you! I'd be a slack-ass mofo if I didn't have you and the rest of the High Hat mafia to keep me a wee bit active.

Michael said...

I found your stuff via the amazing Phil Nugent.

I couldn't disagree more on "Dogma", (I love it), but your writing is extraordinary.