Tony Hendra was making the publicity rounds for his latest book, a novel, The Messiah of Morris Avenue and I was searching for a different angle from which to cover it. Two years earlier—just after the release of Fr. Joe, the New York Times bestseller in which Hendra chronicled his own journey back to Catholicism—I had done an extensive interview with him for Busted Halo and I was hoping to do something other than the usual Q&A this time around. The blurb on the back of Messiah provided all the inspiration I needed:
“I was prepared for my usual serving of sharp Tony Hendra satire; I was not prepared for his sensitive and highly convincing exposition of the true teachings of Jesus Christ. I love this book.” — George Carlin
Hendra—a well-regarded satirist who is probably best known for his role as Ian Faith, the band manager in This is Spinal Tap—had mentioned that Carlin was an old friend in our first interview. He had even remarked (only half jokingly it seemed to me) that he believed Carlin would return to the Holy Roman Church on his deathbed because, no matter how hard he tried to expunge it, Catholicism was deep in Carlin’s DNA.
My gears started churning. Carlin’s endorsement of Hendra’s novel seemed to me to be the perfect opportunity to get an interesting conversation started. Rather than a straight interview, what if I could convince both men to let me record a conversation between them about their thoughts on God, faith and Catholicism? Combining the wit, intelligence and honesty of Carlin—who had frequently placed religion and the Catholic Church in his comic crosshairs—and the recently returned prodigal Catholic (Hendra) would surely result in an incredible piece for Busted Halo, right?
I immediately contacted Hendra about the idea and he seemed intrigued as well but said he’d have to check with Carlin to get his thoughts on it. My imagination began to conjure up elaborate plans for how to promote this genius pairing so we could entice a huge audience to visit our humble online magazine. Carlin was an icon of American comedy, right up there with Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce. He was brilliant, socially relevant and, most importantly, he was still as funny and sharp as ever nearly five decades after he’d begun his career. Surely this was the kind of feature that would get picked up by everyone from the AP to Pravda. There had to be an award of some kind for an idea this good.
I needed to go back and research all of Carlin’s 14 HBO comedy specials, not to mention his dozens of albums and books, right away in order to find any references to God. Perhaps the interview would go so well that he’d invite me to dinner with Tony and him? After that, it really wouldn’t be much of a leap for us to exchange email addresses so we could continue to share witty analyses of everything under the sun. We’d become friends, at least in a show biz sort of way.
Clearly I was unhinged — keeping some sort of critical distance from people I interview (including former presidents) had never been an issue before, but the possibility of meeting George Carlin had turned me into a latter-day Rupert Pupkin.
What had happened to me? Sure, I was a fan of his classic bits like “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” “Baseball vs. Football” or “Ten Commandments,” but, truth be told, I could quote far more lines verbatim from Caddyshack, Wedding Crashers or countless other films than I ever could from a George Carlin routine. No, I think what interested me was that in some small way I recognized Carlin as a member of my own extended tribe.
Like me, he was an Irish Catholic who had gone to Catholic schools and been shaped—both for better and for worse—by what he experienced there. The same man who was often deeply critical of the Catholic Church in his stand-up had also listed all the nuns and priests from his grade school, Corpus Christi on 121st Street in Manhattan, in the liner notes to what is widely considered to be his best album, Class Clown (1972). “I wanted people to know” he said in a 2004 interview “that the disrespect that I had for the dogmatic aspect, and for the inconsistency, and in a lot of cases the cruelty of Catholic doctrine, was tempered with an affection and a gratitude that I had for this wonderful setting that I considered like a garden … where they let me grow … be a creative person and think for myself there.” (Interestingly, Corpus Christi parish is also famous for being the church where Thomas Merton—the Trappist monk and popular author—was received into the Catholic Church in 1938 while attending Columbia University.)
My own experience of Catholic school and Church was far more positive than Carlin’s, but that didn’t diminish in the slightest my sense that he was “one of us.” I felt an almost genetic kinship with his humor. It was incisive, sarcastic, irreverent, absurd, honest and utterly contemptuous of any type of pretense. It made absolute sense to me because it reflected the way a lot of people I’d grown up with or was related to also seemed to process the world around them.
But, above all else, what made me want to claim Carlin was the fact that his comedy was so fiercely intelligent. In the tradition of Mark Twain, Carlin was able to hold a mirror up to our collective American consciousness and show us just how vain, hypocritical and ridiculous we could be. He was able to make us think, question and laugh all at the same time.
In My Tribe
To me, Carlin was a truth teller of the same order that another hero of mine, Joe Strummer, was. When The Clash’s frontman died in 2002, it saddened me in ways that truly surprised me. Somehow the sudden death of Strummer meant losing one of the few people I trusted to tell it to me straight. With his passing it felt like the world was a slightly less honest place.
My Pupkin-esque fantasies about meeting Carlin were deflated long before he died this past June. (He was out of town and unable to participate in the conversation I’d proposed.) I’m also pretty sure there weren’t any deathbed conversions before his heart stopped beating on that Sunday afternoon at Saint John’s Hospital in Santa Monica. But none of that crossed my mind when I heard the news. My reaction to his passing reminded me of the way I felt at Strummer’s death. Not only did it feel like there was a little less truth in the world; there was also, without a doubt, a lot less of one of the greatest blessings I believe we can receive in this life: laughter.
The thought that his irreverent, biting and—many would say—sacrilegious satire might be seen as having a spiritual—much less, Catholic—resonance would probably cause George Carlin to turn over in his grave. At the very least, were he here, I don’t doubt for a moment that he might disagree vehemently with that sort of interpretation. That wouldn’t bother me one bit…after all, we’re family.