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George Carlin’s Last Words
Author Tony Hendra on Carlin's "sortabiography"
BH: For such a sharp critic and observer of culture and the world as it was, I kept wondering throughout the book, What happened to your wife? What’s going on there? Where’s your daughter? What happened to your brother Patrick? Or why does his mother fade in and out? Was he just so self-involved that other people really didn’t play a part in his life?
TH: Well this passage I know I put in the book because it was so fascinating, and I confronted him with that at one point. I had been talking about to his daughter Kelly about what effect he had on her growing up and so on and so forth, and she gave me one set of interviews. And then she’d begun to sort of reflect on that, and then a couple of months later said, “I want to revise my interview.” And then she gave me a much harder-hitting interview, about how George felt he was a generous, permissive father, when he was sort of conservative. But the most interesting thing was, we got onto this issue of selfishness. And he didn’t want to talk about that. It was very tense, but it was a great conversation. It was a very tense conversation because I kept pressing him on it. At one point he said [facetiously], “Do you want to fight?” (Laughs.)
I mean, I don’t think George ever threw a punch in his life, but still. But then he admits this thing, which is in the book, that “Doing what I’ve done all this time (and I can’t remember the exact phrase in the book) is incredibly selfish.” And there’s a price to be paid for that, and you don’t pay the price, someone else pays the price.” And I think what he was thinking of at the time was — it wasn’t long before or conceivably long after Brenda died. And this admission follows a rather remorseful thing that he didn’t do well by Brenda. She was addictive and very self-abusive. She was addicted to cocaine and to alcohol. I don’t think he was addicted to alcohol; I think he just stuck with cocaine. But once they got off of that, they had (from what I could tell) a fairly balanced and affectionate relationship. But she was a very gregarious person, and I think Kelly is too. And so after I don’t know how many, maybe three heart attacks and angioplasties and God knows what, he decided he needed someplace to relax. So he got himself an isolation tank.
And Brenda said, “YOU need an isolation tank? You of all people?” (Laughs.) “You are an isolation tank.” She was very funny.
BH: So it sounds like you were pushing him to the levels of self-reflection he was slightly uncomfortable with?
TH: I think he did an enormous amount of self-reflection and introspection. That’s evident from other interviews that he did. But I felt that I had the license to push him on this particular issue, especially because it had come up from his loved ones. It was a legitimate push.
BH: He doesn’t fit the comedic cliché of the guy who’s going to go do ten minutes at the Improv to see how his material’s working. It seems like Carlin rarely fraternized with other comics…
TH: Oh no, he hated that. He didn’t like it, wasn’t part of that world, didn’t want to try out new material; he’d basically write his ass off, and then did it. I mean, to do five minutes on Letterman, his manager told me he would spend a month – literally a month -rehearsing what he would say. And he wouldn’t let anyone fire a bad question at him. I mean, you had to do it on his terms. He hated to riff; he didn’t like that. He didn’t want to sit around the table and do that number.
But on the other hand, he could be very funny off the cuff. That’s why some of our conversations were so fun and so funny. I noticed that if you came up with an idea, he could take it and run with it. He was a catcher really, not a pitcher. But a brilliant catcher. And he took it to places that you could then build on. I never collaborated on anything with him except a conversation, but I would suggest something, and he’d say, “Yeah,” and add this and this and this. Again, I think he was such a consummate craftsman, that I think his work is going to survive. In the case of “My stuff” and “Baseball vs. Football” and above all, “The planet is fine. We’re f@*!%#.”
BH: How about his “Ten Commandments” routine?
TH: Wonderful, wonderful. And that’s that other theme that I was going to broach, which is that he never stopped thinking in a Catholic way. His way of thinking is reductive in a perfectly scholastic way.
BH: It struck me that for a guy who eschewed religion, he had the most incredibly worked-out and detailed cosmology.
TH: Fr. Ford’s school at Corpus Christi where George attended grammar school was revolutionary in its day, no question. George said this constantly and openly, he said it in this wonderful way, that “they taught us to question; they didn’t each us by rote. They taught us how to question, and they did it so effectively that we lost our faith.” (Laughs.) It seems to me that he never lost that questioning, that intellectual curiosity — more than curiosity — inquisitiveness, a need to know, which drove him to become this self-educated individual. And the other aspect of Corpus Christi is that (he mentions this once in the book, but he mentioned it frequently to me) he was very proud of the fact that he kept in touch with half a dozen of the nuns who taught him as a child all throughout his life until they died. Maybe a couple of them are even still alive. When they wrote to him and said, “Can I use this piece ‘I used to be an Irish Catholic’ in one of my courses, for one of my postulants?” he would go [imitating Carlin], “Yeah.” They were teaching George Carlin to these young religious, and he just loved that. He loved that! And because these nuns were open-minded, when he repudiated the church, they were still his biggest fans. There was that wonderful story about his mother, Mary, walking down the street and running into these nuns who had taught him when he was in school and Mary was embarrassed at how brutal her son’s act was in terms of religion and these nuns astonished her by basically giving their imprimatur to George’s work.
BH: What do you mean by referring to his thinking as being reductive in a perfectly scholastic way?
TH: He loves to play with logic. There’s a piece called “Hello, Goodbye” on the 1986 album, I think. It’s just this amazing riff on what it means when somebody says, “Give my love to so and so.” It’s a very funny piece. He just takes that apart, but he takes it apart in this minute, scholastic way, by being totally literal about what everything means, and ending up in a place you’d never expect to go to. I call it scholastic ironically, but I think he had the power of logic obviously inculcated very early on, and that he never lost it. And, as you say, the third thing is his cosmology. His cosmology was very definite. i.e., “I’m bigger than the universe, I’m smaller than the universe.”
It mattered to him to work this stuff out. It mattered for him to account for why he did not believe in God. He really needed to work it out. There was a fascinating passage in one of the sequences where he was going on about the universe and he says out of the blue — I didn’t even ask him — “I do pray. I pray… but I pray to the larger atom, I pray to the great electron.” And he says. “What I’m praying to is the part of me that’s greater than the universe.” And I think, “Whoa, you’re coming awful close, boy.”
BH: Well, when you came back to the church in the late 80s, did you ever share any of your own faith with him?
TH: I agreed to do this knowing full well that he was an avowed atheist and that we would talk about that. I don’t think we ever had any confrontation; not at all. He certainly knew where I was at. But he loved Fr. Joe, and he really loved The Messiah of Morris Avenue. He gave me that great blurb where he said that “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.”
But you know, he frequently referenced the bible. His frame of reference constantly kept that.
BH: Was his death a surprise to you?
TH: Well the death was very expected; he had been living on borrowed time for quite some years. He was in okay shape but his heart was not. And his daughter said that from 2005 when he had this heart failure on, she was expecting his death any day.
George was one of those people, like Fr. Joe, who I thought would never die. I mean, Fr. Joe was not a healthy man, right from his boyhood. He always said things like, “I’m not going to make old bones,” and so forth, and he lived to be 89. But on another level, he was just one of those people who you just never expect to be gone. And I must say, George leaving was really a bad one. Frank McCourt was pretty bad, but I’d known George almost as long, probably better than Frank. But George was just so close to home.
BH: What do you think he would have thought about this book?
TH: Oh, I think this book is exactly what he would’ve wanted. I’m sufficiently spiritual/superstitious to think he was actually around while I was doing this… or the carbon atoms that he now claims to be. I think he would’ve been very happy with it.