George Carlin’s Last Words

Author Tony Hendra on Carlin's "sortabiography"

GeorgeCarlin-inside-bI’m willing to argue that I don’t think that other people of comparable stature, Robin Williams, say, or Steve Martin, or Robert Klein . . . I’m not sure if Robert Klein had comparable status, but he blazed a lot of paths, too. But I think Robin and Steve, I mean, they’re mega-stars. Yeah. I think you could make a good case. Partly, one of the things I think, was because of his [Carlin’s] strange quirk that he wouldn’t do topical material, so he ended up doing timeless material. It’s going to mean that an awful lot of his stuff survives, and oddly enough, it reads wonderfully. And I found that when I first started working on the book — I couldn’t believe how well his routines read, because he was a writer. And one of the reasons (you asked a question earlier about his memory, and obviously his memory powers were prodigious) but he rehearsed these things every single night until he got them right. And I don’t mean right just in terms of word perfect, but he got them right to the degree that, in terms of the improvisation, it looked like it was spontaneous.

BH: And it wasn’t!

TH: It wasn’t, in the least. Every breath, every sniff, every glance — every move was rehearsed. I think his legacy is going to be that he’s every bit as popular and long-lasting as Mark Twain, and I think his work is just as voluminous in its medium, and if anything, stronger.

BH: Stronger than Huck Finn? [Laughs.]

TH: Yeah. “Rockets and Penisesin the Persian Gulf [EXPLICIT]” — it’s the best war piece in the world. It’s a great piece; it’s not long but it’s all you have to say about war.

BH: Do you think Carlin has been taken for granted by the people in the comedy business?

TH: I hate media conspiracies, I just don’t think they work, they’re for right-wing people as far as I’m concerned and that’s that. But there’s something going on because it’s so total. And I don’t mean that these people talk to one another, but there’s obviously some kind of visceral reaction. He wasn’t politically correct from anyone’s point of view; that was deliberate, and I suppose that’s part of it. We all know Rodney Dangerfield’s old joke that “Comedians don’t get no respect.” But I think comedy don’t get no respect, and I think that’s one of the issues here. In the time of Aristophanes, comedy was an art. In fact, it was probably more of an art than poetry. But now it’s a commodity, as we can see from what’s happening at NBC’s late night debacle. It’s just a commodity, so when the purveyor of the commodity dies, he’s just a dead comedian, his voice is gone, move onto the next one of interchangeable people shuffling across Comedy Central. I don’t think that’s all of it, I think there’s some snobbery. He never went to college, he didn’t finish ninth grade, he was from the streets — but that doesn’t account for all of it.

BH: What you said about commoditization is interesting. Carlin, to me, was a truth-teller in ways that Jay Leno hasn’t been for 25 years or so. Carlin made you more than just laugh and think.

TH: Absolutely. Totally brilliant autodidact. No question. But I think maybe there’s a certain element of payback in it, in the sense that George never relented with the fact that the media needs to tell the workers what the ruling class wants them to hear, not what they need to hear. And that’s why he was different, because he was always telling them what they actually ought to be hearing. And that was a pretty relentless message, even though he didn’t lay it on really thick, because he was on HBO every two years, but I mean, only once every two years and as an advertisement for himself. So I think there is a certain amount of, “If you choose to be live and not use our air, well then, i.e., ‘F*** you when you’re dead, you’re not going to get ours.’

He mentioned 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!

BH: Well, he also slams some pretty powerful entertainment types like Lorne Michaels and Sam Simon.

TH: (Laughs.) I certainly think Lorne Michaels has had a word to say to NBC. I wouldn’t be surprised; he’s that kind of person. He doesn’t forgive easily. But yeah, George made no secret of that. He didn’t like the Hollywood club when it was Perry Como and Buddy Greco, and he didn’t like it when it was Chevy Chase and Martin Short either.

BH: It was interesting in that scene in the book where they were honoring him at the Comedy Festival and how George just wanted a few human moments with these guys like Martin Short, Steve Martin, Chevy Chase and Lorne Michaels and he’s not able to get it.

TH: Exactly. He gets it out of Steve Martin, just about. But he gets nothing out of Martin Short who he’d been very grateful to when he appeared on SNL. And he got nothing, less than nothing from Lorne, but then, he never had much respect for Lorne in the first place. Whenever his name or the show came up. He said he didn’t think SNL liked him. And I think to some degree, that’s true. I think there’s an element of class about it. I remember being struck when I first met George in ’64/65 and he was just starting out, that I grew up as a comedian in Cambridge so I was a product of Oxford and Cambridge campus comedy, high-end stuff. (Laughs.)

Beyond the Fringe, Monty Python, the Cambridge Comedy Mafia they called it. And the people I admired with the exception of Dick Gregory and Lenny Bruce, were all campus people too. There was a college-kid aspect to comedy in the 60’s, people like Bob Newhart. There aren’t that many that stand out. And George back then had a real rough edge, and it was nice. It was good, and different, that voice. And he was different for that reason. So was Richie Pryor; Richie certainly came from off of the streets. I think that’s part of it. He was probably quite right that SNL didn’t like him, because he wasn’t in their club. I think that most people who’ve ever graduated from the college of comedy we call SNL probably has a degree of some kind.

BH: My impression of life on the road for a comic is that many of them want to get off the road as fast as possible. Carlin clearly made a decision a long time ago — ‘That’s where I live.’ He seemed to love it in ways that a lot of other performers don’t. He even had opportunities to get off in different ways, but didn’t.

TH: Well, George all his life was a loner; he was really a loner. He was very difficult to get to know and he was sort of proud of that in a way, he sort of nurtured that. He didn’t feel it was a drawback. He didn’t like joining groups; he didn’t want to feel he was a member of a group. As he said on the cover, the only group he could tolerate was the audience because they gathered together as a group, and that’s a good group. But he was the only one he would tolerate. And I think in some ways, he’d just like to go on about his way and think about what he was going to next and what he was going to do tonight; although there was a lot more to it than that, that’s how he expressed it. He liked being on the road because people left him alone, and he was a loner. He said this wonderful thing in one of our interviews: “I’ve got my yoga, I’ve got my iPod, and I’ve got my Mac, and I don’t care if I just sit in a room, i.e., ‘It could be Harrisburg, PA — I don’t care.’ I’m all alone in my little cell.” It’s the opposite of what 99 percent of comedians, including me, think of the road.

But the other thing was it was partly bred in him, because he comes from that generation that grew up on live comedians, radio comedians — and he kept that tradition sort of going. But I think the more important and more amusing thing (and he admitted this in one conversation that we had) he described this euphoria he experienced when he was performing live. He said, as much as you don’t want to do it, the minute you hit the stage, once you get on stage, you have to get them all over again, and you have to prove yourself all over again. And doing that is just marvelous, and you’re transported, and you just watch yourself, you have a division of consciousness and all this stuff. I’ve never heard anyone speak in this kind of existential way, though I remember these moments myself, I must say. When you get a big laugh out of 2,000 people, there’s nothing on earth like that, boy . . .nothing. ‘Cause they’re right there. They can’t switch you off, can’t change the channel. And I said to him, “This sounds an awful lot like being high. Is there any way you think that as your drug use fades off and you become a greater and greater comedian, and you do more live shows. You don’t want to come off the road.” And he said, “There’s a lot in what you say.”