A few weeks back I was having lunch with my friend from Sydney who is also from my hometown, Keene, NH and he asked me, "What's the deal with Carlin?" That's a valid question. If you've read my blog from the beginning, you know I've referenced him dozens of times. With today being the one year anniversary of his death, I'll tell you what the deal is.
George Carlin was one of my biggest influences in life. His comedy inspired me to be creative in my humor and way of thinking. If I had to estimate, I've spent hundreds of hours listening to his material. I'm not alone. According to many stand up comedians like Jerry Seinfeld, Jay Leno and Bill Cosby, Carlin is one of their main influences. One piece of advice George gave was, "Write things down." I think I finally understand what he meant by that. If ideas are ever going to reach anyone, you have to get them out of your head. And if you don't write them down, you'll forget them.
George was inspired by other controversial comedians like Lenny Bruce who helped break down barriers of what comics were allowed to say. Carlin's famous "7 dirty words" piece was involved in a famous Supreme Court case where the outcome allowed government to regulate what you hear on the radio. I could go on and on telling you his life achievements, but will let you read up on him yourself.
My first memories of Carlin are hard to remember. The earliest memory was the time my brother and I somehow convinced my dad to let us rent "Carlin at Carnegie," which was his 1982 HBO Special. I had to have been maybe 8 or 9. The year was sometime around 1990. It was a funny concert. If you ever get the chance to see it, Carlin does a bit on dogs and cats, being a fussy eater, and also does his memorable reading of the news. The final segment, however, is most vivid in my mind. George pulls out a list of dirty words and just reads and reads and reads. It wasn't one page, it was a long roll of paper that wound up on the floor as he read it! I remember my dad making us turn it off after a couple minutes when he realized the vulgarity of it. Good choice. I would have done the same with my kids. But of course while he was at work the next day, we watched it. I wouldn't know what 90% of those words meant, until much later of course.
Other vague memories of him are from the Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure/Bogus Journey movies. After that I don't remember much until I was probably 14 or 15. That's when I bought the CD's Back in Town, Jammin' in New York and Parental Advisory Explicit Lyrics (otherwise known as Doin' it Again). He tackled some pretty controversial subjects like cancer, rape, offensive language, and capital punishment. You might be asking if those are comedy CD's, but that was George Carlin. He believed you could talk about, even joke about anything. After that, I tried to find every CD I could of Carlin. I think eventually I owned 15 or 16 CDs. I've since lost a couple and plan on finding them again.
When I was 19 in Up with People, our cast put on a talent show. I did about 15 minutes of George's material. I of course gave credit to George and let everyone know it was someone else's material. But at that time I was listening to him so much that I didn't need notes or anything. It just flowed. It wasn't perfect, but I think I didn't die out there. My cast members were pretty shocked to hear me give the full unedited version. There's a video of it somewhere that I have never seen.
In 2003, while attending Carroll College in Wisconsin, my Uncle Mark Gemmell sent me an email about a George Carlin concert in the Fall in Minneapolis. I drove eight hours to see him live. It was a fun concert. He was looking very old for only being in his 60's. He came out in his signature all black outfit that he wore in the later years. One segment he performed for us, he read it off a piece of paper. It was practice for one of his upcoming HBO specials. The show was dark. He talked about some pretty tough subjects like suicide, but it was a very memorable show. I believe a good amount of the material he used was later recorded on his "Life is Worth Losing" HBO special, which I never listened to. I knew it was probably the only time I'd ever see him in person, so I just smiled and laughed and appreciated every moment I was in that theatre with George.
His material in the 60's and 70's, I feel was his best. I often wish I could have been alive to see him at his best. He took everyday occurrences like walking the dog or playing Monopoly and just broke them down and made them funny. His ability to tear apart and make fun of the English language was brilliant. Some of his most famous pieces are "Baseball and Football" and "A Place for my Stuff." Many people believe as he grew older, he became just a dirty old man who liked to use swear words for laughs. I do think he lost a bit of his edge, but the Rolling Stones and Aerosmith aren't exactly the same show they were in 1975 either. He still had talent and something important to say, even if it did come across more angry than the laid back George Carlin of the past.
I recently found an entire Carlin concert online that I hadn't seen completely. Parts of it are featured on his Best Stuff DVD, but it was his first HBO special from the campus of USC in 1977. If you get the chance, I recommend you watch the whole thing. It is a good 90 minute concert, so you might want to save it for a rainy day. Here is the link: http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=-5746642675625898216
In the concert, towards the end, he does his 7 Dirty Words piece. I suppose I should warn you, as the video does, that the language could be considered highly offensive to some and you probably shouldn't watch if you are easily offended. I have friends and family that I would love to show this to, just like I have friends and family that I hope do not click on that link.
Before the concert starts, in an interview he says, "You don't need a series of street terms to make your idea clear, but they are very useful in enhancing ideas and characters, and in giving the element of reality to speech that you want. You can suspend that for six minutes on television. I wouldn't like to suspend it for two hours on stage. I'm sure I could do it for two hours, I just feel that I'd miss a lot of important emphasis if I didn't have access to the whole language."
I think I should comment on his language. On stage, he used every word you've ever heard. The ones you're not supposed to say and the ones that can make you uncomfortable, even the ones that sometimes make me uncomfortable. I agree with him in that sometimes they were fitting for the topic he was speaking about. I wouldn't play his records at the highest volume possible so everybody could hear, to respect the people around me. But his words and language never offended me. I don't know what that says about me. It could mean I have no class, and love dirty jokes, or it could mean that I understand that we have adult language, and that there's a time and place for it - and that it's not always a bad thing. Some of the words Carlin said have produced some of my all time, greatest laughs, and I don't think anything that makes me smile and laugh like that could be considered "bad."
Earlier I mentioned I didn't listen to one of his last CD's. In fact I didn't listen to anything from 2005 on. After college, I didn't lose interest in Carlin, it's just that I was off busy living my life doing other things. Just like other aspects of my past such as collecting key chains or being a fan of weezer, eventually I kind of grew out of them. I haven't not listened to his final two albums because they aren't any good, I just haven't had the desire to run out and buy them. I know what his "best stuff" is and I like listening to that. One day I will get around to his final concerts, but it's not most important to me right now.
When my brother woke me up with a text message last June 22, telling me George had died, I sat up and wasn't quite sure how to react. I was immediately saddened. I'd never been affected by a celebrity's death before. Famous people pass away (One of George's famous Euphemisms for "die") all the time and our lives go on. But with George it was different. The rest of that day and maybe the week, I listened to my old George Carlin CD's and celebrated the amazing life he had. The day he died, I received a few calls, one from my best friend from college, another from my Uncle Mark. Both were saying they were sorry he had died. It was very comforting to know that a couple people out there knew what George meant to me.
And when I heard that some of his ashes were scattered in Spofford Lake in Spofford, N.H., it made me smile. I know it's just coincidence that Spofford is literally a ten minute drive from my house, but maybe it isn't. George was very vocal about not believing in God or any higher power, yet he touched thousands of people's lives and continues to, even in death.
As sad as it is that George said goodbye to us at only 71, I often think of him and smile at the legacy he left behind. There's a poster on my wall here in Australia. It is a picture of George and at the top it's titled, "An incomplete list of impolite words: 2,443 Filthy words and phrases compiled by George Carlin." with the incomplete list covering the entire poster. I look at that poster in wonder and am thankful to have known about George Carlin. He meant a lot to me, and reminds of some of the best days of growing up. He is a legend that only comes around once in a lifetime, and is surely missed worldwide.