Vol. 3, Issue #12 July 4th - July 17th, 2008

Tiger Bear From Hell at NONzine.com

By: Wilhelm Murg

George Carlin 1937-2008

If we ever build a Mount Rushmore of comedy no doubt George Carlin’s face will be right up there with the Groucho Marx. Rodney Dangerfield, Redd Foxx, Richard Pryor, and (the still living) Don Rickles. Carlin was doing “A” material forty years ago when he was still clean shaven and performing in a suit and tie on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” That pales in comparison to the material that came after he grew the beard and decided to follow his muse, Lenny Bruce, as the modern, filthy, atheistic Carlin who would change the face of American comedy forever. Carlin was in the audience when Bruce gave one of his last performances, and they were both arrested and taken to jail together (the comedy version of Dylan at Woody Guthrie‘s bedside). Like Lenny Bruce, Carlin was not afraid, and he was a hell of a lot funnier.

While most people today know Carlin from his many HBO specials, he really was a cultural phenomenon who threw his hat in the ring right at the most controversial and dangerous times for any artist, but especially for comedians.

In the late 1960s and early 1970s everything was political, whether it was music (The Beatles “promoting” LSD with “Lucy in The Sky with Diamonds“), film (pubic hair in “Blow Up“), magazine publishing (“Hustler“), and even comic books (R. Crumb’s “Joe Blow” in Zap #4). Hair (long vs. short), clothes (white collar vs. tie-Dye); whatever you chose to wear, read, and listen to put you on one side of the cultural war or the other. Out of the blue George Carlin had reinvented himself into a hippy and unleashed “Class Clown” onto the record buying public. He went on “The Tonight Show,” “Merv Griffith,” “Sesame Street,” and anywhere else he could find that would let him promote his new album.

The catch was that Carlin’s body of work was filled with the most taboo subject matter of its day. While he had an anti-Vietnam stance, which brought down “The Smothers Brothers Show” a few years earlier, no one really noticed Carlin’s political views. It was his unregulated id that shocked the world, from openly talking about masturbation, noise you make while having sex, and listing the seven dirty words you could never say on television. His only real competition was Richard Pryor, but while Pryor was more of an epic comedy actor who acted out scenes from his life, Carlin tended to question the little things in life, yet those little things changed over the years from “Why is there no blue food?” to epic dialogues on the lack of a god in a pointless universe.

The fact that Carlin was strung out on cocaine during the seventies probably helped the situation; if he had not had that sense if invincibility, he would have never pushed the envelope so far.

I remember the original onslaught of Carlin on television after the hippie makeover. What is striking in retrospect is how much clean material he had even during that period. Unlike comedians today, no one ever seemed worried that Carlin was going to blurt out an obscenity on national television, and to the best of my knowledge, he never did, but his records were absolutely groundbreaking. Redd Foxx was “dirty,” but he never came close to using so much “offensive” language. Richard Pryor was out there, but his big crossover album didn’t come until “That Nigger’s Crazy” (1974) - Carlin had already released “AM & FM,” “Class Clown,” “Occupation: Foole,” and “Toledo Window Box” by that point, and the race was on.

I can’t imagine Junior High school without those albums by Carlin, Pryor, and Cheech & Chong (though they were so “druggie” that the language was secondary to their subject matter). Not only were these records you played for your friends, this was all pre-VCR and pre-cable periods; we memorized those albums word-by-word and inflection-by-inflection.

Like all lights that burn twice as bright, Carlin seemed to soar in the early seventies and then he seemed to retire to the shadows. There was a brief period, around 1978, when it seemed like the cocaine was winning in the battle for his soul. It wasn’t that he wasn’t funny; it was more like he was exhausted. He really didn’t disappear; he just changed formats to that new fangled cable television stuff, which didn’t boom until the 1980s. I remember seeing his HBO special in 1986, “Playin’ With Your Head,” I believe it was. Carlin came out and did fifteen minutes about scratching his ass. Not only was he back, and as strong as ever, I got the feeling this was his dream come true, to scratch his ass on national television and get paid for it.

Carlin was widowed in 1997 and remarried in 1998, but even with a Job-like spouse replacement, that’s when his material seemed to turn very dark. Starting with his special “You Are All Diseased,” in 1999, the specter of death seemed to cast a heavy shadow over his work. I was lucky enough to see him on his last tour, earlier this year, and it was Carlin on a black stage wearing black. The over all effect was creepy. He had had a series of heart problems throughout his life and seemed to realize he was playing on house money once he turned seventy.

Carlin had a bit about how the news covered the death of celebrities. Ironically, there was probably more on Carlin when he died than the deaths of Ronald Reagan, Frank Sinatra, and Bob Hope combined, like HBO running a marathon of his specials, and NBC playing the first “Saturday Night Live,” which he hosted. The difference was that even in the last days of his life, Carlin was even more relevant than he was in his youth.

While we’re on the subject I’ve always been bothered by something. In Kevin Smith’s View Askew Universe, Carlin plays Cardinal Ignatius Glick in “Dogma.” In “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” he plays a hitchhiker who teaches them that giving head will get them down the road. Is he still supposed to be Cardinal Ignatius Glick?

Think about it.

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