George Carlin (1937–2008): The Rock Era’s Standup Comic
I know this space is designated as a “music” blog, but I had to say a few words about the death this weekend of George Carlin.
I have thought about this for a few days and I can honestly say that a music blog may be an entirely appropriate place to eulogize Carlin, who was, after all, the definitive comedian of the FM radio rock revolution. Like a lot of rock stars, Carlin started out learning the craft as a short haired, suit-wearing nice young man. The Beatles wore suits in 1963 as well, and like the Fab Four, Carlin reacted to the rise of the counter culture of the late 60’s by growing out his hair (in his case, losing the Brylcreem™ and sporting a groovy pony tail) and shedding the suits in lieu of hippie threads and jeans. But also like the best rock bands of the late 60’s, and the 70’s, Carlin came back with new ways to scare your parents. He was socially challenging, even if he was sometimes just plain silly, and a huge college audience began doing something that they hadn’t been doing since the early days of Newhart and Cosby; they bought comedy albums. By the truckload. Only this time, the comedy albums were benefitting from the emerging rise of commercial and free-form Rock FM stations. He got airplay. Kids packed into rock concert halls to hear, of all things, a man telling jokes. Smart jokes. Totally juvenile jokes. Goofy voices. Parodies of radio jocks (he was a disc jockey himself, early on). Everybody in my suburban Toronto neighborhood had the albums,
MY FIRST FOUR CARLIN ALBUMS: FM & AM, Class Clown, Occupation Foole and Toledo Window Box.
The older kids would roll joints on the cardboard sleeves. Me and my younger friends, would save our allowance to go buy these sacred and profane discs and play them when our parents were out. Especially during the summer holidays when we were at home alone with complete command of the family stereo. Like most juvenile boys, we memorized these routines word for word. Al Sleet; the hippy dippy weather man, Welcome To My Job, and the one you’ve been hearing so much about these last few days – Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television.
Mr. Headliner: Carlin Courts Court Controversy
We didn’t have Lenny Bruce, who was dead in 1966, before I had a chance to hear him and whom I later recognized as the real innovator of this stuff, so we had to settle for Carlin, making jokes about the power of words, impacted me and my brothers at a time when we were learning say, which words would likely get us sent away from the dinner table.
** INTERESTING “FACT”: According to Wikipedia, and you may want to check this for veracity, Carlin was arrested as an audience member at a December, 1962 Lenny Bruce show at the Gate of Horn in Chicago, when he refused to show identification when the police raided the show and arrested Bruce for obscenity. According to legend, Carlin was placed in the back of the same paddywagon, sitting right beside his mentor.
Carlin was an essential element in Paul Provenza and Penn Jillette’s 2005 documentary The Aristocrats, where he joined Sarah Silverman, Bob Saget, Drew Carey, Michael McKean, Harry Shearer, Robin Williams, Phyllis Diller, Jon Stewart, Bob Saget, Gilbert Gottfried, Eric Idle, Don Rickles, and Chris Rock telling the world’s oldest, dirtiest joke.
Writing in the Georgia Straight I praised “the censor-defying Carlin — who carried the torch for his own hero, Lenny Bruce, in the ’70s–who is best-suited to explain not just the joke but shock humour in general. With his greying beard and wizened brow, Carlin lends the proceedings all the credibility of a university credit course.”
Carlin would not have liked me to lie about this, so I’ll admit that there were times over the last few years where I’d start to watch one of his old HBO specials and couldn’t get into it. At such times, the funny voices felt predictable, the rants sometimes seemed professionally angry or the topics du jour seemed dated. But most of the time, I viewed him the way I view Led Zeppelin or Jeff Beck. Aging reminders of a time when breaking all the rules and discovering new ideas was celebrated by groups of friends on hot summer days when our parents were at work.
George Carlin was too smart to die young, but mentally much too young to die now.