By Jack Neworth
I’m not sure if it’s prophetic, or eerie, perhaps neither that in the late George Carlin’s most recent HBO special (“It’s Bad For Ya”) he commented so much on death. He did it with the same irreverence he gave to other taboo subjects, always with such insight into the truth that audiences laughed at seeing themselves.
His rift on death began by his boasting that he had a new hobby, that of crossing the names of friends who had died from his address book. “You do that?” he asked rhetorically. “That’s a lot of fun, isn’t it? Gives you a feeling of power. Superiority to have out lasted another old friend. But you can’t do it too soon. Oh, no. You can’t come running home from the funeral and get the book out. A little time has to pass. I have a rule of thumb, six weeks. If you’re a friend, and you’re in my book, and you die, I leave you alone for six weeks. Six extra weeks in my book, on the house, on me.”
To really appreciate this, and any of Carlin’s humor you have to see it. Fortunately he was so prolific with 14 HBO specials. We can see him on DVDs and TV reruns (he was on Carson 135 times) and hear his comedy on MP3s and albums. (Anyone remember vinyl?) This access to Carlin is not much consolation for losing him when it feels like we need him most, but I’m grateful.
Of course all the admiration I feel for Carlin would make him nauseous. In his act, he asks why people feel the need to gush about the deceased, “It’s not like the guy can hear you. But there’s always some point after the funeral, back at the house someone will say, you know, I have a feeling Joe can see us now and he’s smiling from up there. Really? How do we know Joe isn’t smiling from down there? How do we know Joe is smiling? Maybe he’s screaming in eternal pain?” How could you not miss George Carlin? What are we gonna do without him?
A longtime resident of the Venice canals, Carlin died on June 22 in Santa Monica of heart failure. He had turned 71 in May. Carlin is survived by his wife, Sally Wade, a daughter, Kelly Carlin McCall and an older brother, Patrick.
Carlin performed provocative and influential comedy for 51 years. On November 11, he will posthumously receive the prestigious Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center. (Not bad for a 9th grade dropout raised adjacent to Harlem in New York.) I can’t imagine anyone more deserving. It will be aired on PBS.
Carlin is probably best known for his “Seven Dirty Words” routine which led to the 1978 U.S. Supreme Court case “FCC v. Pacifica Foundation” that established the government’s right to regulate profanity on the public airwaves. His humor which was often political and dark, and focused on his special love for language and speaking truth to power. His first Grammy was awarded in 1973 for “AM & FM and the last one was in 2002.
Carlin’s work places him in the pantheon of American comedy. Through talent and timing he was able to bring the danger of Lenny Bruce’s humor and the counter-culture into the mainstream. His ground-breaking work has influenced untold numbers of other stand-ups, including Bill Maher and Lewis Black. To get an idea, right now, go to YouTube and type in “George Carlin Nails It.”
Forget six weeks, I’m never going to take George Carlin out of my address book.