Where Have You Gone, George Carlin?

“Where have you gone, George Carlin?
A nation turns its lonely eyes to you (Woo woo woo).
What’s that you say, Mrs. Robinson?
“Georgie C. has left and gone away” (Hey hey hey, hey hey hey).”

America has not been the same since George Carlin passed away in 2008. And our society and culture badly needs him back. With each passing year, the amount of bullshit in America piles like a giant mound of manure with hardly anyone challenging it. We need more of GC.

Of course the chances of George Carlin rising from the dead are not especially great, so we’ll just have to crawl on without his talent for speaking truth to power. Luckily, we get the next best thing and can go back to his amazingly intelligent, profane albums and HBO specials. He captured much of his intelligent humor and cultural commentary on tape, so in that respect my old friend will never die.

I say my old friend despite the fact that we really weren’t ever friends, although it often felt like it. George Carlin and I have a long history together whether he knew me or not.

I was first introduced to George Carlin by my cousin Mark, who visited my home outside Boston when I was about 14. Mark was from California and was just about the coolest guy I had ever met. His mother, my Aunt Jean, could tell a dirty joke with the best of them so Mark was hip to Carlin’s brand of comedy. While Mark was visiting my family, he purchased Carlin’s newly released album “FM & AM.” When we got home from the store, and with my mother and father out of the house, we put on the album and laughed so hard it hurt. And then we put it on again and listened to the whole album again. I was hooked. I thank Mark, because my mother would never have allowed me to buy such an album. She didn’t think the profanity was proper. I thought it was hilarious, but more importantly I shared with Carlin a love for the language, which I believe was his true talent and genius. It was the beginning of a love affair that continues even now that George is gone. I’ll always be indebted to him for this.

George Denis Patrick Carlin was born in the Morningside Heights section of New York City (also known as White Harlem) in 1937. His mother was an Irishwoman with a ferocious and proud attitude, and his father was an Irishman who had a problem with the drink and beat up his family, eventually leaving them to fend for themselves. Mary Beary Carlin would have a huge influence on George’s life, inbueing in him a strong sense of righteousness and instilling in him a very profound bullshit detector, which was always a large part of George’s personality and stage act.

He started out as a DJ in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1959 after a short stint in the military. Then he teamed up with fellow funny radio jock Jack Burns and together George and Jack began doing live comedy performances. The team only lasted a couple of years before George decided he was funnier on his own and began a solo act that would last nearly half a century.

His comedy was a mix of colorful characters, many whom he had encountered on the streets of New York, and later social commentary that was as sharp and cutting as a switchblade. He was a direct descendant of Lenny Bruce, but without the heavyness. He was sillier and funnier than Bruce, incorporating elements of Jonathan Winters, Jerry Lewis and even Spike Jones into his performance. On the album “FM & AM” he introduced us to the famous “Seven Deadly Words,” (which I memorized immediately after hearing them), and instigated a series of court challenges against having them played on the radio that eventually went to the Supreme Court, which bacially ruled stations could play the seven words but only really late at night. Minor victory, Carlin.

As the years went on Carlin grew much more cynical and angry onstage and off. He began to believe that there was absolutely no hope for a culture that, in his words, “had sold its soul for a cell phone and jet ski.” He believed American culture was the ultimate freak show and demonstrated this, using our own language and dissecting bogus euphemisms. He believed, as he stated repeatedly that “it’s all bullshit, and it’s bad for ya.” But until his death, he was always able to interject a considerable amount of laughs into his social commentary, so it didn’t seem to hurt so badly. He influence hundreds, if not thousands, of younger comedians and some of the best – guys like Jerry Seinfeld, Steven Wright and Bill Maher owe much of their careers to Carlin.

I had the chance to meet my hero twice, once at a book signing around 2000 and the second time just before he passed away, standing in the freezing cold outside a Boston theater house after a performance. I was by myself that night and ended up with a front-row seat to the best comedy show I’ll ever see. Both times I encountered him, I simply wanted to thank George for the way he used words and language, and I told him so. He was always gracious and patient with me, although the second time he told me, “Kelly, I’m freezing my ass off out here.” George was old and probably wanted to get back to the warmth of his hotel room.

When he died, I think I went into shock for a few seconds. I thought George would always be around, always playing the clown, always ready with a killer line. But nothing lasts forever and the road always takes a toll on performers. Sadly, as he once said about a man he greatly admired, Ed Sullivan, we never really got to say goodbye to George and formally thank him for the laughs.

George Carlin was one of a kind, a crucial link between the old comedians and the new, a truth-teller who would not be denied. And I doubt we’ll ever see another one like him.

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4 Comments

Filed under My Stories, Profiles

4 responses to “Where Have You Gone, George Carlin?

  1. Tonya

    I absolutely love this. I couldn’t have said it better. Great tribute to my favorite comedian. Thanks for sharing, John.

  2. Ron

    There’s a story about George Carlin when he was doing radio in Boston. Carlin wanted to go home for the weekend in Connecticut and needed transportation. So, without permission, George took the radio station van and drove it home, then returned on Monday only to be fired.

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