Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Life of a Comic

Last Words by George Carlin
Reviewed by Diane K.M.
My rating: 4 out of 5 stars

I grew up listening to George Carlin. His HBO comedy specials, which frequently aired in the 1980s and 90s, shaped my ideas and opinions. Carlin was brilliant when he discussed language and euphemisms, and his famous bit about the Seven Dirty Words You Can't Say on Television was memorized and giggled over with friends. Carlin talked about the stupidity of Politics and War.* He talked about our obsession with Stuff. And he said Religion was Bullshit, which was the first time my young mind had heard an adult say that. What a revelation!

I mention this to stress how much George Carlin meant to me. His stand-up comedy was never just jokes -- they were ideas. He was a powerful social critic who had a big influence on not just me, but several generations of young adults. 

"I was beginning to realize something ... Getting laughs all the time wasn't my only responsibility. My responsibility was to engage the audience's mind for ninety minutes. Get laughs, of course, dazzle them from time to time with form, craft, verbal fireworks, but above all engage their minds ... Laughter is not the only proof of success." 

Carlin had been working on his autobiography for a number of years before he died of heart failure in 2008. This book, "Last Words," was published after his death. I listened to it on audio, read by his brother Patrick, and it was surprisingly moving. Patrick has a similar edge and vocal inflections, and frequently I forgot that it wasn't George who was speaking. It was as if George were alive again and sharing his story.

"Last Words" covers George's Catholic upbringing in New York City, his tense relationship with his mother, his adoration of his big brother, how he got his start in comedy, his drug use, and his evolution as an artist. I particularly liked learning about his change from being a suit-and-tie wearing, clean-cut guy in the 1960s to a long-haired performer who wore jeans, swore a lot and who criticized the government and religion in the 1970s. It's a great read, both thoughtful and funny. I think any Carlin fan would love it. 

*This book includes the text of a number of Carlin's bits, and I was happy he discussed one of my favorite pieces on war from the early '90s. I liked it because his point of view was so diametrically opposed to all of the hyper-patriotic speeches we typically saw on TV in the United States: "America loved war, I said. In our history we've had a major war every ten years. We suck at everything else but we could bomb the shit out of any country full of brown people. Only brown people. The last white people we bombed were the Germans. Because they were trying to dominate the world, and that's our job!"

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