Half-Mast: George Carlin

No one believes it happened, I can’t find proof that it happened, but I damn well know it happened because I saw it. Sometime in the ‘80s – don’t ask me exactly when – George Carlin appeared on the Tonight Show. Johnny introduced him, he walked out to applause, sat on a stool…and said nothing for about 5 or 6 minutes.

He just stared at the audience, grinning. There was nervous laughter - was this part of a bit? Was he going for some sort of Andy Kaufman thing? Had the drugs finally taken their toll? Knowing George, some NBC suit told him he couldn’t tell a particular joke, couldn’t make cracks about abortion or gun control, or told him not to say “beer nuts” and Carlin got pissy. So he sat in silent protest, until his allotted time was up, at which point he said, “Thanks a lot”, and walked off.

The thing was, he was still funny. Just sitting there, occasionally raising his eyebrows, he was getting laughs. The dude just looked funny. Carlin, in his physical prime, was the Gene Kelly of standup. Jokes that would mean next to nothing on paper became sublime comedy when punctuated with George’s patented pantomime. It’s standard procedure for a comic to seduce an audience with “have you ever noticed” Andy Rooneyisms, but Carlin sealed the deal with hilarious caricatures of the emotions and reactions we all recognized. I’m convinced he could’ve filled a set with nothing but ridiculous accents and gestures, with no written material, and still have become a huge success. Even just sitting on a stool and staring, he was a hit. Some are just born funny.

Had George Carlin fallen off that stool and died right then, his place in showbiz history would have been secure. We would’ve praised him eternally for his routines about “stuff” and the various types of farts, treasuring classics like Occupation: Foole and Carlin at Carnegie. But instead of dying, or fading gracefully into the Vegas and telethon circuit, George got bitter. And, by getting bitter, he got better.

My first taste of the New Carlin (with no artificial sweeteners) was his appearance on the Comic Relief homeless benefit. I was expecting, as I’m sure everyone else was, some of his usual wacky bits about people who drive too slowly. But New Carlin did something no other comic did that night: he actually talked about the problem of homelessness. It was a relentless attack of self-righteousness, anti-authoritarian spite and plentiful shit-slinging. He called golfers elitists and demanded that their 18-holed greens be dedicated to public housing. It made me squirm. It didn’t feel safe, like his previous attacks on men with too much arm hair. It was brutal. From that point on, I paid strict attention to every public performance.

Seeing him live was especially unsettling, sitting in an audience filled with exactly the sort of dull-minded, suburban consumers who fully deserved the abuse George was hurling at them. “Don’t you people get it?” I thought. “Carlin fucking hates you!” It must have been satisfying for George to find himself making a living by condemning his patrons. They laughed even harder and shelled out even more dough for his books and CDs, all filled with hatred for their politics, their religions and their meaningless society. He had blossomed into the prophet of doom, praising the violence that destroyed our culture from within. “Fuck hope”, he reminded us.

Some dismissed Carlin in his later years as being no longer funny. The bitterness, they said, was ruining what had been a charming standup act. But those of us who recognized George Carlin as one of us, the alien breed whose bullshit detectors run at full power, craved his shitstorm of indignation like gaping baby blackbirds. We knew George was right: everything and everyone, in almost every way, is Fucked Up. George Carlin was like so many of the elderly citizens I’ve long admired who no longer feel the need to censor themselves. They corner store clerks and waitresses with their bombastic, inescapable opinions on any topic currently chaffing their asses, having traded their concern for the feelings of others for a righteous need to spill the Truth.

Only George had a microphone. And an HBO deal.

Let’s just say, I’m glad he didn’t stay on that stool saying nothing.


Martin said...

The I saw it too. It wasn't Carson, but the short-lived Howard Cosell ABC series "Saturday Night Live" (this was when SNL was still being referred to as NBC's Saturday Night). I had just turned 21, so that would put it at 1978. Carlin was introduced and did about five minutes making faces at the audience. It was funny, but got a little uncomfortable at the end.

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Anonymous said...

I saw this, and it was on Carson's show. You could hear Carson loudly laughing. It was the funniest thing I have ever seen. The audience's roar of laughter got louder and louder. There were a couple of moments where it seemed that Carlin might speak, but then he thought better of it, and the crowd went even crazier with laughter. Carlin had his finger on the pulse of the crowd that night, and played it to perfection. Even though he said absolutely nothing :-)