Thursday, June 26, 2008

The Madness of King George: Deceased Artiste George Carlin

It used to be that when a recording artist died, you broke out their records to reminisce. With the advent of video, you could supplement your wistful memories of the person’s work with a “video night,” watching old tapes of their performances. Now in the era of YouTube, when a beloved performer dies, it’s onto that hub site… and just hope the copyright holders haven’t caught on yet.

So it is that I salute George Carlin with a “survey post” of amazingly rare (and amazingly thorough) uploads on YT. Carlin was a very important performer to me for numerous reasons, the No. 1 being that I attended Catholic school for waaaaay too long, and his Class Clown album helped me survive the experience, by pointing out how absurd the whole thing really was (and, I’m sure, is). He also is, along with Groucho Marx, one of the first comedians I really began to personally identify with, on an attitudinal level. I had all kinds of heroes and icons during my childhood and adolescence (and still do, as evidenced by the Funhouse), and Carlin was one of the ones who spoke directly to me — through the set, through his vinyl, and, yes, through his gloriously cartoonish tones of voice. I revered Steve Allen for the same reason: obviously smart guy making silly jokes, doing silly gestures, not afraid to make a fool of himself while still being really, really fucking sharp intellectually.

I guess my interest in Carlin as a kid was also a function of the “forbidden”-ness of his comedy. I began hearing about him from my Dad, who stayed up “late” and watched things like the Tonight Show, and was a major fan of really silly/smart comedy. Thus, I had the experience everybody in those days had with both George and the fucking immortal Richard Pryor: his stuff was on TV late, you weren’t allowed to hear his humor, therefore it must be sought out. And like every kid who did hear Carlin and Pryor, I was richly rewarded with insane laughter from the “new” language, crazy voices, and ungodly brilliant delivery, but also learned about rebellion in a way that was far more subtle than the eventual discovery of the rockers and actors who dominated my adolescence. Both George and Richard were obviously developing the turf that Lenny Bruce conquered first (in fact, one of the many reasons I wanted to hear Lenny so much was Carlin’s constant nods to him in interviews). They both moved off in separate directions: Richard with intensely personal material and broadly, brilliantly cartoonish characters and voices; George with his examinations of language and social hypocrisy, the minutiae of everyday life (what later got tagged as “observational” comedy), and sheerly silly musings and images that ranged from the in-your-face puerile to an almost sophisticated weirdness. In the latter regard, I HAVE to point out an influence on George no one ever cites, one I can hear heavily in his work: Lord Buckley! Check out my blog post on the “Most Immaculately Hip Aristocrat” and tell me if you don’t think George’s low-down gravelly voice (used for those strangest-of-strange concepts) wasn’t copped with love from the Lord.

One thing that made Carlin so exceptional as a comic is the fact that he kept producing new work over a span of decades, and was intent on polishing it as best he could, offering a completely new set of material every few years. I grew to love him, however, through his records, with AM/FM, Class Clown, and Take-Offs and Put-ons (his first LP, I had the Pickwick version, curiously not missing anything!) getting heavy spins on whatever player I had at the time. Although some of his material, including the early ’70s stoner musings bits (“Sharing a Swallow,” “The Elevator”) and even some of his fastest bits (“Wonderful WINO”) were pictures-in-words and worked best as audio material, his rubber-face and incredibly goofy body gestures were lost if you weren’t watching him perform the piece. Thus, the reason to check out even the meagerest of his HBO specials: as Pryor is best viewed as a stand-up in his three “concert” films, Carlin is truly preserved for the ages in his cable specials, which he made the focus of his work for the last two decades of his career, a very wise move (and one that still allowed him to act in a movie here and there — yes, he was actually good in The Prince of Tides! — and write three whimsical humor books in the process).

George's regular TV appearances made him a continued presence in my fan-life, even during what I consider the lowest period of all: he tended to think of the mid-’70s as the meager era (he said he couldn’t even watch his appearance on the first SNL, but I think he’s terrific), but for me the years 1978-1981 roughly are as painful as it got. I haven’t seen it since it aired, but I remember a routine on Fridays that was threadbare (“where’s the blue food? We want the blue food!”), and was the type of thing that probably inspired Rick Moranis’ spot-on impression of him on SCTV (which George, generally wildly open-minded about younger comics, did not like, according to Dave Thomas). He rebounded from that very, very low point with his HBO “resurrection” in Carlin at Carnegie (1982), where he started refining the comedic persona he had for the next quarter-century: a wryly incisive, filthy-mouthed social inquisitor who, as he gained in years, became openly cranky and exhibited no hope for our continuation as a species (in this regard, George is uncommonly like Bob Dylan, whose Endtimes beliefs seem to be the one thing he has kept and nurtured since his Christian sojourn).

I looked forward eagerly to George’s HBO shows, even though I have never in my life subscribed to the service (thanks all of those who let me watch ’em). From Carnegie to Back in Town, he had me amused as well as enlightened (he also borrowed Lenny’s penchant for preaching through sarcasm). The shows did acquire a “bit by bit” success/biding-time ratio from You Are All Diseased (1999) on, with some bits being pure brilliance, and others seeming like wordplay filler. The joy of it always being that, no matter how meager the filler was, his set-piece bits were wonderful — even when he seemed visibly unhealthy, as he did in Life is Worth Losing (2005). At the time he did that special, he was 68 or so and recovering from alcohol addiction with what I believe was that bizarre medication that seems to curb the patient’s tendency to want to drink but also makes their head look like a balloon (check out late 1980s Sinatra for further evidence). Even in that somewhat saddening show, some of the bits were still tight as hell, it was just that his delivery was slightly off, which was deadly for his material, contingent as it was on his rhythms and variance in voice. Thankfully, his last show, It’s Bad for Ya (2008), saw him a little faster on his feet and able to run through his familiar laundry-list bits with more fervor (and with a very nice gesture, a framed pic of the Man, Richard P., on the show’s “set”).

I met the man for only about two minutes, having him sign his first book Sometimes a Little Brain Damage Can Help (a publication his obits seem to have forgotten) at an appearance at the Musuem of Television and Radio. I’m glad I got to tell him how important Class Clown had been to my childhood, and how much I loved his comedy. He was gracious, did the autograph thing, explained something about the photo on the inside cover that didn’t need explaining (he discovered as he was talking that there was already a photo caption for it). In watching the clips I link to below over the past few days, I’ve come to realize how impressive his achievement was (simply staying funny at all after four decades is an amazing task — just look at how many of our comic gods from the Seventies are silent or massively unfunny today; the Eighties guys, well, they began sucking in that very era….). I’m glad he will receive the Mark Twain Prize, which within a few years of its inception became a popularity contest rather than an award of lasting merit (rather like the AFI Tribute awards). Surely Sahl, Berman, Nichols/May, Dick Gregory, the Smothers Bros, Woody, and several others need to be awarded that prize (they needed it well, well before the “Comic Relief” hosts got theirs), but George truly does belong in the company of the award’s first two winners, Richard Pryor and Jonathan Winters. Now, onto the clips, man….

I found that two posters did all the work for Carlin fans on YouTube. A few months ago, the first gentleman posted all of George's albums and all of his HBO specials. I will leave you to move through that wonderful mass of terrific comedy, but will point out (despite the fact that the poster didn’t want people to embed his videos) that he also has put up some “off-road” (as they call it in the trade) recordings of Carlin appearances, plus the contents of the “bonus CD” that was included in the box set The Little David Years, which I never bought because… well, I got all the albums goddammit. The two tracks I would draw your attention to are a short snippet of George as a Top 40 rock DJ (terrific!) and the routine "Lost and Found", which finds him in full flourish moving in and out of his Lord Buckley voice (the routine also has a heavy Lenny influence in the repetition of the words: lostandfound, lostandfound, lostanfound, thankyoumaskman!).

I recommend you pour over George’s splendid Little David albums and his HBO shows at your own leisure, as long as they remain posted (thanks, Devil-guy!). For the video rarities, I point you toward another poster who has taken care to specialize in uploading Carlin TV appearances, which allow us to chart his movement from nightclub comic in a suit, to hippie-dude in a T-shirt and jeans, to middle-aged guy with a perfected delivery. First, what looks to be the oldest footage of George as a solo act (he started in a team with Jack Burns; their album, which was retitled "Killer Carlin" when reissued, is here). He’s doing JFK here (Hefner noted on Larry King that Carlin’s impression pissed off Joseph Kennedy Sr. when he visited the Playboy Club, nice honor for George!). The first full-fledged dose of material we get is from a 1965 Merv Griffin appearance, wherein George does his TV commercial shtick.

The best bit of early George is this Hollywood Palace appearance in 1966 where he’s introduced by Jimmy Durante (!) and does “Wonderful WINO,” one of his classic early bits.

George continued to do formulaic bits throughout the Sixties, with some of them sounding remarkably alike, as in these Smothers Brothers and Hollywood Palace clips (for a real blast, hear Ron Carey do the same damned bit in a different context, on his comedy LP). George finally appears in a beard on Playboy After Dark and seems right on the verge of going hippie:

Here, we have an early longhair appearance, in 1971 on The Mike Douglas Show. I was pretty surprised he could do all the anti-Vietnam and roach-smokin’ humor on staid ol’ Mike’s program, this clip is definitely a great find. George's obit in the New York Times quoted him as saying "scratch any cynic and you'll find a disappointed idealist." Here is that idealist (who later urged people not to vote, as it implied "consent" to the corruption of government....):

Where I first saw George (and Pryor, and Robert Klein, and…), on The Flip Wilson Show, here doing his newly minted stoner think-pieces including “Sharing a Swallow.”

In addition to a 1972 Tonight Show appearance , the seminal TV appearance is George’s guesting on the Lennon-Ono guest-hosted Mike Douglas Show. He gives a preview of the Class Clown material, seems particularly mellow, and even does some of his Lenny impression before they cut to a commercial!

And the following year George guested on The Midnight Special. Now completely settled into his hipster role, he talks about when “grass swept the neighborhood.”

Two more TV clips: working through some “werds” on The Midnight Special and doing Mike Douglas again, but seeming worse for the wear in 1975. He does his “God” routine, getting all the voices right, but gravelly as hell (still, some good viewing). Also consulting his notes (Moranis’ impression was indeed spot on, for that period). Once George had fully fused his stoner sense of time and space with his observational outlook, you had some wonderfully trippy work, as here on the Tony Orlando and Dawn Rainbow Hour. What was the smartest decision George made in regard to the show? He made a deal to just do five minutes of stand-up a week, and never, ever participate in the show’s sketches (like a little island of existential humor in the middle of a vaudeville procession).

By 1978, George was beginning to wilt a bit, as seen here on The Carol Burnett Show. This routine, by the way, was a concept also done by Robert Klein and David Steinberg earlier in the 1970s, the “every record ever recorded” bit. Perhaps the most touching clip from this era for me (and it is a lean era, believe me) is this clip of George entertaining an audience of kids with part of his “Class Clown” routine, if only because I laughed like hell at George at the same age these kids are at (I was a teen when this show aired, though, and never knew it existed… until YouTube).

Farewell, you cranky old bastid, thanks for the laughs.

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