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Last Words

Review

Last Words

Over the last 15 years of his life, George Carlin enlisted
friend and fellow comic Tony Hendra to help him assemble what they
jokingly referred to as a “sortabiography,” drawing on
Carlin’s life story and the rich lode of material he had
accumulated in almost half a century in show business. Sadly, the
project was interrupted by Carlin’s death in June 2008, but
Hendra has brought it to fruition in LAST WORDS, an engaging memoir
and a serious examination of the comic art.

The montage of photographs that appears on the title pages of
the book serves as a revealing summary of Carlin’s singular
journey. Born to middle-class Irish Catholic parents in 1937, his
life quickly turned downwardly mobile after their divorce. He spent
most of his rough and tumble childhood in a heavily Irish area
called “White Harlem” on New York City’s Upper
West Side, just north of Columbia University. A ninth-grade
dropout, he enlisted in the Air Force and counted himself fortunate
to evade a dishonorable discharge.

After a couple of stints as a disc jockey and a pairing with
fellow Irish comedian Jack Burns, Carlin’s career blossomed
in the 1960s. He was a frequent guest on popular daytime variety
shows hosted by Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas, and Sunday
night’s institution, “The Ed Sullivan Show,”
which he described as a “torture chamber of comedians.”
It was during this period that he introduced indelible Carlin
characters like Al Sleet, the Hippy-Dippy Weatherman, and sensed
himself on the road to realizing his dream of becoming the next
Danny Kaye or Jack Lemmon.

But like a butterfly --- albeit an irritable, sharp-tongued,
profane one --- Carlin struggled to emerge from a chrysalis of
comedic bondage. As the Vietnam War raged on in the early 1970s, he
underwent what he called “the long epiphany,” the
transformation that saw him shed his conventional, buttoned-down
persona for the bearded, long-haired iconoclast who became a
pioneer of what came to be known as observational humor. He was
fired from a lucrative Las Vegas gig for using the word
“ass,” but he was willing to endure that and other
career setbacks as he felt himself “stumbling across the
difference between being an entertainer and being an artist.”
By the end of the decade, he had made his first appearance at
Carnegie Hall, hosted the premiere episode of “Saturday Night
Live,” performed his first HBO special (he would do 13 over
the next three decades) and suffered his first heart attack.

Carlin credits his fury at the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980
for sparking the further evolution that would define his comedic
style for the balance of his career. Ever the autodidact, he
immersed himself in the study of politics and philosophy, and his
comedy moved from what he calls his “micro-world
material” to biting politically-fueled humor that he blames,
along with an abortive movie project, for a costly, long-running
battle with the IRS. Though he never became a movie star, there was
an assortment of quirky film character roles, a short-lived
television series, bestselling albums, and even a stint as Mr.
Conductor on “Shining Time Station.”

Carlin spares little detail in describing an almost lifelong
history of drug abuse that didn’t come to an end until he
entered a detox facility in early 2005, determined to kick his
addiction to wine and Vicodin. He survived four heart attacks and
numerous heart-related procedures that make his survival to age 71
seem almost miraculous. Alongside his own cocaine-fueled career,
his wife, Brenda, who died in 1997, fought her own battle with
alcoholism.

What distinguishes LAST WORDS from the conventional celebrity
memoir is the way Carlin uses it as a vehicle to explore the nature
of the art of comedy, reminiscent of Steve Martin’s BORN
STANDING UP. It’s like looking over the shoulder of a skilled
watchmaker as he disassembles a delicate timepiece. There are ample
excerpts from some of Carlin’s most famous routines,
including “The Seven Words You Can’t Say on
Television” (which landed him a place in legal history in
1978 when the Supreme Court ruled the routine
“indecent”) and thoughtful discourses on his meticulous
writing process and his passion for the nuances of language. In the
end, it’s nearly impossible to separate Carlin the man from
Carlin the self-described “consummate showoff.” As he
says himself, “I am very single-minded and preoccupied about
my career, my art, my craft, my writing, my entertainment.
I’m accustomed to going out in the world and talking to
thousands of people and being applauded for it, then coming home
and debarking emotionally.”

When George Carlin died, Jerry Seinfeld, a member of the
generation of comics inspired by Carlin’s genius, paid
tribute to him in The New York Times, writing that
“George downright invented modern American stand-up comedy in
many ways.” No doubt, someday historians of American comedy
will share that generous assessment.

Reviewed by Harvey Freedenberg (mwn52@aol.com) on December 30, 2010

Last Words
George Carlin with Tony Hendra

  • Publication Date: November 10, 2009
  • Genres: Memoir, Nonfiction
  • Hardcover: 297 pages
  • Publisher: Free Press
  • ISBN-10: 1439172951
  • ISBN-13: 9781439172957