RINGMASTER George Carlin

To the late comedian,
the world was a circus.

 

BY ED CONDRAN

 

 

The whole world is a
freak show. When you’re born you get a ticket to the freak show. It’s a circus,
a cavalcade of entertainment. You should have fun with it.
-George Carlin

 

 

      Whenever I
connected with George Carlin, he would mention how much he got off on the freak
show during each of our dozen interviews. The late legend, who passed away in
June, loved bizarre events.

 

      Just before the Beltway Sniper case was
solved in Montgomery County,
Maryland in 2002, Carlin riffed
off the cuff about the surreal murder spree, which petrified D.C’s Beltway
area.

 

     “Fun,
interesting, good news story, great to watch,” Carlin said as he pondered the
grave situation from the safe confines of his Los Angeles home. “Funny to watch these
cowardly Americans. I’m telling you, more children get killed in fucking
minivans going to soccer everyday than there are going to be killed by this thing.
The people in Washington D.C. are pussies.

 

     [The sniper’s] an
interesting dude or they are. I hope he stops suddenly. I wish that he hadn’t
written them (the police). I was hoping he would stop suddenly and then show up
in San Francisco in about six months and then just show up somewhere else six
months later and just keep fucking with them. Interesting stuff.”

 

      It was a great
rant that Carlin never used onstage. But the ace provocateur ticked me off. I
was living three hours from the inexplicable slaughter and I had the willies.
If those in D.C. were wimps for running serpentine after leaving the grocery
store, what did that make me?

 

       I played a
little “Twilight Zone” with Carlin. He was no longer a famous entertainer but
an average, everyday citizen living at the epicenter of the twisted murders.

 

       “Alright, I
would buy a Stairmaster and stay indoors until they catch the motherfucker,”
Carlin admitted.

 

       Carlin
explained to me that what he delivered on stage was heightened oratory and he
would do the same during interviews. It was all for dramatic effect. He used
words like no other entertainer. Rappers don’t hold a candle to the monologist.
Carlin utilized language as a hilarious and insightful weapon.

 

        There was never
anyone quite like Carlin. With all due respect to television journalist Tim
Russert, who passed days before Carlin, how could a political talking head’s
death trump arguably the greatest and most influential comic in history?

 

      “Are you really
surprised by that in a world where corporate media controls all cultural
discourse and bloviating talking heads are self-appointed deities,” DEVO’s
Jerry Casale asked my incredulous self. “George Carlin was the embodiment of
the true spirit of free speech and free thought in our supposed free society.
He inherited the mantle from Lenny Bruce, another brilliant funny man with a
tortured soul.”

 

      Casale would
know, since much like Carlin, DEVO is counterculture. That’s another reason
Russert was celebrated and Carlin was just a blip on the TV news.

 

       The diminutive,
balding Irish-American didn’t look like a rebel. But he didn’t need a Mohawk or
a tattoo for membership into the badass society. All Carlin needed was words.

 

     His jokes were
often inventive and amusing, but what impressed me the most was that Carlin was
one of the few people I’ve ever met who pronounced the word coupon (coo-pahn)
correctly.

 

      Carlin
attributed his mother for his love of language. “She also pronounced coupon correctly,”
Carlin said. “She used to say, ‘different from, not different than and compared
with, not compared to.”

 

      All of those
lessons were nearly not learned since Carlin’s mother nearly aborted the comic
genius. “She had at least one abortion we knew about,” Carlin said.

      The lover of all
things entertaining was planning to turn his near abortion into a Broadway show
dubbed New York City Boy.

 

      “I think that
would make for an interesting production,” Carlin said. “She [his mother] was sitting
in the abortion office with my father, who was reading the sports section,
according to her. Her own mother had died six months previously. While she was
sitting in there waiting to get this open and scrape procedure, she looked at a
painting on the wall and she thought she saw her mother in it. She took this as
a sign not to have the abortion. I was 50 feet from the drainpipe. That’s the
opening of my Broadway show: ‘I thought I would never get here.’ That would be
the cherry on top of the sundae.”

 

       Carlin’s quirky
cherry never hit the Great White
Way but the fast-talking and even faster thinking
standup, accomplished a great deal. Comedy Central’s number two comic of
all-time behind Richard Pryor (‘I think Lenny Bruce should be number one and
Richard number two,” Carlin said. “As long as I’m in the top 12 I’m alright.”)
was the first ever host of Saturday Night
Live
and was a frequent guest host on The
Tonight Show
.

 

     Unlike Bruce,
Carlin was one of those rare underground figures that tasted commercial
success. But somehow during our conversations, the negative was accentuated.

 

     Carlin was bummed
that he didn’t get much of a look as an actor. “They usually want me to play
the ex-hippie college professor who is liberal and has a conservative
daughter,” Carlin said. “How unimaginative.”

 

      However, Carlin
did find a patron saint in Hollywood.
Director-writer-actor Kevin Smith grew up a huge Carlin fan and cast him in his
films. Carlin as the wacky Cardinal in Dogma,
is the most inspired figure in Smith’s uneven flick.

 

       “He was a
terrific actor,” Smith said. “I might be a bit biased since I’ve been a big fan
for years.”

 

      Whenever Smith’s
name was mentioned, Carlin lit up like a pinball machine. “I told Kevin after Dogma was completed that if he ever
needed a guy to strangle six children in a film, I’m your man,” Carlin said.

 

     Carlin didn’t
strangle children in Smith’s disappointing Jersey Girl but he did steal some scenes from Ben Affleck.

 

       “It’s a shame
that Carlin didn’t do better in films,” comic-actor Jim Gaffigan said. “He was
one of the greatest comics ever. He has a huge legacy. I don’t think he’s
getting as much credit as he should right now but I think he’ll get it later. A
lot of well-known comics will be forgotten 50 years from now but the world will
still remember Carlin.

 

      Carlin did win
the Mark Twain Prize for humor. He’s the first to score the hardware
posthumously. “He deserves it,” Gaffigan says. “He set the bar awfully high.
You can’t forget someone that did that. He was hilarious no matter where you
saw him.”

 

       Indeed. Carlin
was very funny at casinos, which isn’t an easy place for comics or rockers to
play since quite a few members of the audience are only there courtesy of
comps.

 

   However, Carlin had a way of dealing with
folks, who were slipped freebie tickets. “I realize that at these show some of
the people might be there just because they have a coupon to see me and know
just a little bit about me,” Carlin said. “Sometimes I have to give them a
remedial speech. I tell them that I don’t care if they don’t know me. You don’t
figure into my equation. You’re here for me. I’m here for me. Nobody is here
for you. And then they start laughing loud.”

 

       Carlin might
sound like a selfish prick but he was all about the comedy, regardless of the
source. During a chat about murder, I told him that I was sick of all the
coverage about urban crime. What about all the weird suburban slayings?

 

     Two hours after
our chat, Carlin called and left a voicemail and asked if he could use my bit
in his next to last HBO special, 2005’s hilarious Life Is Worth Losing.

 

     The common thread
that linked his HBO specials and the work that Carlin delivered during his
52-year career are words. Carlin is remembered by many courtesy of his use of
obscenity.

 

        “I remember
being a kid during the ‘70s and adults at my parents’ parties would talk about
Carlin and his cuss words,” the Breeders’ Kelley Deal said. “They talked about
how brilliant he was.”

 

        Carlin didn’t
use obscenities as a crutch, like many comics. He used them as a tool and
perhaps his most famous bit is his famous seven words you can’t say on
television. Carlin waxed about obscenity and broadcast television. “It’s funny
how things have changed a little,” Carlin said. “You can’t say balls but you
can say nads. You can’t say fuck but you can say freakin’.” He then laughed at
puritanical America.

 

        Unlike many of
his peers, Carlin was surprisingly relevant during his last few years. Most
comics in their ‘70s play a handful of dates and usually offer “best of
material” but not Carlin, who was always working on new bits. I don’t ever
remember his razor sharp mind having a senior moment during those senior years.
“I’ve been very fortunate,” Carlin said, when asked about his keen 71-year old
mind eight months ago. “Nothing has failed me.”

 

       Except his
heart, in the literal sense. Carlin suffered three non-fatal heart attacks. His
ticker was ultimately the cause of his untimely death, which sounds like a
Carlin joke. You can almost hear him asking, “What death is timely? Bob checked
out at the perfect time.”

      When we talked
about passing on, Carlin, a staunch atheist, was certain about the great
beyond. “We’re just a bag of garbage,” Carlin said. We’re not going on to
anything else. You may as well enjoy the freak show because this is it.”

 

      Carlin would
love to still be around just to see what happens next. He believed that the
great American Empire was falling apart and hoped to write a book about it. “It’s
called Circling the Drain,” Carlin
said. “It’s just crazy what’s going on now. America is making a lot of curious
choices. Going into the Middle East was not a good idea. What they’re doing is
like getting into a bar fight with a guy who has scars all over his face. The
guy has nothing to fucking lose but you do. They haven’t had the enlightenment
yet. They don’t care if they get blown back into the Stone Age. The rest of the
world is filled with cultural cancer cells. China is driving up the price of
oil. What America
needs is a benevolent dictator and we’ll never have it.”

 

      During his final
tour dates, Carlin waxed quite a bit about his country and the world. “I’m
compelled to talk about what’s happening now because it’s getting really
interesting,” Carlin said. “We have a President who believes that he’s on a
mission from God. He believes in the end of days crap. There are these nasty
bombs out there. Pakistan has 15 nuclear weapons. India, France, England,
Germany, Russia and China have nuclear weapons. Someday somebody is going to
push a button just because he’s ticked off. We’re at the beginning of a really
interesting chapter. It’s just time to sit back and watch.”

 

       Carlin’s
forecast for the future was dour but it bothered him about as much as the
Beltway Sniper. “I don’t get disturbed by anything,” Carlin said. “To me it’s a
big circus. It’s all a big game. This country is in its decline. You look at
the decline of the English Empire or go to the Roman Empire and you’ll see the
common denominators. There is too much division of wealth.”

 

       Carlin was well
off but he didn’t flaunt it. He was never part of the Hollywood
set and I’m certain that’s part of the reason why deserved tributes weren’t
rendered.

 

      “I never had
showbiz friendships,” Carlin said. “I live inside my head. Me and Sally [his
second wife] are all we need. You know what’s nice? I love to say we don’t go
over to anybody’s house and we don’t have anybody over here.”

 

      When I told
Carlin my father was the same way, he laughed. “Tell your dad, he’s a smart
man,” Carlin said.

 

      But I always
sensed that deep down, Carlin cared since he wasn’t just a comic but a social
engineer. He often offered solutions along with punch lines. However, he
claimed he was a detached observer.

 

       “The reality is
that I don’t give a crap,” Carlin said. “I’m way out past the orbit of Pluto in
my mind. It’s all a distant event, a drop in time. You know none of this
matters at all.”

 

 

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