- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 15, 2009

LAST WORDS: A MEMOIR
By George Carlin with Tony Hendra
Free Press, $26.99, 320 pages
REVIEWED BY CHRISTIAN TOTO

George Carlin died more than a year ago, but his just-released memoir sounds as if he is still with us, rested and ready to ridicule the latest cultural hypocrisies.

“Last Words,” a long-simmering memoir Carlin’s collaborator Tony Hendra helped complete, lets the late comic detail his rise, fall and rise again with an openness one expects from a comedy icon.

It’s a brisk read, one that masterfully details his evolution from angry young man to easily digested comedian and, later, to something utterly original.

Mr. Hendra compiled the book from notes, audiotapes and other material Carlin left behind. The stitch-and-paste job appears seamless for much of the memoir. The final chapters feel less organized, as if Mr. Hendra didn’t have enough completed material to bring “Last Words” to a properly polished conclusion.

It’s reminiscent of the recent Michael Jackson documentary “This is It,” a film cobbled together from nearly completed pieces. But “Last Words” comes close to feeling like a finished product.

Carlin was born into a dysfunctional Irish clan in New York City, which he says made him the rule, not the exception. His father beat his older brother, Patrick, relentlessly until their mother had had enough. But Mrs. Carlin was far from the picture of motherly love, and her impact on Carlin’s psyche proved profound and rarely positive.

The young Carlin wanted to star on the big screen and forged a multistaged plan to get there. The comedy part, stage one, proved tantalizingly easy. Within months of pairing up with his first and only comedy partner, Jack Burns, the duo found steady employment.

Carlin soon went solo and ended up seated beside the likes of Merv Griffin and Michael Douglas. But the comic wasn’t satisfied. He longed to tap into his counterculture leanings and cement his love of the English language. He wanted to make people laugh as well as doubt their preconceived notions.

But the outspoken comic took years to make a clean break with the safety net of his existing, milquetoast material.

Carlin’s mastery of the language shines through in every chapter. He’s a pugnacious author, direct and leery of pulling punches, qualities inherent in his best stand-up performances.

He doesn’t obsess over his failings as a husband and father, nor does he drown in self-pity for temporarily losing himself — and his comic vision — with drugs and alcohol. The work came first, and Carlin spares little space for dealing with his personal weaknesses.

“Last Words” isn’t a place to settle scores or dish dirt. He shares a less than gracious exchange he had with Billy Crystal and uses one of the seven dirty words you can’t say on television to rip “Saturday Night Live” creator Lorne Michaels. But he hasn’t the interest in spelling out the latter in any great detail.

When his career faltered, which it did repeatedly, he rarely casts blame elsewhere.

Carlin’s memoir isn’t a gut buster even if it includes both classic bits and his earliest, and least contemplative, material. It’s still a humorous read as Carlin weaves laugh lines alongside precise memories of his life and career.

One wishes his drug intake were given more attention. He seems to avoid the reasons why he felt the need to distract himself via chemicals, and his eventual sobriety seem equally vague.

“Last Words” roars to life whenever Carlin breaks down his approach to the art of stand-up comedy. He took very little lightly. He avoided topical humor for fear an expertly crafted bit would soon grow stale. And he would let topics simmer for months, sometimes years, until he felt they were just right for his stand-up act.

The final pages hint at an uglier side of Carlin’s persona, one fed up with humanity and all its foibles. This darker Carlin is an observational comic who has seen too much, or can’t appreciate the beauty that helps counter life’s most trying moments.

In a way, “Last Words” is the polar opposite of “Born Standing Up,” Steve Martin’s absorbing memoir of his stand-up days. While Mr. Martin’s book ended before the author could explain his later embrace of mainstream mediocrities like “Cheaper by the Dozen,” Carlin died still struggling to challenge the way we view comedy — and ourselves.

Christian Toto, who writes frequently on popular culture for The Washington Times, lives in Denver.


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