7 DIRTY WORDS, THE LIFE AND CRIMES OF GEORGE CARLIN
By James Sullivan
Da Capo Press, $26 261 pages
Ah George, we hardly knew ye. It is fitting to apply this old Irish anti-warlament to the late, great George Carlin, the comedian’s comedian who began as a “regular” stand-up and ended as something very different … and a recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. This book, written by James Sullivan (a pop culture writer whose earlier books were on James Brown and blue jeans), makes a good companion piece to Carlin’s posthumously published 2008 autobiography, “Last Words: A Memoir.”
Whereas Carlin tells you how it felt and suggests what it may have meant to have lived such an up-and-down life in and out of the spotlight of celebrity, Mr. Sullivan starts with the premise that Carlin was an icon, not just of comedy but of contemporary American life and its culture, tracing a mind-numbing number of stops along the trajectory of the comic’s professional life. If you like/love George Carlin, you’ll like/love the ride, and if you don’t, well then you should just, as George might say, fugedaboutit.
Carlin was often billed as the second coming of Lenny Bruce, but we sometimes forget that he began as a straightforward, almost uptight-looking stand-up, starting small but very quickly hitting the big time, with appearances on the Carson and Sullivan shows. But while his hair and clothes were both neat and tidy and non-threatening, some of the characters he created - like Al Sleet the Hippie-Dippy Weatherman and the rat-a-tat sportscaster Biff Burns - suggested the career turn he would eventually take.
As Mr. Sullivan writes, “Many comedians have distinctive voices, but only a few are fortunate enough to develop one that’s never been heard. George Carlin’s voice was unmistakable. In his younger years he had the mellow, quizzical tone of a perpetually amused pot smoker. Later it aged into a hard-earned rasp. Throughout his various stages, this one-of-a-kind voice - quintessential New Yorker, representative hippie, reflexive contrarian - spoke for a nation of dissatisfied idealists and for himself alone.”
That might strike you, as it did me, as a bit over the top, but the author seems right on the money when he writes, “For most comics, stand-up is a means to an end. In the 1980s, ten solid minutes got more than a few their own sitcoms. In the age of television, Carlin was a rare creature - a comedian for whom stand-up comedy was the mountaintop. ‘I found out that it was an honest craft, and in fact, that art was involved,’ he said.”
The book presents its subject not just cradle to grave, but from conception (a failed weekend attempt at reconciliation by his estranged parents) to his final heart attack (the last of several) and death in Santa Monica’s St. John’s Hospital five days after he learned he’d been tapped for the Mark Twain prize. His reaction: “Thank you, Mr. Twain. Have your people call my people.”
Mr. Sullivan does a good job of citing the early influences, from Spike Jones to Bruce by way of Burns and Allen, Sid Caesar and Uncle Miltie, and gives just enough space to Carlin’s less-than-decorated service in the U.S. Air Force. Early on, we meet Brenda, his wife of 36 years, who, like George, had her own problems with drugs and drink. The author definitely does not sugarcoat the various addictions of both spouses, but after a while the careful, nonjudgmental way he reports, for example George’s admission he was drinking a bottle of wine a day while downing four or five Vicodins, seems oddly detached.
Mr. Sullivan wisely includes all the funny bits that Carlin loved, and as a result the reader can see the eventual correlation between his near-corny puns (“My back hurts; I think I over-schlepped,” and, “If crime fighters fight crime and firefighters fight fires, what do freedom fighters fight?”) and his masterful later monologues on words. He shows clearly that Carlin’s most famous - and now historical - routine, “The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” is social commentary and not scatological humor.
One of the positive side effects of the author’s thoroughness is that in addition to covering Carlin’s career in great detail he gives us a pocket-sized history of comedians, especially stand-up comedians, in this country in the 20th and 21st centuries. If you happen to think they are all insanely jealous of one another and wallow in schadenfreude, you will learn they are, and do not. And some, like Carlin, are unusually collaborative and generous, with money as well as material.
One can’t read this book and not be impressed by all the different venues in which Carlin appeared, from tank-town stages to Las Vegas, from Carnegie Hall to SummerFest in Milwaukee (where he was arrested for saying one of the seven verboten words even though the show wasn’t televised). He wrote books, acted on television and in movies, did voice-overs, was nominated for three Grammy awards (and won one) and, fittingly, won a Fee Speech in Comedy Award. As Mr. Sullivan suggests, with a little luck he might also have been nominated, deservedly, for an Academy Award in the best supporting actor category.
In several cases, I think the author asserts more than he demonstrates, as when he says Carlin was closer to H.L. Mencken than Mark Twain, and that he carried on the work (and philosophy) of Lenny Bruce. But that’s not what you take away from this very readable book. What you take away from it is what a multitalented comic performer and actor George Carlin was, and how hard he worked and how much he cared.
Coincidentally, as this review was being written, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit struck down the FCC’s policy of fining networks for “fleeting indecency.” What a shame George Carlin isn’t still on stage. His comments would have been priceless.
John Greenya is a Washington-area writer.