Well, I’m just at that age, I guess, where I’m losing friends and acquaintances at the rate of about once a week now. The brilliant comedian George Carlin is the latest. He just died of heart failure.
George Carlin was an amazing guy. He went through a few careers and many ups and downs. I won’t go into detail on his bio which is readily available all over the place right now. In a nutshell, his career began as a two-man stand-up act, Burns and Carlin; then George flew solo. When I first saw him on TV he was very funny and particularly straight looking. There was nothing too much about him to make him stand out from the other fine comedians at practice during that time. Then George changed. He dropped out, rewrote his act and grew his hair. He became the comic icon of our generation, the quintessential hippy comedian. Carlin went to jail on Freedom of Speech issues. He began acting on TV and in film. He wrote bestselling books. His stand-up act changed, becoming deeper, more political and more artful.
The amazing thing to me about George’s act is that unlike most other comedians’ acts, his act didn’t mellow with age. If anything, it got more blindingly savage with each successive year. I admired him for continuing to take those chances at the risk of alienating his audience.
I first met George when I took a course in Comedy at the Sherwood Oaks Experimental College. George Carlin was one of my instructors (it was a pretty amazing course; included amongst my other instructors were Richard Pryor, Dustin Hoffman and Kenneth Mars). The George Carlin I met there and talked to after class was very different from his ferocious stage persona. He was one of the kindest, most generous, gentle and thoughtful souls I have ever met.
If you were a friend of his, he was loyal to you for life. A close, mutual friend decided to make the difficult transition from doing costume design for stage, TV and film to entering the rocky world (lemme tell ya) of Fine Art as a painter. During her down financial times George would always come through with orders for a couple of pairs of custom made raw silk pants from her. He did this for decades and never, ever made her feel like it was done out of charity on his part. Man, did he rave about those pants!
George Carlin’s work and writing transcended geographical and generational boundaries. I found he has a huge fan base at McMurdo Station in Antarctica. My sons (especially my youngest, James) became big George Carlin fans initially through his HBO specials. I loved sharing those specials with my boys. They loved the shock and surprise of his humor, and especially responded to George’s love for the peculiarities of the English language. When Carlin’s books came out, they devoured them.
George, you just lost your front row seat to what you referred to as the Circus of Life. I like to think you’re watching it from the celestial balcony now, sitting right in between Richard Pryor and Mark Twain.
Peace and Rest to You, My Friend.