Monday, June 23, 2008


Sometimes you are alone in the dark. Even in a big, crazy noisy family like the one I grew up in, you have moments when you are alone. When I was young, I did not mind those moments. I did not seek them, but I could deal with them when they came. Being alone was a time of silence, a time to breathe, a time to break out of the energy of my family and just sit there, not the third son, not the fourth child, just Vic, wondering who he was.

In those moments, in the days our television was still black and white, I would often find something in those images that spoke to me, something that I could connect with; something that was outside of my family and therefore afforded a kind of credibility, no matter how transient that may have been.

That is how I found George Carlin. Sure, like most pop culture, I was introduced to him by my older siblings. Probably I first saw him on Ed Sullivan, later on the Tonight Show. But once introduced, every chance I got, every time he appeared on the screen, I would sit with him; alone, just George and I and that incredible dialogue he could have with his audience.

There were a lot of comedians that I admired then and shows like Sullivan and Carson showcased them regularly. There was Jack Benny and Bob Hope and Red Buttons and Richard Pryor and Rich Little ... but none of them spoke to me like Carlin did. First, Carlin was a hippy. I was a kid who started to grow his hair somewhere around six; and aside from musicians, there were not a lot of counter culture influences on TV and even the bands were difficult to see. No Much Music or MTV then; you had American Bandstand that presented the most sanitized bands in the most sanitized delivery possible.

The comics were equally sanitized. Alan King, Benny, even Pryor, wore suits and ties. I never related to suits and ties. I grew up without a father and my brothers were hippies. So suits meant nothing to me, nor did slicked back hair and gold watches. Then there was Carlin; with his hair and his scruffy beard and his blue jeans. He was loose, casual, he used the vernacular of the street, he was the Hippy Dippy Weatherman, for fuck's sake.

I don't recall Carlin doing drug humour on Ed Sullivan but you always knew it was there, it was implied. It's not a pro drugs thing; this was the sixties/seventies and pot, in particular, was just part of the lexicon. And George knew it well. So he spoke to me, in a way few others did.

When I was a kid I did not understand the significance of the Seven Words. I knew what they were, but I just accepted the fact that you could not speak them on TV. My mother swore like a trucker, I have never been offended by strong language, it was just the state of things: You don't swear on TV. I never questioned why that was. But George did. He questioned it until the day he died. The second last time Collette and I saw him perform live, Carlin still worked the Seven Words, but it had changed. Instead of seven words, George produced a thick sheaf of paper, each page covered with "dirty" words. People sent them to him, over the years and he kept building the list. There were hundreds and, as he always did, George read them. This was the eighties in a paid concert event and no one was going to bust him; Yuks Yuks was down the street and you could hear those words every night. So George read, word after dirty word, all organized into categories for body function, for sexual euphemism, for religion .. he read the dirty words like they were poetry. And as he read them, for a good fifteen minutes, with no authority to rail and gnash and throw metal around his wrists we were able to turn to each other and say "Well, that's just plain silly" And so it was.

I won't say that it was solely George who got me into stand up comedy but certainly his mix of pre written "skits" like the Hippy Dippy weatherman and his casual observations always appealed to me. Carlin could write. He could be goofy and silly or he could be angry and insightful. I certainly never approached the latter in my brief amateur stand up career, but it was always there in the back of my mind. He showed me that good writing can make good comedy and no topic is taboo.

Carlin was more than writing. He really was a consummate performer. During one of his shows people would shout out bits like they were song requests (out of the crowd would come "loin cloth!" referring to the Indian drill Sergeant bit) and George would meet them as best he could. His onstage sense of timing, of space, his ability to fill up a huge stage by himself (and he was a little guy) was something I remember as much as the writing.

Collette and I love George. We have more of his comedy on disc than any other. I will miss him. I will miss the opportunity to see him again. But when I alone, or with the one I love, and we are in the dark, we can turn on the screen and there he will be, and he will talk to us.

And we will laugh.

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