George Carlin was stand-up comedy's transformational man. He went through it time and again through the decades, first as a young hipster hungry to fit into the showbiz life, then slowly finding his voice and a roomful of laughs as a counter-culture hero and finally abandoning it all once more for something sharper and even more authentically his own.
Carlin realized he was less an entertainer than an artist -- a true master of "the vulgar art" of stand-up, as he called it. So he kept moving, rethinking and refining his work up until his death last year at age 71. His mission was to dissect the superstitions and contradictions of human behavior (and of Americans in particular), as he had so infamously with 1972's "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television," his daring monologue on the filthy/nasty/dirty words "that'll infect your soul, curve your spine, and keep the country from winning the war."
He worked relentlessly at it, and left behind more than 2,000 files of unfinished ideas, stories, paragraphs and other bits and pieces on his home computer. There was also a longtime writing project with author Tony Hendra, a memoir that would chart his long career in blunt, hilarious detail.
A former comic who first met Carlin back at the old Café Au Go Go in Manhattan, Hendra assembled the book as "Last Words," and it's a fascinating closing statement from the influential comedian openly revered by the likes of Bill Maher and Jerry Seinfeld. This is not a collection of setups and punch lines, but a candid, fearless accounting of his life and art. As much as anything Carlin created, the book should become a central text for any serious student of comedy and pop culture of the 20th century.
Carlin was born in New York City to an estranged Irish American couple -- his father an alcoholic sales executive, his mother the daughter of a cop: She failed miserably to turn her two sons into "two Little Lord Fauntleroys." But she also had a love for language that she passed onto her youngest boy, named for his uncle George, "a sweet, gentle soul," Carlin recounts, who "spent most of his life in the nut-house."
A flair for performance revealed itself, first as a rubber-faced clown growing up in Harlem; he soon graduated to impressions of Peter Lorre and Jimmy Cagney, realizing the accuracy of the voices was secondary to the funny words he put in their mouths.
During a turbulent stint in the Air Force he became a radio DJ and later created a comedy team with Jack Burns. Their first live performance was in a Fort Worth coffee-house: "We heard laughs, amazing, real laughs. . . . There is nothing like that feeling." Initially, the laughs were enough. Carlin recalls his early days as a solo comic as his "nice years," fueled on breezy, inoffensive humor. He found rapid success and national TV gigs with Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson.
Underneath, he still felt like that rebel kid from the streets of New York who smoked dope at Grant's Tomb. He was drawn to the example of Lenny Bruce, who pushed the boundaries of language, race, religion and general decorum. They once shared a paddy-wagon ride to jail. "It was becoming pretty clear that Lenny wasn't being arrested for obscenity," writes Carlin, observing that the cops, prosecutors and judges were often incensed Irish Catholics. "He was being arrested for being funny about religion."
Carlin wasn't there yet in his own act. His mid-1960s persona was more in line with the hipster fondue set, daffy but not dangerous. He did manage some subversive bits, writing his popular Al Sleet, the Hippy-Dippy Weatherman from "a pot mentality . . . by someone who smoked pot all day, every day." He drifted toward the emerging youth culture but still made his living playing to middle-aged crowds in the Catskills and hated it: "I was in the wrong place with the wrong people for the wrong reasons."
Things were about to change. In 1969, Carlin was fired from the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas for his language. That same year he took his first acid trip, with spectacular results: "It should be sold over the counter. . . . Acid moved me from one place to the other." He stopped shaving. He let his hair grow out.
Carlin wasn't a square who became a freak as a career move but a subversive mind that found escape and meaning in an exploding era. It was a radical move and it wasn't painless. He lost lucrative gigs and was shut off from polite showbiz society.
It also paid off in sold-out college tours and gold records (and his first Grammy) for his series of groundbreaking albums, including "FM & AM" and "Class Clown." He was the comedy star of the moment. There was just one downside: "I had money. I felt terrific. So why not get more cocaine?" There were several self-destructive drug and alcohol years.
Even in this fog, Carlin made waves. A recording of his "Filthy Words" routine became the subject of a 1978 U.S. Supreme Court case, FCC vs. Pacifica Foundation, after it was broadcast on public radio. The court upheld an FCC fine in a landmark 5-4 decision, and Carlin took "perverse pride" in the fact that the court had to listen to his impolite words.
By the '90s, Carlin's tone took another turn. It was angrier, with roots in the Irish street guys he knew back in the neighborhood. And he showed no mercy for the baby boomers who once embraced him, attacking them as an "excessive and exaggerated" generation.
Carlin was still growing at the end, still striving to find the next step as a performer. His "Last Words" shows a comic master at the height of his storytelling powers and with no limit to what he had left to say.
Appleford is a journalist in Los Angeles.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times