The George Carlin I knew
I don’t know the George Carlin being memorialized this week in pieces like “George Carlin, expert troublemaker.”
Like anyone else, I have been saddened by his passing, realizing the depth of our collective loss when I watch the hours of news coverage showing clips of the edgy, sometimes angry, comic whose hilarious stand-up routines, such as “The Seven Words You Can Never Say on TV,” became cultural touchstones.
I also hear the familiar voice of the man who would leave me phone messages as hilarious as his comedy bits. I experience again the same dry, irreverent humor of a man who once sent me a T-shirt with the slogan “Britt Happens.”
But I have yet to see the George I knew.
For the entire six years we collaborated during the 1990s on the PBS television show “Shining Time Station,” this George worked with a teddy bear at his side. This George was swamped by children wanting to talk to him or get his autograph. This George could take the same voice known for angry rants about society’s hypocrisies and turn it into a gentle invitation to kids to explore a safe, accessible fantasy world.
George starred as Mr. Conductor, the tiny magical guy who lived in the station house wall, came and went in gold dust and told the stories of Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends. He succeeded Ringo Starr, our first Mr. Conductor.
George came into my life when Ringo decided to leave our show to focus on his music again. We began to panic. The voice and presence of our tiny storyteller was critical to the show.
My collaborator, Rick Siggelkow, asked me to listen to a voice, never telling me who it was. The first word I heard, “stuff,” won me over. As one who was living in England during the peak of his popularity here, I had no idea it was from one of George’s most famous monologues.
But although the words were aimed at adults, I heard a universal voice. I heard a sound that, for children, could be intimate, lyrical, sometimes spooky, soothing and, most important, kind.
During the first day of work in the sound booth on our set in Toronto, George was out of sorts. As he sat down, he realized he had no audience. The man who could easily make thousands of people roil in laughter in an arena was nervous about performing in the booth by himself.
We knew it wasn’t possible to have an actual kid in the booth for George to tell the story to, so I asked George if he had owned a teddy bear growing up. He did. So we sent for one to put in the booth, where it remained his companion at every recording session in the sound booth. Years later, as he was wrapping up his tenure on the show, George and his late wife, Brenda, visited me for dinner. They arrived with a present -- a teddy bear, christened Teddy Carlin, that sits on my piano to this day.
Since George’s death, I have been intrigued that some of the obituary writers and people penning appreciations express surprise that someone known for being an edgy comedian could also voice a popular children’s program -- as if it were a piece of the George puzzle that didn’t fit. “So go figure,” Robert Lloyd wrote in The Times.
Looking back, it makes perfect sense to me. George and I had initially bonded over our mutual bouts of loneliness as children, and “Thomas” was one way we expressed it creatively. During an interview for one of his obituaries this week, I was asked whether George found this role something of a respite from his angry comedian persona, as if filling some kind of void in his life. It’s an interesting, provocative question that I will never know the answer to, but I suspect may well be on the right track.
In the last phone message I received from George, he wanted to make sure that I knew that he was very proud to have been our “Thomas” storyteller and that “Shining Time Station” had given him some of the happiest times of his life.
I believe our show made George realize that he had a special, previously unrealized bond with children. Years earlier, he had succeeded in connecting with a generation of young adults by tapping into their thinking when he was the most provocative and popular comedian on college campuses.
Then, ironically, playing an 18-inch-high storyteller allowed him to connect with their children. The quintessential stand-up comic had found yet another audience. And, of course, one teddy bear.
Britt Allcroft is the creator of the television shows “Shining Time Station” on PBS and “Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends, " which airs worldwide. She lives in Santa Monica..
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