The age of Carlin

"There are things we say when someone dies that no one questions ... Sooner or later someone is bound to say the following, especially after a few drinks, 'You know, I think he's up there now smiling down on us and I think he's pleased.'

Now first off all, there is no 'up there' for people to be smiling down from. It's poetic, it's quaint ... but it doesn't exist. But if it did ... and someone did somehow survive death in a non-physical form, I think he'd be far too busy with other celestial activities to be standing around paradise smiling down on live people."

— George Carlin

This week I planned to write about stand-up comedy night at Chadwick's Pub in Medford.

But as luck would have it, George Carlin died Sunday of heart failure in Santa Monica, and I lost all desire to endure any sort of stand-up routine for the foreseeable future.

I was introduced to Carlin while pillaging my father's record collection as a kid. My parents, wise people, decided early on there would be a few records barred from their children's greedy eyes. Thankfully, miraculously, George Carlin's 1974 album "Toledo Window Box" remained in the kid-friendly box.

Carlin, chaffing from pretentious names given to various strains of high-grade marijuana (i.e, Acapulco Gold) named the album after a low-rent brand of weed offered to him by an unnamed man in Ohio.

The album cover was striking. There was scruffy George, looking much like one of my ne'er-do-well uncles who shuffled in and out of our homes during my childhood, clad in a T-shirt emblazoned with pot plants. He stood before a generic background, sporting a beard and bush hair, giving him the appearance of Bob Ross recently dropped from a 12-step program.

Everyday for a week, I spun the record in the 10-minute space between when the school bus dropped me off from school and my mother arrived home from work.

At this time, my knowledge of stand-up comedy was limited at best. I had grown up with David Letterman, but found his monologues to be the weakest part of his show. I had watched Eddie Murphy's "Raw" on Cinemax late one night and took pride in my ability to quote large swaths of it to my friends on the school bus the next morning.

Murphy was good, but Carlin was a revelation. Here was this confirmed atheist, laying waste to good old traditional values with puke and fart jokes, but a careful listener knew that Carlin had the best intentions for humanity in mind during his rants. Like most cynics, he held humanity to a high standard and expressed his dismay in sarcasm. I was far too young to pick up on his more philosophical underpinnings, but the idea that stand-up could mean something more than cheap laughs took root the minute I found "Toledo Window Box."

Carlin's arsenal was legendary, as some of his bits will remain with us forever. His "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" remains as relevant now as it was in 1972. Personally, I was a fan of his short-lived The George Carlin Show on Fox, which ran 27 episodes from 1994 through 1995. Check it out on DVD.

And who can forget his role as Rufus in "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" and reprised in "Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey"? I don't know about you, but I'm watching both tonight.

I would go onto to meet Carlin's disciples such as Dennis Leary, Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld, etc. To my mind, only one stand-up comic was his equal — Richard Pryor in his prime, and one existential 1990s comic managed to surpass the master — the late prophet Bill Hicks.

In fact, taking on this "humor" column has only increased my appreciation for the likes of Carlin. The pressure to be funny all the damn time can wear on a soul. I'm not comparing myself to Carlin at all, god forbid, but I can see how heart failure is the logical end to performing difficult tasks on demand. Those who trade in humor share a lot in common with male porn stars in this respect.

Carlin's stuff had grown rather dark over the years, with recent topics such as cannibalism, suicide, suicide bombings, beheadings and impending death alienating his audiences in Las Vegas. Even I was a bit put off by some of his later ideas, if you can believe that.

The symmetry of his life — coming to fame during the Nixon administration and dying during this current nightmare, for which he wisely did not place the blame solely on Republicans — proves that he was a man ahead, of and beyond his time.

Oh. By the way there's live stand-up comedy at Chadwick's Pub on Biddle Road in Medford on Friday night. The cover charge is $5.


Reach reporter Chris Conrad at 776-4471; or e-mail

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