HAMPTON BEACH, NH (CelebrityAccess MediaWire) — When my local daily newspaper asked me to write a George Carlin tribute piece, I was about to write something like, “George Carlin passed away due to heart failure,” but I stopped myself. “Passed away” is precisely the sort of euphemistic language that Carlin spent a lifetime battling.
I searched Youtube with the keywords “Carlin” and “language,” and stumbled across a fairly recent clip in which he addresses that precise topic and even that precise phrase. It is a six-minute clip with good audio and good video quality, and worth tracking down to remind yourself of what a special writer, performer, and social critic he was.
I quote an excerpt from the routine verbatim here: “I’m getting old, and it’s okay, because thanks to the fear of death in this country, I don’t have to die…I’ll pass away. Or I’ll expire, like a magazine subscription. If it happens in the hospital they’ll call it a terminal episode. The insurance company will refer to it as negative patient care outcome.”
Die he did, though, and it is a sad thing. He was 71, and for the most part, healthy. He had a history of heart troubles, and some infamous stints in rehab, notorious cocaine episodes and an unabashed fondness for marijuana, but he was slender, mobile, and his intellect was as sharp as ever when I saw Carlin at the Hampton Casino Ballroom last summer as part of my review series for the Portsmouth Spotlight.
The previous year, I was offered the job of conducting a telephone interview with George Carlin in advance of his Casino performance. I had interviewed many celebrity entertainers before, but this would be and remains the biggest star I’ve ever been assigned to profile. It was the first cover story for the redesigned Spotlight Magazine, and it made for a fitting and popular launch.
He was gracious with me, not spilling a lot of canned marketing talking points, the way a lot of popular entertainers do when interviewed by small town journalists in advance of a performance. He answered my questions directly, and without sense of him bending my questions toward premeditated answers. I recall asking him if any of the seven words you can’t say on television, arguably his most famous routine, had changed. He said that they hadn’t changed in the thirty-five years since he began doing the routine. I challenged him by asking if “piss” had not come off the list.
He said, “Well, you can get pissed off, but you can’t get pissed on.”
An authentic kindness lay at the heart of his demeanor over the course of our twenty-minute interview, and I believe that kindness is at the heart of all of his material. He hated to see the little guy get screwed, and he always came to the defense of the underdog. He was like the kid who stands up to the bully by making him look like a fool in front of the rest of the class.
In his later years, it was a common journalistic generality to observe that his rhetoric was becoming more angry and profane. I tend to concur with that assessment, and as if he needs my defense, I think it was a function of it becoming clearer to him that the things he had been complaining about were just getting worse. The last time I saw him was probably the best; it was salted with plenty of vitriolic rants, but it was warm and funny, and not at all over-spiced.
He performed 100 dates per year, saying that was how he stayed in touch with his audience. He was the star of 14 HBO specials, had numerous movie roles and most recently did voiceovers for animated feature films. He was also the author of the numerous hilarious books including Brain Droppings, Napalm and Silly Putty, and When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops.
I was talking about the consideration for my own byline that Carlin displayed in his interview with me to a colleague of mine, and she told me that George Carlin had been her first celebrity interview as a 23-year old recent journalism school graduate just getting her first assignments. She expressed that same sentiment to Carlin directly, and he related an anecdote that is telling of Carlin’s respect for people and love of artistic achievement.
He told her that he had always been a fan of Danny Kaye, and that he had influenced him tremendously in his life and in his art. On one of the first of Carlin’s 130 appearances on the Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson, Danny Kaye was a guest, and when Carlin presented himself and attempted to describe the influence on him that Kaye had had, Kaye treated him rudely. According to my fellow writer, Carlin vowed then to treat every person he was presented with in a professional context with equal respect.
Because he fought so hard to illuminate the bloodletting that was happening to artistic and personal liberty in America, and to point out the specific tools that government and industry uses to effect that vampire’s drain on us, Carlin had passionate friends across the socio-economic spectrum.
My roommate is a rugged tradesman, a roofer, tree surgeon and carpenter, and as tough as anyone you ever meet. He went downtown after work for a beer and a game of pool, and among the other bellies at the bar was a particularly round and protuberant one belonging to a fellow enjoying a capacious tumbler of American pilsner who had just been delivered a pair of mustard-slathered chilidogs. The television was on and an announcement regarding Carlin’s death was made.
Fatty Boombalatty said, “Well, he didn’t take very good care of himself.”
“Yeah,” said my roommate. “Probably one too many chilidogs.” He looked at the man in such a way as to let him know that he might want to stop talking, which he did. I think George would have appreciated it.—by Chris D. Elliott