Monday, June 23, 2008

George Carlin, R.I.P.

Today's sad news of the death of George Carlin in California at the age of 71 reminded me of the following incidents. Although I hadn't seen or talked to him in a very long time, I have observed his steady ascension in the field of stand-up comedy with great admiration and respect.


****** One day in the mid-1960's, I was doing laundry in the basement of the large apartment building in Newark, New Jersey where I lived at the time. A man I'd seen on television unexpectedly entered, carrying a full basket and a box of detergent. We chatted, and I mentioned that I was surprised to know he lived in the building too. We hadn't at the time worked a gig together, although not too long after this encounter, we did appear on the same bill at the legendary hungry i in San Francisco. I opened for him.

****** George Carlin's career was just beginning to blossom, and he was frequently invited to appear on The Tonight Show or The Steve Allen Show. One memorable bit of hilarity featured "the hippy-dippy Weather Man", a character hopelessly bewildered by all things meteorological, who delivered the daily forecast in devil-may-care, hipster slang. He also appeared slightly stoned. Very funny and clever and totally inoffensive.

****** A few short weeks after the laundry meeting, I found myself on a bus to Philadelphia where I was hired to open for George on a weekend engagement at a brand-new venue. In fact, I believe we were the first of a very short line of entertainers to perform there. The club was most unusual: A small Catholic church which had been officially desanctified by the Vatican was now to function as a small concert hall/night club, with the bar located in the former choir loft. Carvings of saints and any other evidence of its previous function had been removed, the statue of The Virgin Mary replaced by an enlarged photograph of Billie Holiday. Duke Ellington's image hung in the spot previously occupied by the Crucifix.

****** The owners didn't seem to have a clue about how to run the place, and when asked, admitted they had relied on word-of-mouth and volunteers posting signs on street corners to alert the city of Philadelphia of its existence. Little wonder, our Opening Friday night audience consisted of about ten people, a piano player for me, the bartender and a couple of waitresses. With true professional grit, George and I delivered our best work as if the house were full of admiring fans.

****** On Saturday night, we faced the same dismal situation. We were both disappointed but didn't talked about it. As I was about to start the first set, there was some excitement at the front door. Like the Pied Piper himself, Bill Cosby entered, leading a group of as many as fifty people. We had an audience! Later we discovered that Cosby had heard of the embarrasing head-count the night before, and took it upon himself to round up friends and family to give us much appreciated support. A very magnanimous gesture I'm sure George never forgot. I know I never have.

****** George's language on stage was riddled with obscenity and profanity, none of it even slightly offensive to me, a veteran of a seven-week engagement opening for Lenny Bruce. Like all of his true fans, I heard his message; his colorful vocabulary merely reinforced his stinging observations and no-nonsense perceptions of our often misguided, even disasterous life choices. I hope other comedic philosopers will emulate George , but there will never be another quite so unique.

****** And be sure to check this brilliant piece of Carlin business.

1 comment:

jpf_37 said...

"Carvings of saints and any other evidence of its previous function had been removed, the statue of The Virgin Mary replaced by an enlarged photograph of Billie Holiday. Duke Ellington's image hung in the spot previously occupied by the Crucifix."

A church with Billie Holiday instead of Mary, and Duke in place of Jesus - now there's a church I could get behind!
George Carlin and I were the same age and shared an Irish Catholic, east coast upbringing, so many of his stories resonated with me. He was, arguably, one of the three geniuses of modern comedy - Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, and him. Even though he got somewhat less funny as he got angrier toward the end (kind of like Lenny), he was always interesting and relevant.