Monday, June 30, 2008

In Memory of a Legend


The evening of Thursday, June 7th, 1990 will always have a happy place in my memory. Our house was abuzz with the usual excitement that accompanied an upcoming weekend and end of the school year, but that night in particular was a treat because it was the first time I ever saw George Carlin perform a stand-up comedy special on HBO. What I did not realize was that not only was in for a night full of uproarious laughter, but I was also about to have a new window to the world opened before my eyes. From his opening disclaimer, he made me laugh and he made me think, often simultaneously:

"This is some of the language you will not be hearing tonight. You will not hear me say bottom line, game plan, role model, scenario, or hopefully. I will not relate to you and you will not identify with me. There will be no hands-on, state-of-the-art networking. There will be no support group jargon from the human potential movement. For instance, I will not...SHARE anything with you. And if you're one of these people who needs a little space, please. GO THE FUCK OUTSIDE!"

The mischievous pleasure I derived from hearing him use four-letter words the way he did gave me the kind of thrill a high school kid derives from successfully entering a comedy club with a fake ID. My poor parents cringed at first, but they soon found themselves captivated by comic genius that could tickle the toughest funny bone. Nothing I had seen or heard before Doin' It Again had exposed me to the beauty of language, the amusing absurdity of everyday life, or the hypocrisies of our times so entertainingly. Many would color me superficial for finding inspiration in the low art of comedy, and I could care less. The insight Carlin articulated through his comedy was unparalleled, and my first exposure to it was nothing short of a life-changing moment.

Why publish a post about a comedian on a blog about movies? Before Carlin succumbed to heart failure at the age of 71 on June 22nd, he amassed a respectable filmography to his credit. While I have yet to see his performance as an aging tracker in the 1995 made-for-TV movie The Streets of Laredo (his best acting work, according to a timeline entry on his official web site), my favorite role of his was Eddie Detreville, the loveable gay neighbor in The Prince of Tides. His time on screen was brief, but he made enough of an impression to convince you that he wasn't just another comedian who could ham his way through a caricature in a movie. George took every role as seriously as his most experienced co-stars and he committed himself to continual improvement.

Then there is his impressive canon of stand-up work. From 1977 to 2008, George wrote, produced, and appeared in 14 comedy specials for HBO, an effort yet to be equalled by any other comedian. Some people don't even appear in that many films. This is, by my own admission, an apples to oranges comparison, but in terms of output alone, that's John Belushi's career times two and James Dean's career times five.

Every time he performed, Carlin displayed an arsenal of skills he refined to the point of mastery: exaggerated facial expressions, pitch-perfect accents and dialects, split-second timing, and a photographic memory. I had the privilege of seeing him perform live four times, and his flawless renderings of I'm a Modern Man, his plan for balancing the budget by turning four of our United States into prison farms, his elaborate complaints about soccer moms, bad drivers, and guys named Todd, and his vision of the apocalypse ending with everyone's Uncle Dave returning to Earth from the dead were demonstrations of theatrical talent. A professional actor could very well condense any of his spoken word pieces and use them as audition monologues.

If there is a single word to describe Carlin's life and legacy, it would be "unique". He was a brilliant satirist, a gifted wordsmith, and above all, a free thinker. True to his own rebel nature, he remarked time and again how much he detested groups but cherished individuals. The best people in the world, he once claimed in an interview with Jon Stewart, are the ones with the universe in their eyes. Though I never got the chance to meet him, if I had, I would have told him the words I have on my mind tonight: thank you for treating us to the universe that is your talent.

1 comment:

elgringo said...

My first experience with Carlin was watching old episodes of Saturday Night Live, when he hosted the show. Since then, I've enjoyed his stand-up and his movies. Everyone knows he was excellent in Bill & Ted, not to mention Dogma.

It's sad to see these guys go.