George Carlin's most recent special for HBO, which he performed at age 70, contained a bit about dying, and the afterlife. In it he questioned the logic of people who say that their dead loved ones are now watching over them. How long do the deceased have to be on duty? When the people they are watching over die, do they get to rest, or do they have to join in on watching the next generation? It was typical Carlin -- questioning a commonly held belief whose underlying logic is flawed. And, like so much of what he did, it was genius.
As a comic, you tend to laugh less than other people. You might think it the other way around, but it's not. When you deal with comedy all the time, you start to develop an intuition about where jokes are going and, if comedy is simply a surprise, it gets harder and harder to be surprised.
Much of the news coverage of Carlin's death has been focusing on his legendary routine "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television." This isn't surprising. It created a controversy that eventually involved the Supreme Court, and highlighted what a powerful tool comedy can be. It also displayed Carlin's trademark qualities: A sharp mind, clever delivery and complete fearlessness.
I'm a struggling comic whose career is in its infancy. It began four years ago when a close friend suggested I take a sketch comedy class. Initially I dismissed the idea as ridiculous. I'd never been involved with theater, drama or even an improv group in college. But she was insistent and, largely to get her off my back, I decided to give it a shot. Within a month I was spending four to six nights a week doing comedy.
Religion was a frequent topic for Carlin's comedy. It was far too tempting to resist. It's an emotional topic, to say the very least, and one riddled with inconsistency. Another one of his famous bits "Invisible Man in the Sky" points out the ridiculousness of believing that God is some giant puppet master watching EVERYTHING you do, ready to damn you to Hell forever to suffer in perfect misery for all eternity, despite the fact that He really loves you. Oh, and omnipotence notwithstanding, He needs your money. Carlin took a common sense approach to big topics that most comics wouldn't -- and still won't -- touch. And in doing so he earned the highest praise you can from the public (and other comics incidentally): "I should have thought of that."
And, in this instance, he managed to eviscerate one of the central tenets of Christianity. Wow.
Carlin was stolidly anti-establishment, so I can only guess what he'd make of me. What makes my career as a struggling comic different from most of the comics I know is that I'm a 37 year-old former Wall St. banker. Normally this would put me in a category of disdain reserved for politicians, but with the housing crisis it's probably somewhere closer to pedophiles.
"Banker" is comedian shorthand for rich egotistical douche bag (with bizarre sexual predilections, by the way), and I often go out of my way to hide my former profession from my fellow comedians. Aside from your material, your credibility as a comedian is often enhanced by how poor you are. I say "former profession" because I quit my Wall St. job two months ago. To become a full-time comedian. In my mid-sliding-into-late thirties. Oops.
Carlin's comedy has always had anger underlying it; Anger that people are so stupid and self-righteous. And stupid. He desperately wanted us to think for ourselves, a task at which he frequently found us wanting. I'm tempted to keep quoting bits, like a comic book fanboy, and after 30 years of material there is quite a library to reference. He was a prolific comedian who did 14 shows over 31 years, or a new show almost every two years. Compare that to any of your favorite comedians and you'll quickly see that Carlin was one of the hardest working people in comedy. It takes a lot of material to come up with 45 minutes of rock solid stuff (I'm still working on my first 45). It's a pruning process - take an hour and a half of material, test, cut the dead wood, retest and focus on polishing the remainder. You could accuse him of being a lot of things (and people did) but he was one hard working motherfucker.
It was a difficult decision to leave a solid job with a clear career path to pursue an uncertain profession where the odds of success are right up there with cold fusion. Not difficult in a woe-is-me kind of way; after a decade of suit and tie I've saved enough money to survive for a couple of years, although certainly not enough to pay for a wedding, put kids through school, pay for their rehab, and my eventual divorce and/or prostate cancer. Rather, it was difficult to leave that stability and take such a leap of faith. To think that you're funny enough to earn a living being funny requires a cocktail of self-confidence, arrogance and/or stupidity. A little inspiration doesn't hurt either. That's what George Carlin was to me. Over the years I've marveled at his work. And last year watching him deliver whip smart, insightful material at seventy made me think that I might still have a chance. A miniscule, incredibly exciting chance.
I'm embarrassed to see his career simplified into a thirty second sound bite focusing on his most controversial bit (and even more embarrassed to see CNN try and describe the seven words without saying them). To me it's like summarizing Beethoven's life by playing a clip of his ninth symphony and saying it has served as a popular background track in a lot of movies and commercials. Over the years he delivered so much insightful social commentary with an unrivaled intensity, while still being clever and avoiding heavy-handed commentary (mostly). I'm guessing he wouldn't be surprised by the sound bites, and that he'd be amused by the unintentionally ironic attempts to describe the seven words. Classic.
Most of my fellow strugglers are in their early to mid twenties. Spending five or six nights a week either performing at small bars or clubs, sometimes to audiences composed only of other comedians waiting their turn, can be a test of one's self confidence. And recovering from constant late nights isn't getting any easier. But when you get a room full of people hooting or clapping, it's a jolt of pure electricity that lights you up for days. "Lotto?" my friend asked me laconically last week, noting my chipper attitude. "Good set last night" I smiled, remembering a new joke whose wording and delivery I'd labored over -- and that was well received.
When I woke up today I had a bunch of emails from friends wishing me happy birthday. In between reading them I pulled up the New York Times home page only to see Carlin's face, and the announcement of his death -- not exactly the present I was hoping for. And, despite my not-infrequent derision of celebrity superfans, I found myself choking up. Not because I knew him or thought I ever would, but because just this weekend I'd started authoring a letter to him - to tell him that he has been an inspiration, and that watching him maintain his edge, his ferocity, and his abilities helped give me the courage to take a one eighty degree turn in my own life. I agonized over sounding like a zealot, while hoping to deliver a sincere message that really just boiled down to thanking him for ... being him. I imagined that he'd read the letter, ball it up, toss it in the trashcan and say "What an asshole!" And that's why I loved him.