03/18/2010 05:12 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

George Carlin: His Memoir Shows How He Wanted To Be Famous, Then How He Wanted To Matter

It's hard to get excited about a comedian when you don't watch TV and don't go to comedy clubs. I missed George Carlin when he was making a name for himself in the 1970s, I skipped his groundbreaking HBO specials. I never saw him live. When I finally caught his act, he seemed old and shrill, a senior citizen hanging on through the sheer force of vehemence.

And the first line of Last Words, George Carlin's posthumous memoir, didn't exactly grab me: "Sliding headfirst down a vagina with no clothes on and landing in the freshly shaven crotch of a screaming woman did not seem to be part of God's plan for me." I know comedy involves shock and the confounding of expectations. I also know, as Kurt Vonnegut said, that at the start of a book, it's smart to shake the reader's hand and befriend him/her. Carlin is not Exhibit A.

As you are as a child, so may you be as a grownup. Carlin says he was a "consummate show-off". He had a New York version of Frank McCourt's childhood -- minus the grinding poverty -- and then he joined the Air Force. Before you know it, he's a disc jockey. Before he knows it -- the ascent took just five months --- Lenny Bruce liked him and he had an agent, a manager and a comedy album. Watch out, Playboy Clubs!

George met Brenda, married her and continued his march to the top -- by which he meant: regular appearances on network TV. If you are a senior, you may have seen this slick-haired incarnation of Carlin. Not exactly the guy you know. Not the guy who wrote this book.

But it came to pass -- open the book at the exact middle, and there you are -- that he discovered you pay a price for everything. The price of appearing on TV talk shows? You have to pretend you care about show business. Which he did. For the money. George and Brenda were also sitting on "a lake of booze" (for her) and "a mountain of grass" (for him). And there begins what he calls "the long epiphany" -- the transformation of the family-friendly comedian to the long-haired bomb thrower in love with ideas ("this real moron thing I do: it's called THINKING!") and words -- including the seven you can't say on TV, but also these, used to describe himself: "a diversified multicultural postmodern deconstructionist". Suddenly, to my surprise, I started seeing this book as more than a show-biz memoir, but as a parallel history of America, 1980 to 2008. There were, Lord knows, still comics who stood up and told jokes during those years. But more and more, the best comics -- Bill Hicks, say -- became, to paraphrase Shelley's definition of poets, "unacknowledged legislators". Carlin on our national situation: "It's called The American Dream because to believe it, you have to be ASLEEP!" Carlin on the pro-life movement: "Conservatives want LIVE babies so they can raise them to be DEAD soldiers." Compare Carlin, in the old days, talking about "stuff".... ...with Carlin, older and angrier, dropping a dime on religion:

And as for global warming and the environmental movement? Al Gore would not love this:

Maybe it takes a mouthy Irish kid to get to the top, only to see a better, higher mountain in the distance. Maybe the loudmouth is really a lover --- and the way to show that is to stop playing for laughs and start telling whatever the truth seems to be. Maybe --- but you see where I'm going: This is more than a memoir of a comedian many people admired. "Last Words" was a multi-decade project for George Carlin. His sidekick/collaborator all those years was Tony Hendra, no slouch when it comes to comedy. There is probably someone who has seen me with Hendra, so I might as well confess we're friends. But that has nothing to do with how much I like Carlin's book, which, for the longest time, I didn't.

[Cross-posted from ]