George Carlin’s birthday was a little over one week ago. He would have been 74. Now, I strive to keep this a music-oriented blog despite my other deep interests (politics/current events and stand-up comedy). However, Carlin is worth mentioning here because he’s artistically relevant to one of this blog’s recurring topics: aesthetic authenticity.
Without getting too deep into it, I consider him to be one of the greatest minds and voices of the twentieth century. Seriously. (I have all of the HBO specials and most of the albums to prove it. 🙂 ) Yes, he was “a comic.” But he was also so much more. Though there were strains of it when we started out in the 50s, eventually his material was more akin to philosophical, linguistic, satirical, and political essays peppered with jokes, as opposed to a series of one-liners mixed in with anecdotes. It didn’t matter whether or not you agreed with his point of view; the goal was to open the listener’s mind to new ways of analyzing topics or issues. This is something he was very consciously aware of, as evidenced in this interview, during which he says he eventually considered himself an essayist who performed.
Last year I read Last Words (his autobiography, published posthumously), and was struck by just how obsessed he was throughout his career with identifying and honing what he called “my authentic voice.” This of course is arguably the primary dilemma for an artist – truly expressing oneself. Whether you’re a fan or not, this book serves as a masterclass of sorts in authenticity. In case you’re unfamiliar, Carlin started out as a very straight-laced, mainstream, and commercially successful act in the 1950s.The 70s, however, saw Carlin reintroduce himself as the real George: hippie, counter-culture provocateur, and social critic. Two excerpts from the cleverly-titled chapter “The Long Epiphany” wonderfully distill this process:
1. “But mainly I had to explain myself to me. What had been pulling at me all this time, dragging me away from the old approach and toward the new, was the lack of my voice in my work. The absence of me in my act. I would say, ‘I wasn’t in my act. I was all these other people.’ And I would introduce them all, the old familiar characters, one by one, to make the point.” (p. 146)
2. “I would no longer deal with subjects that were expected of me, in ways which had been determined by others. I would determine the ways. My own experiences would be the subject. I went into myself, I discovered my own voice and I found it authentic. So, apparently, did the audiences in the coffeehouses I was now playing. And while I was back to making no money, when they laughed now it felt great. I was getting votes of confidence for the path I had taken. They were reaffirming something that I felt and now was able to think through as well as feel. It meant I was right. Which strengthened my resolve to carry this through.” (p. 152)
[Note: Imagine my surprise, and joy, in reading Dave Liebman’s endorsement of this book for similar reasons in his May newsletter a few weeks ago.]
These words ring as true for me now as they did upon first read. It’s great – necessary – to have influences, and it’s equally important to emulate them. However, eventually one must move beyond his/her influences and training to develop the inner voice that’s dying to get out. I implied this in an earlier post, and hope to delve deeper into the topic at some point. For now, though, I simply want to highlight George…
I was fortunate to see Carlin perform live three times. It was very interesting for me, both as a fan and as a performer, because all three performances were in preparation for what became his final HBO special, It’s Bad For Ya (2008). For context, the actual special was recorded March 1, 2008. The performances I saw were as follows: January 2007 (Ann Arbor, MI), July 2007 (Las Vegas, NV), March 2008 (East Lansing, MI). I note this because I was able to see the material develop from scattered notes to a scripted, seamless 60+ minute performance. It was a tremendous peek into Carlin’s creative process. Some highlights:
January 2007: He informally took the stage with a stack of loose notes and papers and prefaced this show with (I’m paraphrasing): “You’ll have to excuse me, as this won’t be like the shows you’re used to seeing on HBO and hearing on record. I have a whole new hour of material, in no particular order, and I don’t know just how any of them work just yet. This is more of a test drive, but I promise you’ll laugh.” AND I DID! That night was one of the hardest I’ve ever laughed. But he was true to his word – it was more akin to alternative comedy than Carlin’s traditional style of rapid-fire storytelling and joke-telling. He would take a paper from his stack, remind himself of the joke/outline, extemporize, then move on to the next note.
July 2007: No notes; a cold open with no disclaimer. Six months later, the material was now in its third or fourth draft. You could tell that there was a set order and that he was working out the rhythm. Also, a number of topics were dropped, while a few new ones had been incorporated. Just as funny. 🙂
March 2008: By this time, the HBO special had been taped/aired (live). Carlin’s trademark style had returned, and the show was by then a well-oiled machine. The material’s order had once again been changed, but the overall content remained unchanged. Final draft, no further revision. Vintage GC.
So, a few nuggets of GC info and memories. To close, I’d like to highlight arguably my favorite Carlin essay (as I’m sure he considered it). It addresses his favorite topic: language. Specifically, it’s an all-out assault on one of his worst enemies: euphemisms. Part of his obsession with language was that because we think in language, then the better and clearer we use language the better we can convey our thoughts. I’ve gone through it probably 100 times (the live performance from 1990’s Doin’ It Again is priceless) and find it just as funny and thought-provoking as the first.
*Update*: Here’s the live version form Doin’ It Again (slightly NSFW):