George Carlin’s Last Words: A Book Review

Posted: January 12, 2010 in Uncategorized
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When I was a kid, one of my hobbies-if you could call it that-was collecting comedy albums.  It started off with Monty Python’s Matching Tie and Handkerchief, then Robin William’s Reality, What a Concept! Over the years over my adolescence I had everything from Bill Cosby, David Frye, Richard Pryor to Steve Martin and George Carlin. There were many others, but those made up my favorites.

My first Carlin album was also his first, and cleanest, Take Off’s and Put On’s, which featured his classic Indian Sergeant routine.  Somewhere along the line I picked up AM&FM, and the rest of his Little David releases.  I liked them all, but even to this day don’t like every track on every album. I was never a huge fan of drug humor-hence my indifference to Cheech and Chong-but realized there was something to Carlin that appealed to me.

He was dangerous and my parents didn’t like him. Mostly, I suspect for his politics and his language, they couldn’t look past the fucks, cocksuckers, etc. This was in the mid to late 70’s, when those words held power, unlike now when even Mom  throws an f-bomb on occasion. There was nothing overtly dirty about his act, but his phrasing and word choices were enough to condemn me to hell just for listening. See, I grew up Catholic too, and related to his bits about the Church.

There was something more though. I couldn’t put my finger on it then, but know what it is now-Carlin was first and foremost a writer. Sure, every comedian is a writer, but Carlin’s work was in another league. It’s not the fact he said fuck, it’s when he chose to say it. Each and every word had a reason for being in the place it was, and that’s something very few writers, let alone comedians can do. Yet Carlin made it seem effortless.

This really became obvious as the 80’s came around, and his Carlin at Carnegie hit HBO and the record store bins. His meticulousness with words really became apparent to me. As the decade wore on, and his comedy took a political bent, the care he took with his routines shone through loud and clear. Even up to his final HBO special and CD, It’s Bad For Ya, that craftsmanship was on display.

It’s no wonder then, that his autobiography is every bit as sharp, funny and insightful as his stand up work. Taken from years of interviews with Tony Hendra, pieces he’d written, and some of his stand up, “Last Words” stands as one of the best autobiographies I’ve read. He starts off in the birth canal, appropriately enough, and ends not long before his death in 2008. In between he charts his path from his days in the Army, to his time with partner Jack Burns and his solo career. In between he talks, very poignantly at times, about his parents (his mother was in the doctor’s office to abort him when she saw her mother in a vision and promptly left-seeing it as a sign from God), his wife of 36 years Brenda and their daughter Kelly. A large part is spent documenting his drug use-his smoking pot on a daily basis, the years of cocaine use and the toll it took on his personal life and career. As the 70’s drew to a close, everyone had written off Carlin as a has been, including Carlin himself. It was only with another management change (one of countless mangers he’d gone through to that point) and the explosion of cable and his HBO specials that he came back from the brink.

Carlin was reborn. It’s this period that people tend to remember, and I think rightfully so. It represents some of his best material, and the point where everything he wrote and performed-at least in my eyes-was damn near perfect.

At a mere 280 or so pages, Last Words is a fast read, yet he packs so much in those pages, it seems much longer, and that in essence is typical Carlin; being able to express a vast amount of ideas in as few words as possible. He leaves no stone unturned, makes no apologies for his drug use, and is unflinching in his heart wrenching description of being an absentee Dad in spite of his own upbringing.

And then there’s the excerpts from his routines. The true testament to his genius is that it’s every bit as funny as watching him perform the material. His creativity is well documented, and I can’t help but think, despite his being gone almost three years, there may be more material from him for years to come.

I for one can’t wait to see what pop ups next.

  1. Barry Napier says:

    This is on my TBR pile. “You Are All Diseased” and “Parental Advisory” are perhaps the funniest stand ups ever recorded. Classic Carlin.