Lenny Bruce died, so God gave us George Carlin. Now he’s gone, too. I read it on the internet last night – George Carlin, dead at age 71 from heart failure.
I didn’t know George Carlin, but I lived in Los Angeles from 1969 to 1971, when his star was on the rise.
He had worked as a conventional stand up comic for a few years, doing well at it, which is unusual enough, but then something happened. His partner in the 1960s, John Burns, says they saw Lenny Bruce perform, and that opened George’s eyes. He started doing a different kind of comedy.
I first saw him at the Ice House in Pasadena, just before he started dressing like a hippie. The buzz about him was that he had been successful, and had given it up to try something different. That got attention, and astonishment, and respect, in Los Angeles, where everyone was trying to make it in show biz, and nobody much cared how.
He was still wearing a suit and had short hair when I saw him, and he got his thumb caught in the microphone holder. Or maybe he didn’t; maybe he was doing a schtick with the mic stand. I don’t know. I just remember he was really funny.
Then he showed up as the hippy-dippy weatherman on Laugh-In. “Forecast for tonight: dark.” And so on. I think that’s when he started getting well-known nationally.
Towards the end of 1970 and beginning of 1971, I was playing open mics and occasional weekend gigs at a former A&W stand on the Venice Beach known as The Other Side. The thing about doing open mics in L.A. is, you don’t know WHO might show up – mostly beginners trying to find their legs, like me, but sometimes someone successful who needs to try out new material on a live audience. Carlin lived in Venice at the time, and he discovered The Other Side, and decided it was a conveniently out of the way venue where he could try things out, both to work up new material and to keep his stage chops with a small audience. So open mic night audiences sometimes, surprise! got to see George Carlin, live and in person, working at the performing end of the former root beer stand.
I was in awe of him – he was famous, for goodness’ sake. I hoped I’d get to talk to him and know him, but that was not part of why he was there. He was there for his own purposes, and boy, when he was done, he came off stage, exited through the kitchen, and disappeared into the night before anyone could stop him. I could understand his need to maintain space and not have to expend his energy being famous, so even though I appeared on the same stage he did a few times, I never got to know him, or even talk to him.
I did get to hear that new material. None of which I remember. So passes away the glory of the world.
He had an unconventional point of view, and that’s why people loved him. He was honest, which annoyed the hell out of people. He is, in his own words, “a footnote to history,” because of Supreme Court rulings on obscene language which were the result of litigation about his piece, “The seven words you can’t say on the radio.” He had bookings until the end of this year, at least, and if you google him on the internet you’ll find offers to buy tickets for his performances. Oops. I guess it takes a while to update these things. He’d probably get a good riff out of that.
So long, George – you made us laugh, and think. I really like that in a person. Thank you.