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Last Splash

In posthumous memoir, George Carlin reveals artistic and personal struggles that fed his genius.

George Carlin’s “Last Words,” published November 10, is a different animal than his other books of comedic material -- an autobiography compiled over several years up until his death in June 2008, and finished after that by his co-author, Tony Hendra.

Like Carlin’s comedy, this memoir never falls into the traps of the genre, where the writer can tend to self-aggrandize. Carlin applied his take-no-prisoners approach to himself in re-telling his life, being candid about his substance abuse, but more importantly about the fallow periods in his art and how they eventually drove him to the heights he ended up reaching.

The first transition in Carlin’s career was his shift from Catskills-style, Vegas-friendly Ed Sullivan show comedian to hippie, counterculture critic by the early 1970s. But his less well-known evolution came after that phase ran its course, as he describes, “In 1975, my fifth Little David album came out. Prior to this, there’d been: FM & AM -- clear concept; Class Clown -- strong concept, ditto Occupation: Foole. Toledo Window Box -- no concept, but still a catchy, snappy name that related to the counterculture. Now along comes … An Evening with Wally Londo, Featuring Bill Slaszo. … No concept at all. … Uncertainty. No focus.”

More specifically, Carlin goes on to say, “After an explosion of self-revelation and self-discovery … I’d become a person fascinated with his own navel. … I was turning to my bodily functions and extremities for inspiration.” He then takes his readers along for the ride of his transformation from self-parody to his resurgence that began with “A Place for My Stuff,” and evolved through the political and societal critiques of his albums/HBO specials Playin’ with Your Head, What Am I Doing in New Jersey?, and Jammin’ in New York.

He sums up the incisive turn his performances took: “It is not sufficient to have a ‘clever riposte’! A witty song by the Capitol Steps … doesn’t do it for me. … ‘FUCK YOU, COCKSUCKERS!’ is my approach. To the world, to the leadership.” Of the landmark piece, “Rockets and Penises in the Persian Gulf,” Carlin writes, “I think they were surprised by the sheer performance of it -- it wasn’t quite like anything I’d ever done. But the combination of laughs and ideas and imaginative flurries of language overwhelmed any resistance they might’ve had…”

The 1990s and 2000s were productive years for Carlin, who was touring right into 2008, performing more than 100 shows in each of most of these years. And most of the time, those shows were on bare black stages, where Carlin was usually clad in equally simple black, just the man and the words he loved. “Last Words” also takes you inside his experience performing like this, as a “single,” as he puts it -- no supporting players, no band, no musicians that he had to rely on to help express himself.

Long before, Carlin reveals, he saw stand-up as a means to an end of a movie and TV career, but it became the end unto itself. Carlin made “Last Words” a clear-eyed, unsentimental look at his New York background and early experiences, including, believe it or not, a stint in the U.S. Air Force, and how that shaped him. “Last Words” shows the same clarity in its depictions of Carlin’s creative efforts, notably how he eventually put himself and his own views into his comedy, fulfilling his true aspirations. The book is indispensable as a primer for anyone trying to figure out how to channel themselves into any kind of artistic endeavor, and be true to themselves as an artist. It’s also a compelling peek into the mind of one of the top comedians ever and the experiences that made him tick.

The George Carlin bookshelf:

 

   

     

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