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Since I paid $3.25 in late fees to the library for this read, I figured I ought to at least write about it. George Carlin was one of my favorite comedians, and one of the few celebrity deaths that I felt personally, rather than just dismissively saying, "well, that's a shame." Along with Gilda Radner, Madeline Kahn and (to a degree) Michael Jackson, Carlin was a large part of my childhood and developing adulthood. Unlike the first three, Carlin was at approximately human life expectancy age, particularly considering his history of heart problems and drug abuse.
But that didn't soften the blow. I'd come to expect a new Carlin HBO special every couple of years. So it was terrific to find out that Carlin had been working on an autobiography for around 15 years. Most of it was ready to go, and he'd already asked his friend Tony Hendra to edit it for him. Presumably, Hendra had to fill in a few gaps, and likely wrote in Carlin's style to do it. No matter, as you can almost hear Carlin delivering every line.
Carlin came to my attention (as far as I can remember) when he hosted the very first episode of Saturday Night Live in 1975. I was 9 years old, and plopped in front of the TV that night. We were allowed to stay up as late as we wanted to on Saturdays, so I was lucky enough to see the beginning of the whole SNL franchise, and be in on the ground floor of the "classic" years of the Not Ready for Prime Time Players. When Carlin hosted, the show's format was not yet gelled, and he didn't perform in any skits (apparently at his request). But his monologues during the show turned me on to him.
In Last Words, Carlin chronicles his beginning as part of a comedy team, his first steps at going solo, and his entry into the variety TV shows of the 60s. I'm not old enough to have seen any of that work, from Merv Griffin to Mike Douglas to Ed Sullivan (an experience Carlin hated), but even I remember Al Sleet, the "Hippy, Dippy weatherman." Carlin details the meeting of his wife, his ascendance on TV, particularly as a guest and guest host of The Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson. He goes into great detail about how he was coasting on happy, smiley comedy that didn't feel true to himself, and how he evolved into a more genuine counter-culture comedian.
Along the way there were drugs, lots of drugs. It was refreshing to read Carlin's unapologetic take on those experiences. He makes no excuses, but at the same time lets you know that on the whole, it was a bad thing. He gradually cleaned himself up (mostly), even acknowledging the value of a 12-step program (minus the "higher power" nonsense). Most interesting is insight into where his humor came from, how he shaped and molded his bits, and how with each new show his humor evolved. He was planning to do a Broadway one-man show, akin to Lily Tomlin's Search for Intelligent Life in the Universe, and it's a pity he died before realizing that dream.
If there is one thing I'd like to have seen in the book, it would be a more effective afterward. There seems to be a span of time missing between when Carlin stopped updating his book, and when he died. I'd like for Hendra to have written at least a small chapter detailing what Carlin had been up to in this time span, the details of his death, perhaps a bit on the funeral. Nothing too morbid, just maybe general impressions of friends, family, contemporaries upon his death. I think it would have provided closure, where as it stands, the last chapter leaves you hanging. I'd also like to know what became of Carlin's copious notes for his next show. That could be another book, I'd suspect.
George Carlin got more cantankerous in persona toward the end of his life, becoming something of an "angry old man" on stage. And while those last shows were more abrasive, I found myself in agreement (in my amusement) with almost his entire point of view. His takes on religion, on politics in America, and on the American populace in general were spot-on. I really miss his perspective. Last Words comes as close as possible to giving us just a little more genuine Carlin in his own voice.
My review: Highly recommended