The art of stand-up has one of the longest apprenticeships. (“It’s not fine art,” George Carlin liked to say. “But it is an art. It is a vulgar art.”) The careers of comedians can take decades just to gain momentum. Stand-ups need stage time to develop; the best among them find their voices in conversation with the work of other comedians. Carlin, inspired by the success of Danny Kaye, moved at a steady clip. He had already done radio and TV and movies by the time he landed a gig at the Frontier Hotel in Vegas in 1967, earning $12,500 a week. Wearing a suit, he entertained businessmen and their wives with impressions and standard straight-man jokes. But he was a true comic spirit, hard-wired to upend any kind of complacency, and having been stirred up by Lenny Bruce, he was no longer able to restrain his angrier self. He got himself suspended for using the word “ass,” then cursed again and got fired, which ended his run as a “people pleaser.” Carlin created his own rules for the next 40 years; lucky for us, the urge to please never returned.
After the Frontier, Carlin returned to what he called his “gymnasium,” the small clubs and cafes where comics hone their material. He re-emerged as a raging hippie original, doing keenly acerbic shows at Carnegie Hall. On cable, he was even more provocative. His acute mind chronicled the inanities of contemporary culture and religion and race. “Class Clown,” his 1972 album (still considered a masterpiece among comedians), included “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” the legendary bit about the way Americans avoid words that convey reality. How we talk became one of Carlin’s lifelong themes. In another well-known riff on euphemisms, he listed every imaginable racist slur along with example after example of “soft language” (toilet paper becoming bathroom tissue, slums becoming substandard housing). By the time he was host of the debut of “Saturday Night Live,” in 1975, he was a bona fide star. He was 38.
With more verve than he had when he offended the Vegas conferees, he tore into the beliefs of his new fans — the countercultural crowd, lapsed Catholics, liberals and their politically correct kids. Self-righteousness needed to be punctured, and no one was immune: feminists who couldn’t find the humor in rape; smug save-the-planet activists; greedy baby boomers (“Whiny, narcissistic, self-indulgent people with a simple philosophy: Gimme it, it’s mine!!”) He fiercely allied himself with the underdog, but he didn’t let the underdog off the hook: “Everybody’s at the mall, scratching his ass, picking his nose, taking his credit card out of his fanny pack and buying a pair of sneakers with lights in them.”
Offstage, he was a kind man who was unusually generous with young comedians. Liz Miele, who is now 23, was 15 when she wrote to 45 comics seeking advice. Two responded: Judd Apatow urged her to study English. Carlin called. He told her to keep writing, always. Four years later, they met for a soda in the lobby of the Carlyle, where he opened his laptop and showed her how he organized thousands of idea files. She sent him progress reports, and he cheered her on until two days before he died. Danny Lobell, 25, interviewed Carlin twice on his radio show. On the phone, they’d commiserate about humiliating subway rides home after awful sets.
In another interview, Carlin said that his early aspirations for mainstream success had blinded him to the original outlaw within himself — the kid who’d been ejected from summer camp, the high-school dropout, the Air Force demotee. “I’ve spent the first 45 years of my life trying to figure out who I am,” he said.
This singularity is what the greatest comics strive to render onstage — but it has to be funny. The instrument is the self. The toughest crowds are other comedians, so it’s significant that after Carlin died the conversations at open mikes and A-list clubs weren’t about the 130 appearances on “The Tonight Show,” the 25 albums, three best-selling books or four Grammy awards. They quoted their favorite material and admired how Carlin didn’t need the crutch of punch lines back to back. Comics usually cling to their killer bits, but Carlin, who had plenty, risked starting fresh for each of his 14 HBO specials. He also assumed the full scope of his intelligence onstage, something not many comics will allow themselves. He passionately loved language; he danced with it. His subjects became increasingly dark — wars, famine, human extinction. By the end, he was confronting his own death, which even some comedians found bleak. But through the hard labor of his vulgar art, he had earned the right to stand up onstage unrepentant, as himself.
Lewis Black still cherishes a phone call of support he received from Carlin during Black’s own apprenticeship, the length of which he calls “staggering.” Stand-up is ultimately an oral tradition. “It’s comics passing on to comics how to become a comic,” Black says. “When you begin to comprehend what Carlin was doing, you’ve arrived in an extraordinary place. He’s the evolutionary step.”
Carlin’s last HBO show, “It’s Bad for Ya,” was broadcast in March. When he walked onstage, he immediately tried to quiet the crowd. He gestured to his watch. He was 70 and still had lots to address. “I’m tired of being told who to admire in this country,” he said, after grandly trashing Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods. “Aren’t you sick of being told who your heroes oughta be? Bein’ told who you oughta be lookin’ up to? I’ll choose my own heroes, thank you very much.” His limber voice was weaker, but the eyes remained alert. In his uniform of sneakers, black long-sleeved T-shirt and pants, he prowled the stage, an old stage pirate unearthing booty, the ponytail gone. As always, he bent forward slightly, holding the mike, urgent with the need to communicate.