With fourteen HBO specials, five Grammys, a critical Supreme Court battle over censorship, and countless appearances on the international comedy circuit, George Carlin saw it all and made fun of most of it.
Carlin’s journey to stardom began in the rough-and-tumble neighborhoods of New York in the 1950s, where class and culture wars planted the seeds for some of his earliest material including the infamous Seven Dirty Words routine. Carlin describes his major influences as an up-and-coming comic, talking about the origins of some of his most famous stand-up routines. The people he encountered on his rise to stardom reads like a Who’s Who of 1970s celebrity, from Lenny Bruce who took him under his wing to Hugh Hefner who gave him his first big shot.
Carlin spares no details as he describes his life and career. He discusses his own battle with substance abuse, his often turbulent relationships with the women in his life, and the politics that informed so much of his stand-up. From the high points on stage to low points in the hospital, Last Words is George Carlin’s life told with the same brash, unblinking honesty that defined his comedy.
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Born in New York City in 1937, George Dennis Patrick Carlin was one of the greatest and most influential stand-up comedians of all time. He appeared on The Tonight Show more than 130 times, starred in an unprecedented 14 HBO Specials, hosted the first Saturday Night Live and penned three New York Times bestselling books. Of the 23 solo albums recorded by Mr. Carlin, 11 were Grammy nominated and he took home the coveted statue five times including a 2001 Grammy win for Best Spoken Comedy Album for his reading of his best seller Brain Droppings. In 2002, Carlin was awarded the Freedom of Speech Award by the First Amendment Center in cooperation with the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, Colorado, and he was the named 11th recipient of The Kennedy Center Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in June of 2008. George Carlin passed away at age 71 on June 22, 2008 in Santa Monica, California.
Tony Hendra was recently described by The Independent of London as one of the most brilliant comic talents of the post-war period. He began his comedic career with Graham Chapman of Monty Python, appeared six times on the Ed Sullivan Show, was one of the original editors of National Lampoon, edited the classic parody Not The New York Times, starred in This Is Spinal Tap, and co-created and co-produced the long-running British satirical series Spitting Image for which he was nominated for a British Academy Award. He has written or edited dozens of books, most of them satirical, with the exception of two New York Times bestsellers: Brotherhood (2001) and Father Joe (2004). He is a senior member of the Board of the nation-wide story-telling community, The Moth.
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THE OLD MAN AND THE SUNBEAM
Sliding headfirst down a vagina with no clothes on and landing in the freshly shaven crotch of a screaming woman did not seem to be part of God’s plan for me. At least not at first. I’m not one of those people who can boast of having been a sparkle in his mother’s eye. A cinder comes closer.
I was conceived in a damp, sand-flecked room of Curley’s Hotel in Rockaway Beach, New York. August 1936. A headline in that Saturday’s New York Post said “Hot, sticky, rainy weekend begins. High humidity and temperatures in the 90s send millions to the beaches.” At the Paramount Theater in Times Square, Bing Crosby and Frances Farmer starred in Rhythm on the Range. Meanwhile at Curley’s Hotel on Beach 116th Street, Mary and Patrick Carlin starred in yet another doomed Catholic remake of Rhythm in the Sack.
For several generations Rockaway Beach had been a favorite weekend retreat for New York’s alcohol-crazed Irish youth in search of sex and sun. Popular ethnic slurs to the contrary, the Irish do enjoy sex—at least the last ten seconds or so. But we must admit that Irish foreplay consists of little more than “You awake?” Or the more caring, sensitive “Brace yourself, Agnes!”
Not that my conception was the tale of two young lovers, carried away by passion and strong wine. By the time my father’s eager, whiskey-fueled sperm forced its way into my mother’s egg-of-the-month club, she was forty and he was forty-eight—certainly old enough to be carrying rubbers. The odds against my future existence were even longer: this particular weekend was a single isolated sex-fest during a marital separation that had lasted more than a year. In fact the preceding six years of my parents’ marriage had consisted entirely of long separations, punctuated by sudden brief reconciliations and occasional sex-fests.
The separations were long because my father had trouble metabolizing alcohol. He drank, he got drunk, he hit people.
My mother told me that my father hit her only once. (My older brother, Patrick, can’t say the same.) His first marriage ended disastrously when his first wife died of a heart attack not long after one of his beatings. My mother’s theory was that while my father had been very free with his hands where his first family and Patrick were concerned, he didn’t abuse her, because she had four brothers and her dad was a policeman.
Their reconciliations were sudden because my father had a terrific line of bullshit. And because my mother really loved him. The two of them were crazy about one another. According to those who knew them they were one of the great pairings of all time. So while I sprang from something good and positive, by the time I showed up I was a distinct inconvenience. This marriage had gone south long before. As in Tierra del Fuego.
Getting conceived had been hard enough. Staying conceived literally required a miracle. My next brush with nonexistence came two months after the sweaty sex-weekend in Rockaway Beach.
During the five years between the birth of my brother and my tiny embryo glomming on to a few square millimeters of her uterine wall, my mother had made several visits to a certain Dr. Sunshine in Gramercy square. Never for an abortion, mind you. Holy Mary Mother of God, no! The procedure in question was called a D&C: dilation and curettage—literally “open wide and scrape.” A wonderfully delicate euphemism for quasi-Catholics with a little money. Really high-tone too. Gramercy Square was the place to get opened wide and scraped. No back-alley abortions on my father’s salary.
Legend has it that my mother was seated in Dr. Sunshine’s waiting room with my father who, being a family man, was reading the sports pages, apparently just fine with my being less than a hundred feet from Storm Drain #3. The good doctor’s instruments were sterile and standing by. The old dilator-and-curettager had selected a nice new pair of rubber gloves and was whistling cheerfully as he pulled them on preparatory to my eviction.
Then it happened. My mother had a vision. Sometimes when you’re trying to be born, that religious shit can come in handy. Not a full-blown vision, like Jesus’ face being formed by pubic hairs in the bottom of the shower. But real enough to save my embryonic ass. My mother claimed she saw the face of her dear, dead mother—who’d died six months earlier—in a painting on the waiting-room wall. She took this as a certain sign of maternal disapproval from beyond the grave. (Catholics go for that sort of thing.) She jumped up and left the abortionist’s office, with me still safely in the oven. On the street below she delivered these momentous words to my father: “Pat—I’m going to have this baby.”
And so I was saved from an act frowned on by the Church through an experience smiled on by the Church. It’s a wonder I’m not more devout. In fact you might be surprised that I support a woman’s right to an abortion. But I do. Absolutely. So long as it’s not my abortion.
My father’s response to this dramatic development is unrecorded. No doubt it included something about finding a place nearby that had qualified for a liquor license. After all, this was a man who, riding home from the hospital where my brother had just had a tonsillectomy, said: “Know how many beers I could’ve bought with what it cost to take your damn tonsils out?”
In October 1936, shortly after my aborted abortion, Mary and Pat decided to try and make a go of marriage again. So here they were, this time at 155th and Riverside, with another nice home, a maid and of course the same old problems. And I have to say that while my father’s drinking must have made a sizable contribution to the chaos, my mother was an extremely difficult person to live with. She was spoiled, self-centered, strong-willed and demanding; no matter who you were, she’d find out how to press your buttons, God bless her sainted memory.
Somehow though, while I waxed and multiplied within her, things sailed along smoothly enough for them to stay together. One day in May 1937 she decided to take a recreational stroll on the then new George Washington Bridge. The exertion brought on labor pains sooner than expected and a couple days later I came barreling down the birth canal, a nine-pound behemoth, requiring the use of forceps. My mother insisted care was taken not to grip my temples lest in her delightful words, it caused “the creation of an idiot.” This was almost as important to her as the fact that the obstetrician was Dr. James A. Harrar, the “Park Avenue doctor” who’d delivered the Lindbergh baby.
The day I was born was auspicious. It was the day King George VI of England was crowned and a commemorative stamp was issued with the king’s head on it—along with my birthdate, May 12th, 1937. How about that? A New York Irish kid named George rates a fucking stamp for his birthday! No wonder I’ve always been a devout monarchist. I was also born about a week after the Hindenburg disaster. I’ve often wondered whether I’m the reincarnation of some charbroiled Nazi CEO.
Lying there in New York Hospital, my first definitive act on this planet was to vomit. And vomit and vomit and vomit. For the first four weeks of my life I lived to projectile vomit. My mother later told me with great pride: “They would feed you and you would shoot formula clear across the room. You couldn’t keep anything down.” And I still can’t. This remarkable inability to hold anything back and to spew it clear across a public space has served me well my whole life. At New York Hospital, I also survived circumcision, a barbaric practice designed to remind you as early as possible that your genitals are not your own.
My first home—the Vauxhall, 780 Riverside Drive at 155th Street—was, according to my brother, “opulent.” Expensive new furniture, a sunken living room, a dramatic view of the Hudson River and—Amanda, a very large, strong black woman who was actually capable of backing my father down. She became Patrick’s and my protector when Dad got out of line—which was plenty. The bar at Maguire’s Chop House on Upper Broadway got regular and strenuous workouts. Meanwhile my mother had settled into her Marie Antoinette period, sitting at the dinner table, tinkling her little bell to cue Amanda that the next course should be served. In fairness to my old man, that sort of behavior in a New York City cop’s daughter would be enough to drive anyone out to the boozer for a few pops.
One night Pat the Elder sailed in, ethanol-powered and very late, and Mary had a few choice things to say about “what good is it having all this nice stuff if we can’t have meals together, blah blah blah.” During the subsequent debate, to emphasize an abstruse point he was making, Pat carefully dropped a tray of silver-and-crystal tea service from their sixth-story window to the street below. He said something on the order of “This is what I think of your nice stuff” and headed Maguire-wards.
Mary, who was capable of making life-changing decisions on a dime, made one now. She was leaving for good. Despite my father’s promises, the pattern hadn’t changed. There was a new baby on the scene. Who knew when I might be scheduled for a taste of the character-forming “discipline” my brother had endured since infancy? Three months? Six? As soon as I had hair I could be hauled around our living space just like him.
That night, Mother Mary headed for the one place she knew we’d be welcome and safe—her father’s house. Dennis Bearey, the gentle ex-policeman, lived not far away at the corner of 111th Street and Amsterdam. Two days after our arrival ther...
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