Book Review: Last Words
By George Carlin with Tony Hendra
In an age of unbridled greed and hypocrisy, where corporate-backed celebrities catapult to the top and individual artists struggle to become recognized, George Carlin stood out because he never sold out. In fact, he became more irreverent and iconoclastic with age-- and more willing to speak truth to power.
So when his posthumous memoir, Last Words, came out, I couldn't wait to read it. As a longtime Carlin fan, I wanted to know more about the man himself, and I wasn't disappointed. His memoir is filled with all types of amusing stories and confessions about his life, his career, and the people he knew and loved.
He begins his tale recounting his childhood as a street-smart, wise-ass Catholic school kid who grew up in the "White Harlem" section of New York City. It is here where we are introduced to Carlin's family and friends and learn of his early fondness for words and comedy. He also details the love-hate relationship he has with his mother and his fondness for his older brother and neighborhood pals.
After that, he discusses his stint in the Air Force, which he didn't much care for-- to say the least-and his beginnings as a radio DJ and relationship with fellow Irishman Jack Burns, who became his comedy partner. He also discusses his relationship with Lenny Bruce, for whom Carlin had tremendous respect. In fact, it was Bruce who introduced him to the woman who would eventually become Carlin's wife.
Then, of course, there are the stories about his drug abuse, his battles with his wife and her addiction problems, his heart attacks, his arrests, his fame, his downfall, his comeback, his big pay days, and his enormous financial setbacks. Apparently, for much of his later life, Carlin was working to pay off a huge IRS bill.
Throughout the entire memoir, however, Carlin never comes across as bitter, and he describes the high and low points in his life with uncompromising candor and humor. But perhaps the most important aspect of his life, he makes clear, was always his work, his art, his comedy, which he discusses in detail, including some of his classic routines like "Al Sleet, the Hippy-Dippy Weatherman," and the "Seven Words You Can't Say on Television."
He also dissects and analyzes his early comic observations as a kid to his mainstream nightclub act and appearances on shows like Mike Douglas and Johnny Carson to his metamorphosis into a counter-culture social satirist.
The beautiful thing about Carlin is that he keeps changing and evolving, becoming more cutting edge and radical as he ages. And perhaps no one in the last few decades has been more critical of our country's power brokers and the political process than Carlin. Consider this excerpt from a piece he performed on stage late in his life.
"Forget the politicians. The politicians are put there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice . . . you don't. You have no choice. You have owners. They own you. They own everything. They own all the important land. They own, and control the corporations. They've long since bought, and paid for the Senate, the Congress, the state houses, the city halls, they got the judges in their back pockets and they own all the big media companies, so they control just about all of the news and information you get to hear"
"The table has tilted folks. The game is rigged and nobody seems to notice. Nobody seems to care"That's what the owners count on. The fact that Americans will probably remain willfully ignorant of the big red, white and blue dick that's being jammed up their a**holes everyday, because the owners of this country know the truth. It's called the American Dream cause you have to be asleep to believe it..."
Another beautiful thing about Carlin is that he never repents in the end or "finds religion." True, he finally goes to rehab and gets off drugs, but only to improve his health, not to make amends with the traditional "Sky God" he has mocked throughout his life. For Carlin, the self-professed loner with a W.C. Fieldsian disdain for humanity, self-examination is his religion and Truth is his god.
As he says toward the end of his memoir: "I no longer identify with my species. I haven't for a long time. I identify with carbon atoms. I don't feel comfortable or safe on this planet. From the standpoint of my work and peace of mind, the safest thing, the thing that gives me most comfort, is to identify with the atoms and the stars and simply contemplate the folly of my fellow species members. I can divorce myself from the pain of it all."
Despite this detachment from his fellow man, you get the feeling after reading his life story that not only was George Carlin a comic genius and a social critic par excellence, he was also a very decent guy, the kind of guy whose ethos transcended the parochial boundaries of conventional religion and politics, the kind of guy we desperately need today.