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Getting the Last Laugh
Funny Thing Is, George Carlin Couldn't Make It To His Big Night

By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, November 11, 2008

The late George Carlin, whose sense of irony was world class, would have appreciated last night's Mark Twain Prize for American Humor ceremony at the Kennedy Center, though it's not clear which rich irony he would have liked most.

Surely, he would have gotten a kick about being too dead to pick up the prize himself, as more than one presenter noted. Carlin died in June at 71, a week after learning that he'd won the 11th annual prize.

Perhaps, as a lapsed Catholic (and an extremely amusing atheist), Carlin would have dug the whole Irish wake aspect of the ceremony: Jokes were not just permissible, they were mandatory, in honoring the recently departed.

As a stand-up comic whose career ranged from the Ed Sullivan era to the Facebook age, Carlin might have been amused by the fact that none of the stand-ups who came to honor him (Bill Maher, Lewis Black, Lily Tomlin, Jon Stewart, Joan Rivers and Garry Shandling, among others) actually got to do much stand-up. Some great introductory cracks, sure, but mostly in service of introducing clips of some of Carlin's classic bits.

And as a comedian who made an art out of blue language ("The king of raw," Maher called him) Carlin surely would have gotten some mileage out of the fact that only three of his "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" were actually spoken from the Kennedy Center stage. (Denis Leary alone accounted for three F-bombs.)

Carlin himself rematerialized in a clip to do the bit, though -- again, ironically -- the commentary on language and the absurdity of banning words was itself bleeped repeatedly by the Kennedy Center censor.

"Seven Words" was just one of the immortal Carlin routines that popped up during the evening. There was also "Baseball vs. Football," "A Place for My Stuff" and the astonishing "Modern Man," in which Carlin achieves a kind of verbal escape velocity by stringing together about a thousand buzz phrases. ("I'm in-the-moment, on-the-edge, over-the-top and under-the-radar. A high-concept, low-profile, medium-range ballistic missionary. A streetwise smart bomb. A top-gun bottom feeder . . .") The Twain Prize's producers even dug up Carlin performing a bit about death on the old "Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour."

Somehow it seemed appropriate.

The tributes flowed from what amounts to an entire generation of great comedians who discovered their future profession as adolescents by listening to "Class Clown," Carlin's seminal album of social commentary, autobiography and brilliantly filthy language. Leary, a onetime altar boy, remembered that "Class Clown" showed up on his parish's list of verboten records, which of course inspired him to pool his money with his fellow altar boys and rush out to buy the album. When he finally heard it, said Leary, "it was at that moment that I became an ex-Catholic."

Black recalled that he couldn't persuade his elderly father to travel to a ceremony at which Black was to receive a comedy award. Told that Carlin would be there, his father lit up. "Do you think I could meet him?" asked Black's dad. Told he could, the old man eagerly agreed to the trip. "An 82-year-old groupie!" Black said last night, concluding, "Without your presence among us, George, the world is a less funny place."

Tomlin celebrated the softer side of the sometimes scabrous Carlin by mentioning his "BrainDroppings," a best-selling collection of playful witticisms that surely would have delighted Twain himself ("I'm not concerned about all hell breaking loose. I'm more concerned about a part of hell breaking loose, and that will be much harder to detect").

And, of course, no one could quite resist a little election topicality, even though the program, taped by WETA (Channel 26), won't be broadcast on PBS stations until April. Richard Belzer may have gotten the biggest laugh by offering a preview of Barack Obama's inaugural speech. It was all in mock Arabic.

Shandling recalled sitting in class as a freshman at the University of Arizona ("or as we called it, the Harvard of Tucson"), writing what he thought were three George Carlin-caliber routines. He drove to Phoenix, where Carlin was playing, and got up the courage to approach Carlin with his material. The comedian not only read it but gave the kid notes on his work. Shandling was stunned and amazed by the legend's graciousness. Some 12 years later, when Shandling was an established comedian and actor, Carlin still got the punch line. Receiving an award from Shandling, he strode to the microphone and said, "I'm sorry I encouraged Garry in his career."

Stewart lauded Carlin's prolific comedic output. Meeting Carlin at his home in Brentwood, Calif., several years ago, Stewart watched in amazement as Carlin literally punched a time clock as he sat down to write the day's material.

Carlin's daughter, Kelly Carlin-McCall, said her father was thrilled by the award when he learned of it a week before suffering his fourth and last heart attack. "I told him, 'It's about time,' " she said on the red carpet last night, accompanied by her uncle, Carlin's older brother, Patrick. "I said to him, 'I wonder what took so long?' "

She said she later found a note he'd written about the award, which he was pleased to learn was officially called a prize. Because? "Because," said Kelly, with perfect Carlinesque timing, "because he said an award is what grown-ups win. A prize is something a kid wins."

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