Book World reviews George Carlin's 'Last Words'

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By Jeff Nussbaum
Tuesday, December 29, 2009


By George Carlin with Tony Hendra

Free Press. 297 pp. $26.99

George Carlin didn't want to write an autobiography in the classic sense. In his mind, only "pinheaded criminal business [leaders] and politicians" wrote autobiographies. The word he settled on to describe "Last Words" was "sortabiography." A comedian's sortabiography.

But this description has it exactly backward. "Last Words" is indeed an autobiography -- and quite a good one -- by a man who, as he takes us through his life, reveals himself to be a sortacomedian. Yes, his albums were sold in record stores under the comedy heading, but what "Last Words" ultimately reveals is how Carlin became a political protester, slam poet, cynic, polemicist and performance artist whose messages were delivered under the veneer of humor.

Although Carlin made more than 20 albums, 14 HBO specials and more than a hundred appearances on "The Tonight Show," wrote three best-selling books and provided the catalyzing case for a major Supreme Court decision, he tells us that his true dream was to perform a one-man show on Broadway. That this dream was never fulfilled suffuses a powerful, personal, introspective story with real poignancy.

But, of course, that's not why you pick up a book by George Carlin. You want to hear about the seven words you can't (or couldn't) say on television. If you're of a certain age, you want to understand how Al Sleet, the Hippy-Dippy weatherman, was born. (If you were to guess that it was during a marijuana-induced haze, you'd pretty much nail it.) You want to hear -- one last time -- the "brain droppings" of a man who found the line between what was sacred and what could be profaned by repeatedly stepping over it.

And in this, from the very beginning, he doesn't disappoint. The book begins with a funny and graphic description of his own conception, near-termination and ultimate birth. But then something slightly unexpected happens. He spends the first third of the book telling a beautiful, powerful story of growing up Irish in Harlem, the product of a "lace curtain Irish" mother, who wanted nothing more than for her son to be successful and refined, and an abusive "shanty" Irish father.

We see his mother indoctrinate him with a love of words and the streets indoctrinate him with the voices and personalities that came to populate his later work. We see him become the class clown. But we also see something else, and it's best described by a trip he takes to Times Square where the Army recruiting office had a display of military hardware -- including a 500-pound bomb called "The Blockbuster." Seeing that others had scratched their names into the bomb's casing, Carlin does the same, saying, "Everyone should try to scratch their names on the bomb of life."

The story of Carlin's service and ultimate discharge from the Air Force rivals Joseph Heller's "Catch-22." After Carlin managed to rack up two court-martials and five other disciplinary offenses, "basically they said: 'You don't mention you were here and we won't either.' "

What's interesting is how Carlin's comedy branched in two directions, into what he called his "micro world material" and his "macro world material." It's easy to forget that his micro world material, which always seemed a little derivative to me and which Carlin admits became even more so as he sank deeper into addiction, actually launched into the mainstream the observational humor we now know and love and pay Jerry Seinfeld millions of dollars to perform. As for the macro world material, one of the joys of the book is watching it develop over time, harden after the election of Ronald Reagan and then ultimately find its outlet in the outraged persona most of us identify with Carlin.

The book loses steam when Carlin begins to talk about his second marriage and his PBS show, "Shining Time Station." It hits a final note of either genius or madness, depending on how you read it, when he launches into rants such as, "I no longer identify with my species." Still, you find yourself forgiving Carlin his excesses -- as he knew you would. You even find yourself enjoying them.

In 1970, Carlin's mother wrote him a letter. At the time, he was a comedian of some renown, but for repeated attempts at career suicide as much as anything else. She wrote, "You will someday be a Beckett or a Joyce or maybe a Bernard Shaw. You seem to have their kind of disturbance . . . Some day you will release what you have down inside of you and it will be listened to and heard." Carlin blithely dismissed her letter, suggesting that his mother (like himself at the time) was "dropping a little acid." But though perhaps not a Beckett, Carlin was indeed heard. In "Last Words," it's nice to hear him one final time.

Nussbaum is a partner in the speechwriting firm West Wing Writers and a co-founder of the Humor Cabinet, a humor-writing firm.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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