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George Carlin HBO Special
George Carlin HBO Special
If you get HBO don't miss George Carlin special, first in four years! He is wry, funny and out there!
November 4, 2005
Refusing to Coast on 7 Infamous Words
By JACQUES STEINBERG
DAYTON, Ohio, Oct. 28 - Ruth Richardson and Reuben Briggs were seated near each other at a theater here, but other than a shared admiration for the evening's featured performer - George Carlin - they did not appear to have much else in common.
Mrs. Richardson is a retired nursery school teacher who, at 89, requires a cane with a four-pronged base. She has followed Mr. Carlin's career since "the very beginning," she said, staying up late to watch his clean-cut, stand-up appearances on the "Tonight" show in the 1960's and remaining loyal as he grew his hair and let loose with a bit he called "Seven Words You Can Never Say on TV."
"It doesn't offend me when I hear George do it," Mrs. Richardson said from her seat at the Schuster Performing Arts Center. "I don't use all these words myself. But I understand them."
Nearby, among pockets of young men with baseball caps turned backward, was Mr. Briggs, a graphic designer who, at 25, is young enough to be the grandson of Mr. Carlin, an improbable 68.
Mr. Briggs said that he had been turned on to Mr. Carlin only recently, by friends who had CD versions of some of the comedian's old albums, and that he had found himself nodding in agreement during Mr. Carlin's recent appearance on Bill Maher's talk show on HBO.
"He said he was upset with the way the government was running right now," Mr. Briggs said. "He's not like your grandpa-type at all. He can still relate."
Mr. Carlin had traveled to Dayton as a tuneup for an HBO special - his 13th - which will be broadcast live on Saturday from the Beacon Theater on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Titled "Life Is Worth Losing," it will be Mr. Carlin's first concert on the cable channel in nearly four years, and his first since he entered a rehabilitation center last December for a 30-day stay intended, he said, to address his addictions to Vicodin and red wine.
Mr. Carlin nearly sold out the 2,300-seat theater here, and it was hard to imagine another comedian who could draw an audience from so many generations or one who has been as successful for as long - at least without the benefit of a long-running prime-time television series or a movie career as a leading man.
A Grammy Award winner for iconic comedy albums like "FM & AM" and "Class Clown" (both 1972), he has, in recent years, become a best-selling author of books that expand on his comedy routines, including "When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?," published by Hyperion last year.
Meanwhile, his "seven words" routine - which is more than three decades old and lives on in his DVD compilations - seems no less relevant now, as Howard Stern flees an aggressive Federal Communications Commission for satellite radio. In 1973, a New York radio station, WBAI, was threatened by the F.C.C. with the loss of its license for playing a 12-minute snippet of the profanity-laced bit, a case that was argued before the Supreme Court and cemented the decency standard that ultimately ensnared Mr. Stern.
"You can't really find somebody that has been so prolific, so 'on the scene,' so popular and cutting-edge as Carlin," said the comedian Richard Lewis, who has known Mr. Carlin since the early 1970's. "He is the Rolling Stones of stand-up."
"There are a lot of comics working 40 years who might have added 10 jokes to their act over that time," he said. "Carlin treats every HBO special like a gallery opening."
Mr. Carlin's new 75-minute HBO show is an extended meditation on the three aspects of life that have preoccupied him for nearly a half-century: the little experiences we all seem to share, the words we use and our penchant for doing one another (and the world around us) harm.
In that last regard, he is, on camera as well as off, the bystander who is usually rooting for the 10-car pileup, at least partly because it's good for business.
"This place is eating itself alive," he said in an interview a few days before the Dayton show. "I like applying the entropic principle from science to this country, this civilization. I think it is slowly disintegrating."
"For me, it isn't the fact of the disintegration so much as the act of it, watching it, seeing it," he added. "It is a freak show. And in this country you get a front-row seat. And some of us have notebooks."
However familiar the themes of his new show may be, the actual material is somehow fresh, as he tries to give people license to laugh about matters that few other performers would dare broach. These include the beheadings in Iraq, natural disasters (he does not mention Hurricane Katrina but doesn't have to), genocide, human sacrifice ("I miss that," he said from the stage), suicide, autoerotic asphyxiation and necrophilia.
"You know the best thing about necrophilia?" he said onstage here. "You don't have to bring flowers."
After a pause, he added: "Usually they're already there."
Mr. Carlin's close-cropped beard and hair (worn just long enough in the back to curl upward) may be white, but he still prowls the stage with the urgency of someone seeking his big break. His shoulders slightly hunched, he has a voice as smooth as a D.J.'s (he once worked at stations in Boston and Fort Worth) and a patter that is often as syncopated as a beat poet's.
The opening monologue in his current show is a three-minute tour de force titled "The Modern Man," adapted from his latest book, that melds his ear for idiom with his bewilderment at the pace of modern life. He laments:
I take a short position on the long bond.
My revenue stream has its own cash flow.
I read junk mail.
I eat junk food.
I buy junk bonds.
I watch trash sports.
I'm gender-specific, capital intensive, user-friendly and lactose intolerant.
I like rough sex.
I like tough love.
After pausing to make a reference to an expletive he uses in e-mail messages, he concludes: "The software in my hard drive is hard-core, no soft porn."
[The show is rigorous. At a performance in Canton, Ohio, on Wednesday, Mr. Carlin left the stage halfway through and did not return, saying his voice felt weak. Speaking by phone on Thursday, he said he had no doubt he would be fine by Saturday.]
Offstage, the hazel-eyed Mr. Carlin, who says he is 5 foot 10 (he appears shorter) and weighs 150 pounds (probably right), has a gentle, subdued bearing.
He was raised in Morningside Heights by a single mother, and dropped out of high school in the ninth grade. He traces his struggles with alcohol to his teenage years and had a well-chronicled cocaine problem in his 30's.
Though he was able to taper his cocaine use on his own, he said, he continued to abuse alcohol - as much as a bottle of red wine in a day, as recently as last year - and also became addicted to Vicodin. That habit began, he said, when he sneaked some pills from a prescription given to his wife, Brenda, for fibromyalgia. After a 36-year marriage, she died of liver cancer in 1997.
Compared with other addicts, Mr. Carlin said, his Vicodin habit - four pills a day - was "almost embarrassing." Even his companion of recent years, Sally Wade, a writer, had little idea that he had a problem, he said.
"No legal troubles, no car wrecks," he said.
And yet in the summer of 2004, he concluded, "This is only going to get worse."
Mr. Carlin is well known among fellow comics for his adherence to precision and routine. In preparation for each of his HBO shows, which began in 1977, he gives about 150 performances over two years, all serving to help him refine the material for his televised appearance.
He approached his decision to go into drug treatment with similar rigor. Looking at his calendar for the second half of 2004, booked solid with concert dates, he said, he realized "Christmas and New Year's, the month beginning there, was the only open period I had." And so he waited.
Afterward, he took off the rest of January and February, and has been back on the road pretty much ever since.
"There is no urge, no feeling, no pull or anything," he said of his sobriety.
Though his current material seems current, Mr. Carlin notes that his stand-up has never had a ripped-from-the-front-pages quality, making him more like a columnist than a daily beat writer.
In his daily life, he said, he doesn't follow current events closely, though he is obviously well read and says that one of the cable news channels is often on in the background in his homes, one in Las Vegas and the other in Los Angeles.
Asked if he felt any kinship with Mr. Stern, who has a Carlinesque knack for exploring taboo subjects, Mr. Carlin said the only connection was that "we both wound up in trouble with the F.C.C."
"I like Howard," he said. "I like his mind. I like his spirit. I am not a big fan of the stuff he does. He knows that. I think he picks on underdogs."
Mr. Carlin said he was an admirer of Jon Stewart, another performer who casts a wry eye on American life and who interviewed him onstage for one of his HBO specials. But he said he deliberately did not watch "The Daily Show."
"I don't like watching people who are essentially doing the same thing I do," he said. "I don't like the possibility that I'm going to pick up an idea and forget that it's not mine."
Instead, to relax he will typically tune in to a prime-time crime show like "Law & Order" or "CSI" because "they are very precisely done," he said.
In Dayton, Mr. Carlin did a small bit that imagines the detectives on those shows speaking wildly vulgar dialogue.
The routine got a big laugh, one of many that night. But some of his observations were greeted with silence, and not everyone had a good time.
After the Dayton show, Mary Baker, who had accompanied her friend Mrs. Richardson and had never before seen Mr. Carlin, pronounced herself offended by much of his act, not least his coarse language.
"I don't get cable," Mrs. Baker, 84, said. "I won't see him. Lucky me!"
Asked if she was similarly put off, Mrs. Richardson, who is five years her friend's senior, said with a smile that she was not.
And yet, she conceded, "I couldn't hear it all that well."
"George Carlin: Life Is Worth Losing" is on HBO tomorrow at 10 p.m.(live), Eastern time and (tape-delayed) Pacific time; 9 p.m., Central time.
11/4/2005 9:18 am
I'll be there!!! rose|
11/4/2005 4:48 pm