Last Words took about 17 years to write. As the story goes, Carlin commissioned it in 1993 with Tony Hendra, but it wasn’t until Carlin died in 2008 that Hendra finally pulled together all of his recorded conversations, notes, and other materials and cranked out the more or less definitive semiautobiography of George Carlin, and Last Words is that book.
I need hardly explain who George Carlin is or why he is important—if you don’t know, this review will be meaningless to you—but for those of us well-acquainted with his unique and sometimes unpredictable views, Last Words is really quite illuminating, and I was surprised by not only the general quality of its craft, but the depth of its information, as well.
In accordance with the book’s jacket copy, Carlin’s story begins literally at birth, as he provides a few choices about the intersection of his almost-aborted 9-month-old self and his mother Mary’s vagina. For those hoping that the book would incorporate much of Carlin’s uncensored spirit, the very first pages are proof enough that this isn’t a dry, tame eulogy, and that either its content came straight from Carli without overly much manipulation, or Tony Hendra is very good at channeling Carlin.
It may surprise some (though I was vaguely aware) that the blue George Carlin we know and love from the last twenty or so years was not always the George Carlin that was popular or famous. Though Carlin begins by describing the turbulent times of his family, especially vis-a-vis his deadbeat father, the familiar material only begins to emerge when the story arrives at Carlin’s stand-up career. But in those days, Carlin was more or less a family-friendly acting, performing schtick like “The Indian Sergeant” on primetime television and event, yes, to sold-out crowds in live venues. At that time, with a wife and a young child, Carlin was living a comfortable—if boring—life as a comedian.
Soon, however, things began to change, and the world-weary ire for which we tend to know George Carlin arose—but so did a number of years of controversy, on-and-off success, and drug abuse by both he and his wife, Brenda. He gets arrested for obscenity in Milwaukee; he starts in a children’s television show. In some ways, Carlin is remarkably glib about his prolific career and profligate personal life: based on the text alone, you wouldn’t guess that Carlin was one of the most important comics of the past half century.
Initially, it was observational—Carlin decries it as naval-gazing—which predated Seinfield’s “And what’s the deal with XYZ?” schtick by a number of years…. gave birth to it, more accurately. Sometimes it was harmless, like observations about the physical properties of boogers; other times it was more controversial, such as his seminal “Seven Dirty Words You Can’t Say on Television” from his 1972 album. Especially when it came to language, Carlin was blazing new and important trails: I can remember listening to some of these early bits as a child, and it no doubt helped to spark my interest in language and semantics.
As a simple chronicle of Carlin’s career, it is brief but informative; remember, after all, that this story was most from Carlin’s mouth, and so doesn’t seek to be an exhaustive listing of his engagement or life. What’s far more interesting to me is to see Carlin’ philosophize about how his life influenced his comedy—attributing his love of language to his mother, for instance, or admitting that his yearning to be loved by crowds is a feeling which stretches back to his childhood. Then, too, his eventually shift to a countercultural comic came from somewhere as well, at one point roiling out of Carlin in a career-threatening wave. Carlin’s struggle for both success and self-respect is the meat of the book, and it occupies the most space. Unlike, say, Tracy Austin’s autobiography1, Last Words isn’t a facile recollection of random anecdotes, or a feel-good storybook with big print, or a simple cash-grab with writing so dull it render less mortals catatonic….. no Last Words is, as I began this review, surprisingly engaging, remarkably honest, and decidedly Carlinesque.
- Beyond Center Court, for those of you who are curious; this reference is purely a nod to David Foster Wallace fans; c.f. Consider the Lobster.[↩]