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Book Review: Last Words: A Memoir by George Carlin and Tony Hendra

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Love him or loathe him, admire him or despise him, you would have to grant — even if you disagreed with him — that George Carlin was funny, witty, controversial, and thought provoking. And if you did loathe him you’d have to be rather disingenuous to deny he had a large influence on hundreds of other now-famous stand-up comedians. The respects and tributes given to him upon the news of his 2008 death by several of today’s more prominent mainstream comedians attest to this.

His daughter Kelly stated in a brief review on Amazon of this sortabiography (George found the term “autobiography” pretentious since “only pinheaded criminal business pricks and politicians wrote autobiographies”) that her father kept his inner life pretty close to his chest — however, in this book she states that he shows his hand fully. Indeed, after reading it one finds this is clearly the case. As is evident in how he describes the peak of a cocaine addiction so severe that Kelly, 10 at the time, had to be a mediator between her father and her mother, brought ever closer to knifing each other.

I cite this part of the book simply to show that Carlin isn’t selective in his recollection of his life. Which for some parts makes this a somewhat dark memoir. Nevertheless, don’t let this put you off, there are many more moments in this book that are very heartwarming and memorable. For instance, Carlin brilliantly describes being arrested along with one of his black friends in segregated 1950s Louisiana (for the crime of being driven around by a man whose skin wasn’t white) and goes on to describe how they smoked pot together during their night in jail.

Carlin’s recollections of the blackouts in New York City during World War II and of his military service at Barksdale Air Force Base during the 1950s period of the Cold War epoch are rather amusing. His chapter about his military service in particular is a delight to read. Especially his reasoning about joining the Air Force. That is to say, he’d much rather drop bombs on brown and yellow people from high altitude, then fly home to take a shower and go out dancing, than the alternative of doing his service in the army — which would consist of fighting in a jungle for days at a time whilst shitting in a helmet.

His memories of the 1960s, his first wife Brenda, Lenny Bruce, and his famous “7 Dirty Words” routine (there is a whole chapter dedicated to words, one of Carlin’s ever-great sources of interest, speculation, and amusement) are also very interesting and revealing, as well as dramatic and in some instances tragic.

Fans of Carlin’s HBO specials will find his evaluation of each of them to be of particular interest. Especially since in each case he cites the most memorable jokes and quips and goes into considerable detail about the time and context as well as how he came up with his respective pieces of material and how he gradually evolved them over time.

Following Brenda’s death from liver cancer, Carlin remarried and in the latter years of his life grew more reflective and reminiscent. And in a wonderful finish-up he, in a sense, goes back to his boyhood where he is reunited with his former self. Once again the initial sources of his inspirations that built up his character and career were everywhere, including his mother, who would come home from work in wartime Manhattan and was able to tell a story whilst simultaneously playing six characters.

It’s rather fitting that George concludes his life’s story with that note. It is a pity that someone of his comedic calibre has passed away. Even though he was aging he still produced consistently entertaining routines. Comedian Bill Maher in his tribute to him on Larry King, for instance, noted that George in some senses got more entertaining and took less prisoners the older he got. His attitude was essentially “I’m old now, what are ya gonna do to me?”

Last Words is an excellent memoir, and a treat for any major Carlin fan who’s seen all of the material he has built up over the years and has followed his stuff through various stages of his career. However, for someone relatively new to his work, I’d recommend you avoid reading Last Words until you’ve watched and/or listened most of Carlin’s routines (especially his HBO specials), as being familiar with most of his work puts it all into context with regards to what stage of his life he was in, and makes this sortabiography all the more entertaining, interesting and insightful.

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About Paul Iddon