Tuesday, September 20, 2016

"I Kinda Like It When a Lotta People Die." Some of the Best and Worst of George Carlin

“No one I ever met in the business of being funny, and I’ve met a few, was more the antithesis of Happy the Carefree Clown than George; no one understood better that comedy at its finest is a dark and beautiful art.” Tony Hendra, from “Introduction”, Carlin, George, with Tony Hendra. Last Words. New York: Free Press, 2009.

“Sometimes, in comedy, you have to generalize.” George Carlin, “Free-Floating Hostility”: w) “Whining Baby Boomers”, from Back in Town (Atlantic, 2006)

“I believe you can joke about anything. It all depends on how you construct the joke, what the exaggeration is .… because every joke needs one exaggeration. Every joke needs one thing to be way out of proportion.” George Carlin, “Rape Can Be Funny”, from Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics (Eardrum Records, 1990)

“Pushing the envelope for Carlin eventually meant pushing it in front of a truck. … George’s philosophy devolved (actually logically evolved) along an inexorable, philosophically shitty direction.”
Jason Roth, “The Day the Laughter Died: George Carlin Kicks the Motherfucking Bucket”, savethehumans.com (paraphrased from memory)

In the interest of full disclosure and objectivity, George Carlin once went out of his way, at a crowded book signing in New York, to send me an unsolicited, rare, autographed compact disc. He did this shortly after I asked him if he minded if I asked him a question—while he was signing the book that may have been the one in which he criticized people who asked that question. (His cheerful, enthusiastic response was, “Sure!”) For many reasons, I will forever be grateful to him for that, for more reasons than a typical individual likely would. While it precludes me from being “objective” (impersonal) about him and his work, I do not think it precludes me from being actually objective (realistic and rational) about him and it. This personal experience I had with him and his magnanimity is certainly relevant to an objective individual’s context in grappling with his new, posthumous album’s disturbing and troubling content. (As of publication, two photographs of George at that signing are on his Wikipedia page.)

George Carlin spent months (at least) refining his material. Typically, he would start gradually integrating new material into his shows not long after his latest live album recording session/HBO special, on tour and in residencies in Las Vegas and Atlantic City, reading the very new material from a script at first. After he had memorized a good portion of it, he would leave notes on index cards onstage, referring to them when necessary and spending more time practicing timing, tone, and delivery of the memorized words. Eventually, the show was entirely (or almost entirely) new and unreleased, no cards were necessary any longer, and he was ready for his next live HBO broadcast (which would be released as his next album a few weeks or months later). The title of the show was there almost from the start of the process.

On Mother’s Day, 1997, George’s longtime wife (and HBO special co-producer) Brenda died with her husband and daughter by her side. A bereaved George took a year off.

Whether or not that cataclysmic event had anything to do with it, George performed You Are All Diseased, his most cynical, misanthropic, and nihilistic show yet, on February 6, 1999 at the Beacon Theater in New York.

On June 23, 2001, presumably at the start of a summer Las Vegas residency that year, George read a piece for the first time. He told the audience (presumably at MGM Grand, though liner and promotional information is vague and confusing) that he was reading it for the first time and that it shared a title with his then-forthcoming HBO show: “I Kinda Like It When a Lot of People Die”. The piece sardonically and malevolently celebrated the extinction of the human species; it would be the closing section of the special. The show was scheduled for November 2001 at the Beacon Theater. It was arguably his most nihilistic and misanthropic material yet. Someone recorded it; it is not clear whom. One review asserted that the recording (a bonus track on his new album) is from a bootleg audience recording.

On or around Friday, September 7, HBO sent George and his team advertisements and poster artwork for the forthcoming show. On Sunday, September 9, George recorded his show at the MGM Grand that evening. There was no longer a script. “I Kinda Like It When a Lot of People Die” had been revised somewhat and was now called “Uncle Dave”. [Those familiar with its final version, “Coast-to-Coast Emergency” from Life is Worth Losing (Atlantic, 2006) will have some idea why.] It was less waggish and more sardonic than its original incarnation (though more waggish and not as sardonic as “Coast-to-Coast Emergency” would be). The title of the forthcoming show had not changed. George played exactly the same set on Monday, September 10, and taped it as well. The set opened with a withering piece called “Rats and Squealers”, which ridiculed and lambasted police to an extent that would cause all but the most virulent police critic to bristle; “The Fecal Differential”, which mentioned Osama bin Laden by name and jokingly exonerated him and his ilk from causing airline disasters; and the uproarious “The First Enema”, which I saw George perform while referring to his index cards live in Atlantic City several months after You Are All Diseased. George was proud of the material and looked forward to performing all of it for HBO’s cameras in New York in November.

The following morning, plans changed. Some of them, anyway.

Before the dust settled, HBO and George agreed that the special would go on as planned with a different title. George scrapped “Rats and Squealers” and “The First Enema” as well as other bits titled “Cocaine” and “Tired of Songs”. He reworked part of “The Fecal Differential” into the beginning of the new show to brilliant, inoffensive effect in a post-9/11 context. He salvaged part of one line from “Uncle Dave” and developed it into a funny piece called “Guys Named Todd”. He shelved the rest of “Uncle Dave” and the original title of the show for the time being. He wanted to revive both of them at some point. He only revived one of them before his 2008 death.
George related his Complaints & Grievances on schedule on November 19. It was a memorable evening for all who watched it, in person or on television. George, onstage in his hometown, showed appropriate solidarity with his fellow man and fellow Americans that was exceptionally out of character in the final decade of his life. The closing piece was “Why We Don’t Need 10 Commandments”, a masterpiece of comedy and philosophy that is inestimably better than “Uncle Dave” (in any of its iterations). Atlantic, which distributed George’s Eardrum Records, released it on December 11. It is required listening for just about anyone over the age of twelve.

Last Friday, The George Carlin Estate released an album titled I Kinda Like It When a Lotta People Die. (the spelling is not entirely consistent with the spelling on the scrapped HBO artwork). It is the first “new” material from George since 2008. It is not as essential, but it is important.

The album opens with a recording George made at home in Boston in 1957. He is a twenty-year-old disk jockey. His voice’s tone (which changed remarkably over the decades until it calcified into a cranky curmudgeon’s croak around the time of Brenda’s death) is strikingly youthful, but his attitude is much older and wearier. Sounding not unlike a young Frank Zappa as well as the “Old Fuck” of his It’s Bad For Ya (Eardrum, 2008), he castigates not only police but firefighters as well. (In 1957.) “You can never expect a fair shake from anyone who is involved in government. … No one involved … has ever been fair and righteous.” George, reminding us of a better time, continues, “In America, people answer to each other.” The track concludes with an extended soliloquy on individualism and its essentials. George perspicaciously concludes that individuals not only think for themselves but act on those thoughts. In an instance of mind-body integration that would become increasingly rare in the culture, George says, “You must plan and live up to those plans.” He adds that he considers himself one of the rare individuals left. (In 1957.) He sounds like a young Zappa not only in tone but in timbre and content.

With a barely perceptible edit, the album continues with “Rats and Squealers” from September 9 and/or 10, 2001 and the rest of the remaindered and recast material from those two nights.

It is a rare and shocking experience to listen to I Kinda Like It When a Lotta People Die. for the first time, even for one intimately familiar with George’s work and the worst depredations and degradations of the Endarkenment. It is a rare and shocking experience to listen to “Rats and Squealers” for the first time, even for one intimately familiar with the depredations and degradations of the worst twenty-first century U.S. police and prosecutorial misconduct. In a classic George objurgation, police are “lower than a snake’s ball bag”. What he says about prosecutors is even more effective and vividly contemptuous. I won’t ruin the effect here. And he criticizes David Kaczynski for turning in his brother, the Unabomber, “one of my heroes”. “You don’t do that to family.”

It is difficult to determine just how serious George was at certain moments. His daughter Kelly (who co-produced this album) once told an audience, “It’s humor; it’s not necessarily meant to be taken literally.” Kelly presumably would not release material in which her father joked about his loved ones being killed if he really meant it. And I don’t believe the man who went out of his way to send me a free, rare, autographed CD (unsolicited) was as misanthropic and nihilistic as he comes across in his work. However, certain topics are never funny in any circumstances. Certain topics are inappropriate subjects for humor, in any context. George pushed the envelope with “Rape Can Be Funny” on Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics in 1990. By 2001, he was pushing it in front of a truck.
At the Beacon Theater on November 5, 2005, with Life Is Worth Losing and its extended, quasi-humorous bits about suicide, autoerotic asphyxia, and “Coast-to-Coast Emergency” (an even bleaker and more remorseless “Uncle Dave”), he pushed it in front of a nuclear warhead.

I Kinda Like It When a Lotta People Die. is better and funnier than Life is Worth Losing (which Atlantic released on CD in January 2006). Even the material it sort of shares is gentler and more affable. Jason Roth, in his part encomium, part autopsy of George quoted above, noted that George’s work devolved, or logically evolved, in a philosophically shitty (his word) direction. From 2001 to 2005, George, his philosophy, and his delivery had continued to devolve, from avuncular fellow with a taste for the morbid and bizarre to morose misanthrope who was morbid and bizarre. Even the subtle and not-so-subtle differences among “I Kinda Like It When a Lotta People Die, 6-23-2001” (a bonus track on the new album), “Uncle Dave”, and “Coast-to-Coast Emergency” betray the transformation. Listen carefully. George, thankfully, may have known he went too far. Immediately after Life is Worth Losing, he uncharacteristically scrapped it all and came up with a full show of new material for the road, which turned out to be his last: It’s Bad for Ya. He told audiences that the last show was too saturnine, even for him. He was more the avuncular fellow than the morose misanthrope, and the new show was a much better swan song than Life is Worth Losing would have been. He even stammered significantly less than he did in 2005. I was privileged to see the show live twice in New Jersey, before and after the March 1, 2008 live broadcast from Santa Rosa, California. Eardrum released it about a month after his June 2008 death.

In between “Rats and Squealers” and “Uncle Dave” is classic Carlin that is no more inappropriate than anything else he did. There’s no point in spoiling it here. 

Like the best mainstream cultural figures of modern times (with the exception of Ayn Rand), George Carlin was a contradictory mixture of good and bad who reminded us that there were plenty of legitimate complaints and grievances in the Endarkenment. His philosophy was an inconsistent farrago, congruent with his times in its nihilism and misanthrophy—but more than tinctured with reason and good nature. [An example: he shared the man-hatred of consistent, extreme environmentalists while rejecting their environmentalism. Cf. “The Planet is Fine” from Jammin’ in New York (Eardrum, 1992).] He didn’t understand that, in a culture of conventional cynicism, amorality, and apologia for man and Western civilization, the sine qua non of actual “edginess” and “pushing the envelope” would have been understanding and propounding a body of work of unapologetic pro-Western sacred secularism and liberty that realized that most human beings (even now) are basically good, potentially noble, and valuable. His politics was, to say the least, inconsistently anti-authoritarian. He was most wrong about the profession he mastered: rape is not funny; suicide is not funny; and the harrowing, excruciating extinction of the human race is anything but funny. 

       Even when George was questionable, he was often trenchant and topical in crucial ways. Although as funny as anything else in his career, “Rats and Squealers” is a predictable mixed bag philosophically. He recalls rooting for the crooks when he watched movies as a child. He even praises Bill Clinton. However, George was entirely correct that “people have no principles any more. We’re living in a nation of stool pigeons.” And whether or not most police are “lower than a snake’s ball bag”, and whether or not most prosecutors are worse, it is true that many of both are evil. They all have a lot to answer for in professions that have arguably become systemically corrupt. Even the baleful trilogy of “I Kinda Like It When a Lotta People Die, 6-23-2001”, “Uncle Dave”, and “Coast-to-Coast Emergency” contains writing and performing that has a rare perspicuous, pugilistic quality and effect that is downright stunning, regardless of the content. And, in this obscurantist, vapid, vacuous, prosaic culture of anti-intellectualism, George’s learned, rigorous, sapient, profound intellectual comedy always commanded a certain respect.

The album is seamlessly produced from the flawed, archival source material; Logan Hefted deserves special praise. It contains bonus tracks that are insightful, instructive, and essential. George’s longtime manager Jerry Hamza and longtime producer/director Rocco Urbischi are interviewed. Hamza recounts the production history of I Kinda Like It When a Lot of People Die/Complaints and Grievances as well as his day with George on September 11, 2001, including a wild ride from Las Vegas to Los Angeles. He recounts George’s understanding of what Zappa called “contrast and relief”. “You can’t go out and keep an audience up all the time. It’s got to have a flow to it. It’s got to go up and down … and if you left them up all the time, you could never sustain it.” Urbischi recounted his career with George and his facility with titles. “The title was always there [from the beginning of the long creative process], and it never changed. This is the only time it changed.” (According to Wikipedia, Life is Worth Losing was originally titled I Kinda Like It When a Lot of People Die until Hurricane Katrina.) Urbischi contextualized Complaints & Grievances: “That show, to me, will always be special because of that event. … The audience was great. I think they were looking for some relief. I think they were grateful that he came. We were kind of in this fog, and I remember it not being a joyful experience, but I think it was a grateful experience. He’s from New York. It’s his hometown. Maybe people didn’t understand at the time, but it’s pretty historic that a major figure would have the balls to do a comedy special this close to a horrific event [and] make it funny, entertaining, and political. I think that that’s incredible, but that’s George!” And the birth of “Coast-to-Coast Emergency”, “I Kinda Like It When a Lotta People Die, 6-23-2001” is, if nothing else, fascinating.  The bonus tracks are available on a digital download card in the vinyl edition. The packaging includes relevant handwritten post-it notes by George and liner notes by Lewis Black.

Three of the four George Carlin albums released since 9/11 are closely connected and interconnected. Only one is essential to the general listener. All are essential to the Carlin aficionado and the aspiring or professional comedian, whether writer or performer. Together, they provide remarkable insight into the creative process of the Miles Davis of comedy, likely the greatest comedian the world will know for an eon or two. They are also shamelessly politically incorrect treasures of free speech in an increasingly politically correct, statist culture whose jejune inhabitants understand and value free speech less with every passing day.

I Kinda Like It When a Lotta People Die., warts and all, is much more of a treasure than anything else with that title could possibly be. It’s not for all ears and stomachs, but for those who can stand it and have an idea of how dark the Endarkenment is, it is more than a historical document.

George Carlin
I Kinda Like It When a Lotta People Die.
Eardrum Records LP, CD, and digital download
Produced by Jerold Hamza, Kelly Carlin, and Logan Heftel 
Recorded live at George’s Carlin’s home, Boston, MA, USA, 1957 and MGM Grand, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA, September 9 and 10, 2001 
Bonus tracks recorded live on June 23, 2001 and in the studio in 2016
(The bonus track are included on a digital download card in the gatefold vinyl packaging. Although the card implies that the entire album is part of the download, only the bonus tracks are part of it.)

Postscript: In 2009, I pitched Kelly Carlin-McCall a book idea for a tome documenting all of her father’s known live performances in detail. She rejected it at the time but added, “maybe someday”.

Post-postscript: That Eardrum Records label looks gorgeous on that long-playing record.

Update (09/25/16): Yesterday, the George Carlin Memorial Facebook page posted an update stating that the Estate's intention was for the entire album to be available on the digital download card and that any customer who E-mailed the pressing plant would receive a new download code. I am waiting to receive a reply. The poster (Kelly?) implied that some of the cards do have the full album.

Update (09/29/16): The pressing plant replied and reactivated my digital download code. I now have the entire album plus bonus tracks as a digital download (including a longer version of the Hamza interview than that on the previous download). If you purchased a vinyl copy and your download did not contain the full album, contact the plant at testpressing@urpressing.com.