Book Review: “Last Words” by George Carlin, with Tony Hendra

I just finished Last Words, legendary comedian George Carlin’s self-described “sortabiography”.  For my fellow comic historians out there, I highly recommend this book.  If you think you know George Carlin, you don’t.

Carlin’s comedy vacillated between the generally observational and the pointedly topical, yet it never strayed into the personal.  He was not a “my crazy wife and kids” comic.  He might do slice-of-life bits, but his were usually jagged, inappropriate, and occasionally morbid pieces of that pie.  To see how much of Last Words is autobiographical, and how extraordinarily detailed it is, was a bit of a shock.  This is Carlin dropping the final veneer, lowering the last barrier between performer and audience.

He reveals himself to be a greatly conflicted person.  He admits to the tremendous physical and emotional damage his years of substance abuse had on himself and his family, yet he scoffs at rehab and recovery methodology.  He prides himself on having remained, first and foremost, a stand-up comic, yet he still expresses regret that his forays into film and series television could not have yielded more success.  He gleefully catalogs how the life in and culture of our country has regressed, and while he never claims that the past was a pristine and faultless era, he displays a tremendous nostalgia for the misspent days of his youth in wartime Manhattan.  Most interesting to me was that for someone who spent his life and career rebelling against societal, professional, and artistic expectation, his most passionate goal in his last years was to create a show–either a new set of material for himself, or a narrative based on his experiences–for the Broadway stage.  Despite rewriting the book on American stand-up, the Great White Way was still to George Carlin the sign of true legitimacy.

George, around the time of his final HBO special, "It's Bad For Ya"

Carlin died before Last Words could be completed.  That’s unfortunate, because given that the book already clocks in at nearly 300 pages, it’s obvious that Carlin had much more to tell.  This would have been a doorstop of a book had he stayed in good health.  What he did leave behind is artfully arranged and edited by his friend and collaborator, Tony Hendra.

Last Words includes excerpts of Carlin’s most famous acts, and he frames the genesis of these creations within his life story.  But if you’re looking for classic Carlin material, his three other books are more appropriate anthologies.  Last Words is about George Carlin’s life, his creative process, and his constant desire to remain at the top of his game.  It’s very well-written, totally engrossing, and a must for his fans.

Embedded below is Carlin’s seminal piece, “Seven Words”.  Don’t play this at work.

~ T

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