Tuesday, June 24, 2008 | 2 a.m.
I recall seeing George Carlin for the first time in the early ’60s on “The Tonight Show” when he was still wearing suits with pegged pants and narrow lapels and thin ties and trying to be a stand-up comedian who told jokes in the vein of Jonathan Winters that made everyone laugh.
Carlin was cleanshaven, his hair closely cropped, a style popular with the Ivy League crowd. He seemed nervous on camera, ill at ease in front of a national audience.
The last time I saw him was June 7 at the Orleans — scruffy, bearded, thinning gray hair pulled back tightly, clad in sneakers, black slacks and black pullover sweater, his anti-establishment persona fully developed after 50 years in the business.
Carlin’s final public performance was on the same stage June 15. One week later he died of apparent heart failure at St. John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif.
He was popular to the end. A spokesman for the Orleans says attendance for his shows there averaged 700 a night, which is almost a full house. He was scheduled to return in August.
Last year, before debuting at the off-Strip resort, Carlin voiced complaints about Las Vegas.
“Really, it’s not a good city for me. It takes a lot out of you spiritually,” he said.
It’s ironic that his career would end in Vegas, where it began in something like its present form in 1969, when he was fired from the Frontier for using the word “ass” in his performance — after the firing he divorced his straight-laced style.
He performed in various Vegas venues over the years, including the MGM Grand. He said that deal ended because the executives thought his humor had become too dark, which amused him.
Last year he was looking forward to his new deal with the Orleans.
“I think I can handle that. I hope it’s a good room for a comedian. I understand from some people it might be,” Carlin said. “Some comedians think it’s a good room to play in. If that’s true, I’m happy. That’s all I need is my little audience and I’m a happy guy.”
He once told me his audiences were full of “oddballs and misfits.”
Carlin often complained that Las Vegas audiences, in general, were not kind to him. Not enough oddballs and misfits. They didn’t get his humor.
“They aren’t my fans,” he said.
According to Carlin, many people who went to his shows when they were on the Strip were simply curious and had no idea what kind of comedy he performed.
After he debuted at the Orleans he said he was generally satisfied because those who came to his show were true fans, not simply walk-ins.
I have seen his act and interviewed him several times over the past five or six years. When I last saw him the 71-year-old comedian bounced out onstage, still full of nervous energy, but he was only a few minutes into his performance when he paused to take a pill and wash it down with a long drink from a bottle of water.
“Excuse me,” he said. “I have a really dry throat.”
It was surprising. There was no explanation about the pill. His spokesman says he isn’t sure what it was or whether it was medication related to Carlin’s long-standing heart condition.
Dennis Blair was Carlin’s opening act for 20 years, beginning in 1988. He thinks whatever the comedian took that night had something to do with his heart.
“I’m sure it was,” he said.
Blair was not surprised by Carlin’s death.
“It was pretty devastating,” he said. “But it was not a huge shock. He was suffering a lot.”
Carlin had survived two heart attacks and open-heart surgery.
Blair and Carlin were friends, but not in the traditional sense.
“He was always kind of a private guy, didn’t go partying,” Blair said. “George didn’t hang out a lot.”
The two would travel together by car or plane. They would talk backstage.
“We were buddies, I’d say, for the first 15 or 16 years, but then he began to change because of his heart problems,” Blair said. “He became more reclusive, kept more to himself. Even this last weekend, at the Orleans, he didn’t talk as much.”
It was a sharp contrast to their heyday in the ’80s and ’90s. “George was a lot of fun, upbeat and happy,” Blair said.
The two comedians are sharp contrasts — Blair the more typical stand-up who loosens up the audience with his song parodies and jokes.
Carlin was an anti-comedian.
I was the last newspaper writer to interview Carlin, according to his spokesman. The interview took place June 6 during a run of shows at the Orleans. Carlin sounded strong and gave no indication of being sick. He was optimistic about the future, looking forward to more shows here and to continuing to hone his craft into his 80s, like Pablo Casals or Pablo Picasso.
Then he let slip that he’d be getting the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor in November, which the Kennedy Center hadn’t announced at the time.
“They had to approach me first to see if I would show up. I said I probably would,” Carlin said of the career honor. “Those things mean something as time goes on.”
Carlin was a stickler for accuracy, insisting that interviews be taped.
During the interview he explained, almost with disdain in his voice, that he didn’t do the kind of humor most stand-ups try to do — the kind he did early in his career, which started with radio announcing, graduated to a comedy act with fellow announcer Jack Burns, segued into the Hippie Dippy Weatherman phase and finally into the sarcastic, counterculture comedy that he is universally either loved or hated for.
“I’ve always done set pieces,” he said. “Never did joke jokes, one- and two-line jokes and change the subject every few seconds. I always did topics. Always did ‘and now this and then this and now this and then this.’ ”
Neither did he do topical humor.
“It’s perishable, has a ‘sell by’ date on it,” he said, “and I don’t like doing things that I’m going to have to throw away a month later or a week later or the next day. I don’t like being expected to have something to say about something that happened that afternoon ... So I work in the long form. I don’t work jokes. The jokes I do are built into the structure of the essays.”
Fans unfamiliar with his work did not fully appreciate his “essays.”
If they were looking for a barrage of jokes, a la Henny Youngman or Roger Dangerfield, they went away disappointed.
Carlin, as revealed through his interviews, was an introspective man who probed deeper meanings in life.
“No one could see things the way he did,” Blair said. “He could be intellectual and he could be goofy.
“Offstage he was always introspective and thoughtful. He was an incredibly intelligent guy who could get down and dirty.”
Carlin could tell jokes, but they weren’t the typical “Three Irishman passed a bar ...” type.
He often played with semantics. “When you step on the brakes your life is in your foot’s hands” or “Don’t sweat the petty things and don’t pet the sweaty things” or “If a pig loses its voice, is it disgruntled?”
His routines were full of social observations, of commentaries on human failings.
Carlin, of course, is best-known for his routine “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” It rocketed him to stardom in the early ’70s.
He was often mistakenly described as an angry comic. He wasn’t, friends say. The anger he expressed onstage was performance art.
What he was was an artist in the use of words, and he never tired of the art.
“I do this because I love it,” he said. “I’ll probably do it for a long, long time.”
He didn’t mind talking about death. The subject was one of many in his final performance.
Carlin said: “People use a lot of euphemisms about death: ‘I lost my father.’ Ah, he’ll turn up. People think when someone dies they are up there looking down on them. First, there is no up there to smile down from. And if there is, I think they may have better things to do in Paradise than to smile down on live people.”
Which poses the question: Is Carlin smiling at us from somewhere?
The world has lost not only a comedian but a philosopher and a social conscience.
And the oddballs and misfits have lost a champion.