How, when, and why I went nuts over George Carlin.
*NOTE; This is a reprint from my book ‘Standupworld ‘Essays on the greatest American art form.’
(Which coincidentally, you can get free by signing up for our newsletter.)
*Also, George Carlin won’t be easy for anyone to forget, ever. He’s too iconic. Yet, still, let’s make sure it never happens.
George Carlin changed my life.
His breakthrough album, Class Clown, came out when I was fourteen years old and was actually a practicing class clown. I listened to it over and over and over, then over again. Mt. Rushmore for me as a kid consisted of George, Woody Allen, Robert Klein, and then, Albert Brooks. Those four were true North to me in so many ways, but George with Class Clown and FM & AM, which basically dropped in the same year, pulled me into his orbit with a force that I’ve never been free of my entire life.
I tried to speak like George, deepening my fourteen year old voice to sound like his. I used to dress like George, trying so hard to look like him even though he was rail skinny and Irish in his late thirties and balding, while I was fourteen, chubby, and Jewish with a giant tuft of bright red hair. I was sure I was his doppelgänger.
My family would take car trips from Detroit to Florida and I would do bits from his albums word for word until they would beg me to stop.
“You ever notice there’s no blue food? How come there’s no blue food, man? Where’s all the blue food?”
The begging would eventually become top of the lungs screaming.
“Michael, stop! I mean it. I’ll pull this damn car over and take the belt off if I have to hear that blue food crap one more time!!”
“There’s no blue food, man, I mean what’s the deal??”
Breaks squeal. Tires Skid. Siblings scream. Horns honk. I laugh. (Was most likely high.) My dad leans back and takes a wild swing, hits my brother Gary by accident.
Anyway, back to George. Later, when I was in junior high and high school, George would come to town once a year and play Pine Knob Music theatre. I was there every year. I would drag my buddies who were not really comedy fans to go with me. In fact, I would sometimes even buy them tickets. I wanted them to come so badly, to see George and to love him as much as I did, but truthfully, I mostly wanted them to come to Pine Knob so that they could see the part of the show where George and I worked together as a comedy team.
I needed them to see the ‘bit’ that George and I did together every year. The one that ‘killed’ every time without fail. We had been doing it together for about three years at that point. Every year I would wait for a nice pause in his act when George was having a drink of water or something and I’d go down to the front of the stage and offer him a joint. A fat one.
I’d stand there like an adoring idiot and wait for him to see me until he’d politely decline the gift which would lead him perfectly into a routine about what to do when you move into a new city if you wanted to not get busted for marijuana…
“No man, thanks, but I’ll give you a good tip instead, so you don’t get busted with the shit, here’s what I do, when I first move into a town, I go over to the police station. Right away. I take a bag of pot with me. I say hello fellas, my name is George Carlin and I just moved into the area and I happen to have found this bag of weed. I thought I should bring it straight down here to you. First thing. Civic duty and all. That’s Carlin. With a C. Thanks. That way, if I’m ever driving around the streets and they pull me over and they find a bag of my grass in the glove box I just tell them, ‘Yeah, I found this dope and I’m on my way down to the station to turn it into you. Check my file. George Carlin. It’s in my M.O. Clearly stated.”
Then he’d nod, thank me, and I’d walk back up to my seat while he was getting a big applause, my chest swelling thinking that I somehow had something to do with it.
In eleventh grade my friend Scott Parry’s mother worked at the Sheraton Hotel in Troy, Michigan’s reservation department. She had big news for me. George Carlin was booked to stay there when he played Pine Knob that year. My friends and I all went to see George’s show again. His set that year was incredible. His stuff was mostly from his new album Toledo Window Box which was hilarious. Yet it was all about pot and getting high and shit. I went down to the stage, offered up the joint so ‘we’ could do ‘our ‘bit’ and he just politely declined. That was it. Didn’t do our hunk. It was too much like the rest of the show.
The walk back up to our seats was the longest, saddest journey I had ever taken at that point in my life. My legs almost gave out underneath me. It seemed to me the whole arena audience, all seven thousand of them, understood that I had just gotten fired by my comedy partner. I was out of the team. It was over.
My friends back at our row loved it. It was funnier to them than anything that George had said all night long. They were howling hysterically.
After the show I wanted to go over to the Sheraton to wait for George to come back and say hello and meet him. Introduce myself. I had been waiting all week. Prepping for it. My buddy Scott and the other’s had no interest. They left to go to The Wagon Wheel, a bar in Royal Oak we regularly went to. One of the few places our fake I.D. worked at. I went to the Sheraton and waited for George like a deranged stalker. Waited until 4 a.m. He didn’t show. I went home, then found out the next day that my buddies were all up the bar at the Wagon Wheel when in walks, you guessed it, George fucking Carlin! They hung with him for two hours. Got him to sign t-shirts and take Polaroids with them all clowning around. They bought him drinks and had an amazing time until he went off to a private airport near there and flew out in his own plane with his pilot. He never came back to the Sheraton.
They asked him to write me a note though, and he did. I lost it over the years. One of the many ‘deepest regrets’ I have. I remember what it said though because it was short and sweet and it was him, so it’s burned in my brain and I’ll never forget it.
‘Mike. Thanks for being a fan and a friend and for all of the joints. George Carlin.’
Some more years later, I was doing a comedy show in Detroit called The Detroit Comedy Jam. It was a thing I had put together every year with my brother Jack, and we had always wanted to shoot it as a special. That year we had my friends Howie Mandel and Dave Coulier and Paul Rodriguez and myself on the bill and we had it at the Royal Oak Music Theatre. We sold out two shows in one night. It was a big deal, we were all pretty much new comics yet there was a buzz to the show, and stand up was hot again. Howie was on an ensemble show called St. Elsewhere and I was a regular on Make me Laugh a syndicated comedy game show that played all across the country and Paul had an ABC sitcom called AKA Pablo.
George Carlin was playing the Meadow Brook Amphitheater two nights later. After the success of the Royal Oak shows Jack and I were feeling so puffed up with success that afterwards we went to the Meadow Brook’s stage door and I asked the nice bouncer guy there to let George know that Mike Binder from Show Business was around back to say hello. (I actually gave the guy that weekends Detroit Free Press article on the Detroit Comedy Jam to show George.) Well, to my surprise, we were taken back to meet him.
He was alone in his giant dressing room post show and was the warmest sweetest guy I could possibly ever have dreamt for him to be. Jack and I sat with him for at least an hour. He was beautiful. Calm and open and attentive and funny and precisely how you’d think/want/hope/pray George Carlin would be if you were a twenty two year old that had been stupid crazy about him since you were fourteen. We showed him all of our stuff and told him what our plans were to make a special of The Detroit Comedy Jam and asked him if he would help. He said he would. Just like that. He told us to leave all of the materials to give to his manager and producing partner, Jerry Hamza, and that he’d call me and tell me what he said.
When we left George’s dressing room, we went out to my car in the now empty parking lot of the amphitheater. I couldn’t talk for the longest time. I was overcome, gutted with emotion. So was Jack. We were floored with the level of sweetness and respect George had shown us. Over the many years to come I came to know that was just who he was, this guy. The real deal. Through and through.
That night sitting there in the pockets of blackness between the flood lights of the parking structure I couldn’t know that. It was my first experience. I decided then even more that I wanted to be like George. I wanted to be that authentic, that real. Sure enough over the next couple years George and Jerry helped us get our special ‘The Detroit Comedy Jam’ shot at Detroit’s Fisher Theatre and shown on HBO. His company Executive Produced it.
We were never great friends, George and I, but over time we had a few special talks and one night I came home from a trip and there was a long almost rambling phone message from him telling me he just watched The Contender, a film with Jeff Bridges and Joan Allen that my pal Rod Lurie made that I had an acting role in. He went on and on about it and my performance, which was so nice and really kind of silly. It was a nothing role, yet he was so supportive and was bringing up all these other things he’d been seeing me do. (Another thing I wish I’d saved.)
I remember standing over that answering machine, barely able to breathe, transported in time back to being fourteen years old in my bedroom in Detroit, just thinking about all the hours I spent listening to Class Clown, and Toledo Window Box, over and over and over. Then over again. I remember how great his every turn of a phrase was. How hard he worked on his pieces. How he crafted them like a cabinet maker or a fine jeweler. How every word had to land one after another, fall like a tumbler. George was so unique. His stuff so precise.
Even little odd throw aways he had were wonderful.
“How is it possible to have a civil war?”
“I went to a bookstore and asked the saleswoman, ‘Where’s the self-help section?’ She said if she told me, it would defeat the purpose.”
“If four out of five people suffer through diarrhea .. does that mean that the fifth one enjoys it?”
I think though my favorite quote of George’s was something he said that wasn’t a joke. Something he was completely serious about. Young comics today, in a tough time, need to keep this one in mind. It’s the secret sauce on the road to comedy greatness. It’s George’s gift to you, so I’ll end this part by reminding you of it. (It’s also really become the theme and bone marrow of this book.)
“I think it’s the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn, and to cross it deliberately.” George Carlin
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