“Raise a toast to St. Joe Strummer / I think he might’ve been our only decent teacher” – “Constructive Summer” by the Hold Steady.
That’s a great line from the Hold Steady wordsmith Craig Finn, but the greatest instructor in the world of entertainment is George Carlin. The comedy icon, who is celebrated and examined throughout Judd Apatow and Michael Bonfiglio’s exceptional documentary, “George Carlin’s American Dream,” which debuted Friday on HBO, was the greatest philosopher I’ve had the pleasure to meet.
I interviewed Carlin on a dozen occasions, and each 90-minute conversation was a crash course on life. The material was so stimulating that after Apatow read a feature I wrote in The Spokesman-Review about Carlin and the pandemic, the lionized filmmaker asked if I could forward some of the audio from my interviews with the greatest comic of all time for his documentary.
The unparalleled philosopher had such a keen eye as an observer. Interviews with the brilliant social engineer, however, allowed me to open a door to something different from what the New York native delivered onstage. Carlin would reveal aspects of his life and offer his philosophy.
My children have been privy to my interviews with Carlin, and, believe it or not, his views are solid parenting tools. For example, children often put too much pressure on themselves and battle unnecessary anxiety. Carlin’s advice was to relax and not take the world too seriously.
“The whole world is a freak show,” Carlin said. “When you’re born, you get a ticket to the freak show. It’s a circus, a cavalcade of entertainment. You should have fun with it.”
My children have taken that to heart since my message, in part thanks to Carlin, has been to not overanalyze situations, take a breather and enjoy the moment. If you stumble, get up and dust yourself off and try again.
But that’s not how all children are wired. When my son Milo, 16, was in the fifth grade, he told me that a friend broke down and cried after receiving a B on an English test. “Calm down, it’s a marathon, not a sprint,” Milo said.
Carlin would have been proud of such advice. Milo and his brother Eddie, 20, know that in sports, you need to relax, particularly when playing baseball. You can’t be tense at the plate. Last summer, Eddie and I watched Milo battle a fireballing pitcher with a good curve. After fouling off a tough pitch on a 3-2 count, Milo stepped out of the box, looked at us and gave us a thumbs up and a wink and a smile before smoking a double into right-center.
There are two philosophers who impact Milo as a ballplayer. One is Pete Rose, who Milo met after I interviewed baseball’s hit king eight years ago. Milo peppered Rose with myriad baseball questions and closed his one-on-one with Charlie Hustle with a request. “Pete, give me something to take home.”
“Be aggressive, very aggressive, never be satisfied,” Rose told Milo.
Milo never met Carlin, but he was impacted by a snippet of one of my interviews with the sharpest mind in comedy history.
“The reality is that I don’t give a crap,” Carlin said. “I’m way out past the orbit of Pluto in my mind. It’s a distant event, a drop in time. You know, none of this matters at all.”
Life is significant. Carlin said so since he revealed how happy he was to live since he was nearly aborted. Carlin was planning a one-man Broadway show, “New York City Boy,” which was about how his mother nearly terminated his life.
“She (his mother) was sitting in the abortion office with my father, who was reading the sports section, according to her. Her own mother had died six months previously. While she was sitting in there waiting to get this open and scrape procedure, she looked at a painting on the wall and she thought she saw her mother in it. She took this as a sign not to have the abortion. I was 50 feet from the drainpipe. That’s the opening of my Broadway show. ‘I thought I would never get here.’ That would be the cherry on top of the sundae.”
Carlin never had the chance to write the show, but he valued life, and his message was to dial it down. Carlin also noted how short life is, and it’s crazy to not focus on your passion.
That impacted Eddie, who recently changed his focus from business to theater, which is a jolt to most parents. I’ve always told my children not to follow in my footsteps in journalism. “Try something more secure, like theater.” Now Eddie is taking me up on it. Eddie recently shocked me by taking it a step further. “I want to try stand-up,” Eddie said.
The inspiration is Carlin. “He did things his way,” Eddie said. “He didn’t care about the audience’s reaction. He was just himself up there, and I don’t think a lot of comedians do that. I read that Louis C.K. changed his whole act after examining how Carlin performed. I have plenty to draw from as a stand-up mostly because of you and the experiences we’ve had.”
Great, so Eddie is going to wax about our experiences from the stage? “You do it with Dad Daze, so what’s the difference?” Eddie said. Touche!
Carlin apparently wasn’t father of the year. It must have been harrowing for his daughter Kelly living with a father who had his share of coked-up episodes, which are chronicled in “George Carlin’s American Dream.” But Carlin’s wisdom has resonated with my children, and I couldn’t be happier. Carlin was a rebel who looked like the average guy. Carlin, who had no close friends in Hollywood, lived on his own terms.
Carlin revealed to me that he told writer-director Kevin Smith, who crafted dialogue in Carlin’s voice for his films, that he would go the extra yard in his productions. “I told Kevin after ‘Dogma’ was completed that if he ever needed a guy to strangle six children in a film, I’m your man.”
Carlin wasn’t the warm and cuddly type with kids, but his take on life would make for a heck of a college class. But that would probably be the case for most who are the greatest at a particular art form.
Apparently, Carlin is an extension of my father, who had something in common with the comic genius. Toward the end of my dad’s life, he didn’t socialize much and had a small circle of friends, which was the same for Carlin during his last decade on Earth.
“I never had showbiz relationships,” Carlin said. “I live inside my head. Me and Sally (his second wife) are all we need. You know what’s nice? I love to say we don’t go over to anybody’s house, and we don’t have anybody over here.”
When I told Carlin my father was the same way, he laughed. “Tell your dad he’s a smart man,” Carlin said. “And he saves a lot of money on greeting cards.”
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