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Carlin was the best of a kind

Trailblazers often flame out, but Carlin just kept burning through the decades.

June 24, 2008|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

George Carlin set a record that no one is likely to break: 14 HBO stand-up comedy specials, each at least an hour in length, and most performed live. Few comedians do that many, or would even try to -- he was HBO's in-house comedy sage, and the specials redefined both the pay-cable network and American comedy.

"To do 14, nobody did it," said comedian Lewis Black, the Comedy Central star whose angry-white-man act has drawn frequent comparisons to Carlin's onstage outrage.

Black noted Carlin's important trajectory in the pantheon of stand-up: As he put it, "there's Lenny Bruce, who basically created a road to the kind of comedy I do, the darker comedy . . . [and] it was Carlin and [Richard] Pryor who turned it into a highway."

But Carlin, for a major comedy star, also took a road less traveled. For his main link to a mass audience (beyond bestselling books) remained those pay-cable specials, even as they became less "special" as an entry point for comedy. Putting one together involves months of preparation, mental and physical (the comedian Louis C.K., for instance, works out with a boxing trainer when preparing a special).

One of the few who comes close to Carlin's record is Robert Klein, who has done eight specials, including the very first one, in 1975. Founded in 1972, HBO was mostly an acquisitions channel then, showing movies and making baby steps into original programming.

"He [Carlin] and Robert Klein, defined . . . a lot of what HBO is," said Nancy Geller, the network's longtime executive in charge of comedy specials. "He so much represented freedom of speech and being able to say things."

Klein happened to be in Norfolk, Neb., last weekend, the hometown of Johnny Carson, where he and Dick Cavett served as guest judges at something called the Great American Comedy Festival. Life on the road: Leaving Norfolk involved a two-hour limo ride to Omaha, followed by a 5 1/2 -hour delay getting back to New York due to thunderstorms; nine hours later, finally back home, Klein went to sleep.

He awoke to discover Carlin was dead.

"He transcended the generations; that was the amazing thing," Klein said Monday. "He was the universal American comedian. A counterculture Bob Hope, but not quite counterculture."

Klein recalled standing with Carlin before the grave site of Jerry Seinfeld's material -- an opening bit Seinfeld did in his 1998 HBO special "I'm Telling You for the Last Time." The idea was that Seinfeld, coming off his monumental sitcom success, was preparing to do the greatest hits of his 1980s stand-up act one more time. Then he would start afresh.

"I said to him, '. . . crippled children? You really feel that way?' " Klein recalled of his banter with Carlin at the grave site of Seinfeld's material. ". . . It's clear in his work that there was a darkness. It wasn't from disappointment in his career, which was unprecedented. He was enormously prolific, but he was a real show business guy. An autodidact to be sure, this guy knew a lot of stuff. He just never stopped thinking of things."

Just last week, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts had announced Carlin would be honored with the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, the 11th such artist to be given that honor. Klein figured Carlin would have liked that.

Though few, it seems, knew him that well. "I never had a word about what he was going to wear. Ever," said Glenn Schwartz, his publicist of eight years, during the 1980s and '90s. "He always wore the same thing. A blue turtleneck and black pants. And I'm pretty sure he had seven outfits of the same thing."

Klein, like others, noted that the 1997 death of Carlin's wife, Brenda, had hit him hard. Maybe that's why the titles of his HBO specials got darker--"You Are All Diseased" (No. 11) and "Life Is Worth Losing" (No. 13).

"He was a gatherer," said Bill Maher (who's also done eight HBO specials). "So many of his bits were almost like lists. He would just list 18 perfect examples of words that didn't make sense. Or phrases that were contradictory. . . . He was meticulous that way. He was a real craftsman. It was almost like he was making a gondolier or a ship inside of a bottle."

Maher also credits Carlin with braving the stage to argue that religion is dumb, a favorite Maher topic on his HBO series "Real Time With Bill Maher," and the subject of his forthcoming movie, "Religulous."

"He's the guy who made me stand up and say, 'Wow, you can actually stand up and talk about this in the United States of America. You can actually say religion is dumb.' "

A 2005 Playboy interview with Carlin, conducted in Las Vegas when Carlin was preparing "Life Is Worth Losing," offered a window into the constantly musing and roiling and railing inner life of Carlin. He was, by then, 68 -- with three heart attacks to his credit and a stay at Promises, the fancy celebrity detox center in Malibu.

"Not one idea escapes him," noted journalist David Hochman. "He keeps small Post-its everywhere, and as soon as something -- a joke, a word, an absurdity -- comes to him, he'll jot it down and then enter it into one of his four Apple computers. He even has an iPod dedicated exclusively to his recorded thoughts."

At the time, his third book, "When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?" was on the New York Times bestseller list. "Life Is Worth Losing" was in repertory, ahead of going live on HBO.

"Those little books, I [told him] I was reading 'Braindroppings,' " Klein noted. "I said, 'It has no beginning, middle or end.' He said, 'Yeah, it's for [the toilet].' "

--

paul.brownfield@latimes.com

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