In the realm of stand-up comedy, there is nothing more objectionable than one comic swiping the material of another. It is an industry taboo, which could result in a drink in the face or a prop in the groin.
But kids get to steal for free. I was one of them. And the man I stole from most often was George Carlin.
While other youngsters were occupied with math homework or flipping baseball cards, I was memorizing bits from my favorite comedians and performing them for friends. It was like a traveling nightclub, without alcohol and hecklers. I would pilfer from such notables as Cheech & Chong, Bill Cosby, Robin Williams, Bill Dana, Redd Foxx, Steve Martin, Nipsey Russell and others. I never got paid, but I never got booed, either.
While all of the material I chose usually got laughs, the Carlin stuff was gold. There was just something about where his mind went that brought about instant glee. He was part observational guru and part social critic, with a good deal of dopey maniac thrown in.
Did you ever notice that the thing you hold onto on the escalator moves just a little bit faster than the steps? He did. I used that. It killed.
Are you familiar with the hippy dippy weatherman’s forecast for tonight? Dark.
George’s comedy was accessible and universal. And there was a lot of it. He had been working the clubs, radio and television, and making recordings for more than 50 years before he passed away Sunday of heart failure. He had an archive of hilarity that was vast and rich, and any self-respecting adolescent or teenager who didn’t steal from him was just looking to be made fun of.
“Our thrust is to prick holes in the stiff front erected by the smut dealers. We must keep mounting an offensive to penetrate any crack in his defenses. Let’s get on him. Let’s ram through a stiff bail law so it will be hard for him to get it up. It’ll be hard on us, but we can’t lick it by being soft!”
Believe it or not, I still use that one today.
Seven words you can't say on a family Web site
The one routine that I didn’t hijack from George was the one he is probably most famous for, “The Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television.” Unfortunately, all seven can’t be said on a family Web site, either, so I’ll let the YouTube explorers and the Google-meisters look for it directly, or more accurately, the ones who don’t already know it by heart.
That routine set him apart because it was the Lenny Bruce chapter of his life. While Bruce was crusading for his right to say anything he wanted in public and became increasingly bitter as the authorities made his life miserable, Carlin was observing and was even present as an audience member and taken away with Bruce during one arrest.
That was the seasoning his comedy needed to make him the George Carlin we all knew and loved. Before that he had meandered around on TV and in clubs as the goofy nut. Yet quickly his comedy would also take on social relevance.
The Supreme Court ruled, 5-4, that the FCC could indeed regulate such material on the airwaves. No matter. It was a victory for George in a way because it brought focus to his career and said to the world, “Hey, this guy’s a riot!”
He didn’t absolutely need that, of course. You could just look at him and realize that. He had one of those faces that, when contorted slightly, put you in stitches. He’d raise an eyebrow and you’d chuckle. He’d bug his eyes out in mock surprise and you’d guffaw.
And I would do the same. The same gestures. The same expressions. The same irreverence. I never became a stand-up comedian – one UCLA Extension class with veteran Stanley Myron Handelman (who passed away last August) impressed upon me that it isn’t so easy – but I entertained a lot of schoolmates, and later even some adults.
I do know that there were others like me out there who did go on to have incredible careers in comedy or in a field in which comedy was essential, and George Carlin was the chicken stock from which their silly soup was made. In fact, I would go so far as to say that just about any successful standup who grew up from the 1960s onward had to be impacted in some way by George’s work, either by comedic osmosis or direct heisting of gags.
Bill Cosby was hugely influential as well, but he never courted controversy. He was as bright and as clever as George. He just wasn’t as crazy.
Something tells me that the wild man inside George, the one who indulged in backstage excess as a younger performer, was responsible for his passing too soon. He was only 71. George Burns made it to 100 before he went, and he was cracking lines to the very end.
I wish George could have hung around longer. There are many more customs to be skewered, many more prominent citizens to be lampooned.
There was a freak accident on the highway. Six freaks in a van hit two freaks in a Volkswagen.
Who am I going to steal from now?
When he's not stealing George Carlin's best bits, Michael Ventre is a freelancer writer in Los Angeles.