When a celebrity dies, the varied newspaper obituaries rarely reveal anything that isn't common knowledge. However, in the case of the late George Carlin, even some of his most fervent fans were likely surprised to find out that he was once a member of an early sixties comedy team. Several discovered for the first time that he had been a gifted mimic, his abilities putting impressionists like Rich Little to shame (perhaps not a hard thing to do). The clean version of George Carlin has been immortalized on what is commonly and erroneously referred to as his "first album" Take Offs and Put Ons. The clean (and clean shaven) version of Carlin can be seen nightly in most television markets across North America, sitting on a 1966 Tonight Show panel performing his character Al Sleet, the Hippy Dippy weatherman, on an infomercial for Johnny Carson DVDs. Despite all this, the early, square years of George Carlin's show business career remain enigmatic. I grant you these years are not as profound or as important as his precise, scathing, intellectual material of the nineteen seventies and the great HBO specials that followed, but they are a fascinating look into the formative and transformative process of a great mind and the evolution of an artist.
Unfortunately no official biography has been written to date on Carlin's life. The earliest years of his career have yet to receive any comprehensive exploration. In a 1998 interview with Tom Snyder, Carlin said that he had a biography he was "working on now" in collaboration with Tony Hendra. It was the first time he mentioned the project and it has not been referred to since. Until the time when such a book comes to fruition, we can merely piece together tidbits from the several hundred interviews he conducted and some of the ancient footage that has survived in order to trace the path of the baby faced, clean cut, early George Carlin.
George Carlin enlisted in the Air Force in 1956. His stint in the military, it should come as no surprise, was not related to a delirium of patriotic fervor. Instead, it was his plan to use the G.I. Bill to cover the costs of broadcasting school so he could be a disc jockey. Stationed in Shreveport, Louisiana, he befriended a station manager at local KJOE named Joe Monroe at an off-base party. Monroe appreciated Carlin's enthusiasm for the medium and didn't mind him hanging around the radio station. When someone got sick, Carlin had his chance to fill in. Eventually he was hired as a newsreader and from there to his own afternoon drive-time program called Carlin's Corner and Monroe paid him sixty cents an hour. That show gave him his first taste of fame as the station plastered his face on bus benches around town. Carlin recalled, "I was eighteen and I had the advantage of having a car ... I could go out at night and tell a chick, 'Hey you wanna hear a song tomorrow? I'll dedicate it to you.' It was magic! Magic! It was the first stage of Top Forty, so personalities were still in play and you had a kinda persona on air and they sent your pictures out ... [the station manager] wanted [me] to have a fan club and all that stuff." Over the course of the next few months he was broadcasting on the number one station in a nine station market, playing rock n' roll records and scoring a remarkable fifty-two share overall. "It wasn't just time and temperature and label and artist ... You could play around ... any live spots ... I'd do them in foreign accents or I'd do them as characters." Listen to actual audio from Carlin's show here.
After Carlin was discharged he returned to the Northern United States, and rather than go back to his native New York, found a job at WEZE, Boston. The news reporter at the station was Jack Burns, a man that Carlin admits taught him everything that would eventually shape his now well-known perspective of American life. George Carlin explained that prior to having met Jack Burns he was politically aloof. Before meeting Burns, Carlin's main political influences had been his mother, the mainstream news and the church. Jack Burns recalled in Comedy at the Edge by Richard Zoglin (2008, Bloomsbury USA), "At that time George was fairly conservative ... I always had a progressive agenda. I thought it was the duty of an artist to fight bigotry and intolerance. We had long, interesting, conversations, good political discussions."
"I kind of learned my politics and liberalism from him," Carlin explained in the same book. "My mother was part of the Joe McCarthy, Westbrook Pegler, William Randolph Hearst, Francis Cardinal Spellman axis of conservative Catholicism. I was probably more centrist. But when I watched the Army-McCarthy hearings, I probably rooted for his side. I bought all that because I didn't hear a coherent counterargument anywhere." While at WEZE, Carlin and Burns were roommates. "We ad-libbed off each other and talked vaguely about doing a comedy act," said Carlin but his stay in the Boston area was short lived. WEZE fired Carlin in 1959, after he took the station's van for an unauthorized drive to New York... to score some weed.
Carlin returned to Shreveport radio, albeit very briefly, and moved on to the Fort Worth, Texas radio outfit KXOL. He worked the seven to midnight slot. Jack Burns left the Boston station shortly thereafter and decided to split to Hollywood. On the way he stopped in to visit Carlin in Texas and George was able to convince him to stay in the Lone Star state temporarily. Reunited, Burns and Carlin managed to get arrested on dubious grounds. Their dry cleaner was rifling through the pockets of a George Carlin suit jacket prior to its cleaning and discovered a newspaper clipping about a local bank heist done by two men. The dry cleaner phoned the fuzz and Burns and Carlin were picked up, roughed up and eventually released. The newspaper clipping was being saved by Carlin for the contents of its flipside - a girl's phone number. Carlin and Burns wrote and appeared on air together for the next several weeks. They began playing at an after hours coffeehouse in town called The Cellar. "It wasn't a very good act, but people laughed," said Carlin. "After the [radio show] ... I got off at midnight ... we would improvise a two man act ... and it was pretty raunchy. [The Cellar] was the place where Kennedy's secret service people spent the night before his assassination, where the infamous drinking party took place that the secret service agents were at ... based on this limited success with this captive audience ... we drove to California. We probably had fifteen minutes ... We felt secure enough to quit ... and the guy said, 'Oh, you'll be back. Others have quit this station and thought they were going to Hollywood. You guys will be back." They left for Los Angeles in February of 1960 and the comedy team of Burns and Carlin was officially formed.
"We felt that we should go to Hollywood and become a comedy team in nightclubs. Eight months later we were standing in NBC's building doing the Jack Paar show as Burns and Carlin ... I can't explain [those] kind of breaks." They got hired as a morning team at KDAY, Los Angeles, working on new scripted comedy bits they'd broadcast each day. They worked under the pseudonym The Wright Brothers, a moniker that was given to them by the station bosses for reasons unknown. After having saved three months worth of salary, they quit their DJ jobs to focus solely on live performance. They took their new material and got a weekly gig performing at the coffee house Cosmo Alley. "Jack and I ... for its time ... were very topical ... we took stands. We took positions. We did jokes about racism, about the Ku Klux Klan, about The John Birch Society, about religions ... we had a routine ... about giving kids heroin kits ... we felt connected to that, sort of, movement that was starting then that Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl had been the best exponents of." Toward the end of that same month they invested their own money in recording a comedy album that they would then try to sell to a local record label. They had the savvy idea that the album would be a great way to showcase their act to potential bookers of clubs and television.
Burns and Carlin's LP was pressed on Era Records, a small Hollywood label. Era was most successful with a 1962 number one hit they distributed called Let's Dance by Chris Montez. The album the boys released was deceitfully titled Burns & Carlin at The Playboy Club Tonight. It was, in reality, recorded at Cosmo Alley. On the June 23rd, 2008 episode of Larry King Live, Larry suggested that Hugh Hefner "discovered" George Carlin. Hefner explained, "Well, certainly he played the Playboy Club in 1960 and was on Playboy's Penthouse in that time frame. A lot of comics came [through] Chicago in that time frame. Mort Sahl, Lenny Bruce, a lot of good friends." Hence, in 1960, Hugh Hefner already a fan of the pair, allowed the use of his club's name to help the sales of the LP. Watch some brief footage of Burns and Carlin on the television program Playboy's Penthouse at 2:07 of this clip.
Burns and Carlin received a three hundred dollar advance from Era for the album, which ended up being all they'd make from the recording. Their idea of using the LP as a showcase, however, collapsed when the album didn't see itself released until 1963 (In a 2001 interview Carlin said it was released in the team's first year, but this is contradicted by all other sources. It was recorded in their first year, but released later. Carlin's assessment is probably a victim of memory). The Era label was purchased and absorbed by the K-Tel empire in the early seventies. Shortly before the sale, after Carlin had exploded as a counterculture hero, Era re-issued the album as The Original George Carlin. Laff Records also re-issued the album after Carlin's counterculture success under the title Killer Carlin and perhaps illegally - as they had been doing with Richard Pryor's material. In the case of Pryor, it resulted in a lengthy court battle. Here are the amusing liner notes from the original LP in their entirety. They re-arrange some facts for humorous effect but also some for no viable reason whatsoever:
The world has known many teams - Adam and Eve, Stanley and Livingstone, Sears and Roebuck, spaghetti and meatballs.
Now, to this lustrous list are added the names of Burns and Carlin. Burns and Carlin? You don't know? Well, let it be stated here and now that Burns and Carlin are very well known to their families and a small circle of intimate friends.
For those whose lives have not yet been enriched, let us state further that Burns and Carlin are comedians, and twice as funny as most. Because there are two of them.
There is no truth to the rumor that Era Records chose to make an album of Burns and Carlin because they were the only two comedians left. There were other reasons. Like comedians are notorious egomaniacs, so it was safe to assume that Burns and Carlin would themselves buy enough albums to get Era off the hook.
For people around the country who might say, "Where have I heard that name before?" or "Where have I heard that voice before?" (Or, heaven forbid, "Where have I heard that joke before?") a few biographical notes might be in order.
Jack Burns is not George Burns, although this wouldn't be such a bad idea for an aspiring young comic. Born in Massachusetts, Jack spent about twenty years reaching the age of twenty and shortly thereafter joined the Marines. Life as a leatherneck gave him courage enough to try anything, so he became a post-war actor in an off-Broadway production of "Tea and Sympathy." It turned out that he needed more tea and sympathy than New York could offer so he returned home to Boston and became a radio announcer.
Meanwhile, back in New York City, George Carlin had been born. He learned how to play one-old-cat, teased girls, survived a case of adolescent pimples, and when the War came he joined the Air Force. By spending most of his time as a commercial disc jockey in Ft. Worth, he managed not to impede the Allied effort and victory soon was ours. For reasons thus far unrevealed, he subsequently moved to Boston.
As the old witch sighed when they set her afire, "Tis the hand of Fate that rocks the cradle of liberty." Which may explain how Jack and George happened to meet in Boston.
Influenced no doubt by the Reverend Edward Payson Steagle who was once heard to say, "East is East and West is West and North is North and South is South," Jack and George migrated to Texas, where they continued their radio careers and collected free drinks by telling jokes out loud in Ft. Worth night clubs.
With Aimee Semple McPherson long gone and artichokes growing like mad up around Santa Cruz, Jack and George figured that California, or more particularly Hollywood, was where they really belonged. So they wrapped up their act and came west. Employed by radio station KDAY as disc jockeys, they escaped the attention of the Federal Communications Commission long enough to jolly up goodly portions of early-rising Los Angeles, including Murray Becker.
Becker heard the boys and quickly concluded that they had a much bigger potential than competing with time signals, freeway reports and stomach tranquilizers. So he became their manager and co-writer (on both material and loans) and booked them into a fashionable beatnik bistro called Cosmo Alley.
Here they were an overnight sensation, eliciting such critical responses as "fabulous comic duo," "new comedy team smash hit," "hilarious performance," "dull and disgusting," "scintillating satire marks debut," etc.
Jack Paar's far-flung scouts lost no time in grabbing Burns and Carlin for the insomnia circuit and then Playboy Magazine (the Good Housekeeping of people who keep houses) adopted young Jack and young George as their very own. And now, directly from the Playboy Club (whatever and wherever that is) the waiting world can at long last hear the not sick but definitely ailing humor of Inside-out Burns and Outside-in Carlin. Their minds are more unbuttoned than buttoned-down and they agree with Admiral John Sahl Jones who assured his men as they rowed towards the flagship, "In the future lies a head!"
Despite the existence of a small circuit of Playboy clubs, the "wherever that is" was a knowing nod to the fact that the LP's title was merely some fabricated marketing nonsense. The album starts with an unidentified announcer bellowing, "The Playboy Key Club takes great pleasure in presenting a great new comedy team..." After their introduction the audio markedly changes with a none-too-subtle splice to their Cosmo Alley performance. The phony intro could very well have been taped in the venue after it was closed for the night. "We were aiming toward people who were sort of hip," said Carlin of their act, "We wanted to be smart and up-to-date and like the comedians we admired who were in the new wave. We aspired to be Blue Angel comedians, which is where Nichols and May played in New York ... We kept adding [material] ... we were fairly fertile. We had that safety of two guys up there. The first four weeks we spent ... at the coffee house in Hollywood they were fairly nice to you."
George Carlin's ability to impersonate people was on display regularly in their act and on their LP as well. Carlin had mastered the mannerisms of John F. Kennedy long before Vaughn Meader based an entire career on it. Carlin was the only comedian at the time (or perhaps ever) to master impressions of comedians Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl. Both men were influences on Carlin and comics whose paths he would eventually follow. The Bruce and Sahl impersonations appear on the album. The record undeniably contains seeds of the future. Don't let the square looking cover deceive you, the platter and its suggestion of feeding heroin to children is not only daring for 1960, but also reminds us of Carlin's future taste for drugs and contempt for children. Here is the LP, in its entirety, for your listening fascination.
Just before Burns and Carlin quit their day job their acquaintance Murray Becker, who worked for a music publisher in the same building as KDAY, became the team's manager. Becker not only tried to help them land gigs, but according to the Era LP's liner notes, he also wrote some of their material. Becker knew Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl. He suggested to Burns and Carlin that perhaps he could persuade Lenny to come check them out. George Carlin explained to Larry King, "[Lenny Bruce] was so satisfying to watch. I was a young aspiring comedian ... he helped Burns and I ... what happened was we were ... [at] a place called The Cosmo Alley ... our first job ever ... our manager Murray Becker knew Lenny from the navy and I used to do an impression of Lenny in the act. So he brought Lenny in to see the impression but hoping Lenny would like [the rest of our material]. Lenny called GAC the next day, that was a big agency in that day, like William Morris is today ... The president of GAC signed us the next day ... we got a telegram. They want to sign us, all fields, based on Lenny Bruce's reaction. And that started us, and that started my own career." Jack Burns remembered, "Evidently, Lenny Bruce thought we were intelligent ... There were things George and I would try occasionally that were sharp, but we were playing some pretty rough clubs so you couldn't get away with a lot we wanted to do. I hadn't gone to college ... but I was always trying to educate myself. In this respect, I was always sort of an outsider because who the hell did I hang around with on my corner of the street who read Kierkegaard or Proust?"
A January, 1982 Playboy profile of Carlin explained, "Unknown to Carlin throughout his 'straight comic' period was a prediction made by Bruce: George Carlin would one day assume Bruce's throne as king of the social comics."
PLAYBOY: Back in the early sixties, when you were still a disc jockey and just beginning to do comedy in small clubs, Lenny Bruce supposedly selected you as his heir -
CARLIN: Apparently, Lenny told that to a lot of people. But he never said it to me and I didn't hear it until years later. Which is probably fortunate ... But I'm not in a league with Lenny, certainly not in terms of social commentary.
Mort Sahl also saw the pair at Cosmo Alley, at the behest of Becker. Sahl was impressed enough with what he saw that he managed to get Burns and Carlin booked at San Francisco's popular Hungry i where Sahl was a regular and had recorded a pair of LPs. Today it is a strip club.
October 10th, 1960 was the date that Burns and Carlin made their television debut - and not just on any show - but the largest national showcase a comedian could ask for - The Tonight Show with Jack Paar. Only, it wasn't with Jack Paar. Instead it was with guest host Arlene Francis who, despite having been deemed "The first lady of television" in the nineteen fifties by Newsweek, is today remembered primarily as a game show panelist, and even in 1960, not likely to please viewers expecting Jack Paar.
On May 19th, 1962, Burns and Carlin split up. "We didn't work very hard and the act wasn't growing," Carlin said in his Playboy interview, "I think that was mostly my fault ... I just wanted to sit down and make up new routines, and I became a bit of a drawback to him. I guess I was subconsciously saving myself for my own act ... and Jack always knew that." Jack Burns saw other factors in their demise, "Most comedy teams are opposites, but George and I were pretty much the same person, two Irish Catholic guys." Carlin took some of their routines and adapted them for a solo stand-up act. Carlin expanded in an interview with Larry Wilde, "About a year after we began the nightclub act ... [I got] married. I had begun to think more seriously about my future ... and I knew I was going to be a single ... before that second year was up - I was in Dayton ... Jack and I were off, he was in Boston, I was hanging around with [my wife] in Dayton. Peter, Paul and Mary were scheduled to come in where [my wife] worked, The Raquet Club, where I met her. Peter had some illness and they couldn't make it and they had two nights open and I was pressed into service ... I took material of Jack's and mine that I was able to do single-o and I took some other things I had been preparing for myself and managed to get through two nights of it. That's how I knew I was ready." Carlin went solo and Jack Burns meanwhile, enlisted in classes at The Second City.
Carlin struggled for the first couple years alone. "The Blue Dog Inn in Baltimore. Nobody there. I did a show for no one. You know something? No pressure. No pressure. It was easy ... The owner said, 'Time for the show - eight-thirty!' I said, 'There's no one here!' He said, 'Well, in case someone comes in I want them to know we have a show.' Well, that's fine for a violinist maybe - but a comedian? So I ended eight minutes early cause there were no laughs."
In June of 1962, George Carlin landed his first solo performance on network television. Jack Paar had left The Tonight Show and NBC was in the awkward interim prior to Carson taking over the helm. Many different people sat behind the desk during the eight months before Carson's autumn takeover including Joey Bishop, Jack Carter, Jerry Lewis, Groucho Marx and Soupy Sales. Carson had signed on as the new host, but had to wait until his contract as the compere of game show Who Do You Trust? expired. Carlin appeared on an interim episode hosted by his big booster Mort Sahl. The audience responded well to his impersonation of John F. Kennedy.
Even at this early stage in his career, Carlin's real personality was at odds with his showbiz persona. Albert Goldman recounted another Lenny Bruce - George Carlin encounter in his book Ladies and Gentleman Lenny Bruce!! (Random House, 1974): 'Lenny had been working at the Gate of Horn for a little better than a week when he was busted again. The arrest took place at 1:10 in the morning of the 6th of December ... He had just gotten into a bit about marijuana, when suddenly he noticed a couple of men rise up in the audience and stride purposefully toward the stage ... "The show is over, ladies and gentleman," the first cop tells the customers. "We're police officers. Everybody have a seat." ... He turns to Lenny and says, "Let's go." Carlin explained in a WNYC radio interview, "I was working at The Playboy Club in Chicago - [and Gate of Horn] was definitely the Chicago folkie scene ... that sort of milieu ... but Lenny filled that place ... Lenny did a lot of things the Catholic Church didn't like. The police in Chicago are an Irish Catholic institution. The police went after him because the Catholic Church wanted him silenced. I was an acquaintance of [Lenny Bruce] ... a friend who didn't see him very often ... I was sitting in the audience watching the show with a fella from a musical group called The Terriers. We were drinking beer. We were up in the balcony area. At one point a policeman stood up in the audience and, believe it or not, he actually had either the irony or the good sense to say, "Alright, alright the show is over,' cause that's a famous street police thing after a suicide ... 'C'mon, c'mon the show is over.' So he said that ... and they really wanted to close this club because they brought Lenny Bruce in ... So they checked the I.D. of every person in there ... probably 300 some people in there ... and I kept drinking beer. They did find a girl who was fifteen and they closed the club eventually ... I said 'I don't believe in I.D.!' So he took me by the collar and held the back of my belt."
Goldman's book completes the story, "We'll check your I.D. cards as you're leaving," Cop One shouts to the audience ... It took a long time to check three hundred I.D.s. The cops got irritable doing this dumb job. When the last guy in line said he "didn't believe in identification," one of the blues grabbed him by the back of the neck and the seat of the pants and hustled him down the stairs and into the patrol car where Lenny was sitting with Alan Ribback, the Gate's bartender and a writer who was doing a piece on Lenny for Swank. "Whatta hell are you doin here?" cried Lenny when the door of the car opened and comedian George Carlin was pushed inside. "I got stupid with a cop," explained Carlin.
An early television appearance for the solo Carlin was on The Jimmy Dean Show in 1963, hosted by the country and western star known best for his phallic mining ballad. The Jimmy Dean Show, square as it may have been, was a definite cut above the rest of the singer hosted variety programs of the sixties, thanks in no small part to head writer Jerry Juhl and the regular appearances of Jim Henson's Muppets. Future Muppet Show favorite Rowlf, the piano playing dog, appeared every week as Jimmy Dean's sidekick. Jack Burns became an integral part of The Muppets lifestyle ten years later* and a writing partner of Juhl's. No footage of Carlin for this, but watch ten minutes of The Jimmy Dean Show featuring Rowlf here.
George Carlin said of his work ethic during this period, "I came out of coffee houses ... they had a more intellectual bent. Generally left-wing politically and appreciated risk taking in an act of any kind ... so when Jack and I broke up, I took over these [pre-scheduled] Playboy [Club] dates ... and did certain nightclub situations ... and then I hit kind of a dip ... this is sixty-three and sixty-four ... I [found] a place in New York ... The Cafe Au Go Go on Bleeker Street. I stayed there for, like, two years ... on and off ... just trying to work, work, work, work. Use it as a laboratory and get my little piece together for Merv or Mike Douglas ... I hung around the Cafe Au Go Go through 1965 ... sixty-three and four and five I did a lot of club dates, fifty dollars for the Brown's Hotel in the Catskills ... all these club dates ... but I stayed around New York and I stayed around that atmosphere and I worked on my act and I was aiming toward television."
That work paid off in July of 1965 with his first appearance on The Merv Griffin Show. Watch his first appearance. He would go on to do the show twenty-nine times in his career (one appearance with his mother). The same year Carlin appeared on Merv's equally square competition The Mike Douglas Show, for the first of twenty-two guest shots (including a week long co-hosting stint... featuring his mother). Carlin's material at this point was always crowd-pleasing. The act consisted of voices and impersonations of both famous figures as previously mentioned, and of more generic personalities like that of the "typical disc jockey" or "television pitchman." However, when Carlin moved to the host's couch for a bit of banter, the confidence quickly dissipated. It could be that Carlin was simply inexperienced in these situations and they made him nervous, or it could be that at this early stage he was already feeling uncomfortable with what in later years he would regard as utter insincerity on his part. George Carlin's second ever appearance on The Merv Griffin Show has a stand-up performance followed by awkward panel banter as he shares the stage with Kitty Carlisle, Arthur Treacher and Freddie Garrity of Freddie and the Dreamers. One's mind boggles today as we see an almost other worldly George Carlin introduced as "our young Irish friend" and brought to the stage with the instrumental sounds of that most un-Carlin-esque tune (Grey Skies Are Gonna Clear Up) Put on a Happy Face. Carlin was already conscience of the disconnect between what he honestly felt and what he was conveying for the daytime television audience. "The material's orientation toward confrontation and politics, which I'd had a little earlier, began to soften and [became] diluted because I was looking for the mass audience through television in order to further my career."
Meanwhile, October 1965 had Jack Burns land what was supposed to be a permanent position on The Andy Griffith Show. Don Knotts had won three Emmy awards in five years as Mayberry's deputy sheriff and was now in high demand for films. Weighing his options, Knotts left the series to capitalize on his popularity and signed with Universal Studios for a series of family pictures. Jack Burns was hired to fill Knotts' colossal comedy shoes, playing Deputy Warren Ferguson. Knotts' Barney Fife was, of course, irreplaceable and Burns' tenure only lasted eleven episodes before being phased out completely.
In 1966 George Carlin had a job writing on the Kraft Summer Music Hall hosted by toothy singer John Davidson. It was a summer replacement for the regular Kraft Music Hall then hosted by the ultra-white Andy Williams (the program had a rotating roster of hosts from one season to the next). Carlin did stand-up on the program several times but his modest portfolio of material was being devoured quickly and too many guest shots started to show a comedian with a limited amount of workable gags. He struggled to develop new material and had problems believing in the innocuous routines he was struggling to sell to the audience. "I did a couple monologues on The Kraft Summer Music Hall that they cut. [They] just didn't work. I was trying too hard. I was digging too deep, there wasn't a lot of things there. I was an undeveloped writer. I was really a club comedian with a limited ... so I didn't have the depth of experience in my matrix to call on ... I was writing superficially ... and it was thin ... I hated doing these variety shows ... I got other ones. I got the Perry Como Special in Hawaii. I got Jimmy Rodgers. I did Roger Miller's variety show."
Carlin finally followed in the footsteps of Jack Burns and entered the world of sitcoms. He appeared on That Girl as the agent of aspiring actress Ann Marie played by star Marlo Thomas. Marlo was the daughter of famed comedian and television producer Danny Thomas, a cigar toting nightclub comic that belonged fully to the type of show business that Carlin would eventually reject. He was also the executive producer of Burns' late employer The Andy Griffith Show. The Griffith sitcom was in reality a spin-off of Thomas' comedy The Danny Thomas Show (also known as Make Room for Daddy). Carlin in later years said of the episode "My acting really sucked." It certainly may have sucked, but so did the rest of the show. See for yourself by watching the entire episode here.
The Hollywood Palace was a bizarre variety show that tried to please everyone by combining Lawrence Welk style acts and Catskill comedians with unwashed psych and garage bands. Carlin appeared on the show at least four times, and he was straddling both of these worlds. Palace was essentially created to bring some of Ed Sullivan's audience to a different network and the format featured many of the same kinds of acts you'd see on Ed's show (but nowhere else) such as plate spinners, acrobats, tumblers with Italian names and other throw backs to vaudeville. One appearance had George introduced by Jimmy Durante, another was with host Van Johnson and another spot introduced by Martha Raye in which he performed for an audience of servicemen about to go die in Vietnam. Watch a plethora of hokey selections from The Hollywood Palace here.
1967 was an incredibly busy year. Carlin scored another full time television job as a staff writer and regular performer on a summer replacement program. CBS' Away We Go was named for one of Jackie Gleason's catchphrases as it was filling the time slot of The Jackie Gleason Show.
The title had no bearing on the show itself and could just as easily have been called To The Moon or One of These
Days, Alice. The job set Carlin up nicely for two stand-up appearances on the
great one's program later that year. Two of the other regulars were,
as the TV Guide crossword might describe them, a pair of buddies: Greco and Rich. Watch Carlin and Greco introduce Buddy Rich here.
Take Offs and Put Ons was Carlin's first solo LP and is more often than not incorrectly labeled his first album. Recorded live at Detroit's Roostertail (that, much like the Hungry i, was a common venue for the recording of "live" albums) in 1966, the LP was released in '67 and went gold. It was nominated for a Grammy in the Best Comedy Recording category but lost out to the Bill Cosby LP Revenge. The accolades Carlin received for the album even made him hot enough to sit in the center square on a 1967 episode of The Hollywood Squares. "In 1967 ... I was in the depth of this kind of discontent. I was in nightclubs ... I'd open for the singer and I'd do these cute little things and I just knew I wasn't being true to myself. Other things were turning and churning in me."
Carlin left the dean of all variety shows for last. Ed Sullivan's bookers wanted Carlin but he was reluctant. Eventually he would appear a total of eleven times on the show. It was often a very painful experience for him. "Sullivan I held out. They wanted me on Sullivan ... I told my manager ... no. I've heard that they chew young comedians up there ... just before you go on they come and they say the roller-skating chimpanzees went long so we need you to cut another minute. This is a live show, you're about to go on in another five or ten minutes ... I was afraid of that ... I waited a year or two years. Finally I went on [in 1967]. It's a very frightening experience. I did eleven of them ... my stomach was just a knot. I was just so afraid. I knew the audience... they were dead. They were just dead people. Yes, they laughed at Myron Cohen ... and Jack E. Leonard could mow them down with energy ... The trouble with that audience was, first of all they were old fashioned, but second of all, a lot them in the orchestra [seats] knew that they'd be turning the lights up later when Ed would introduce Joe Louis or Babe Ruth's widow or somebody from the audience ... and these people dressed for that ... these people had their furs and stuff and jewelry ... so they were a little bit tight, little bit tense. And here I am trying to do ... little bit different [stuff]. I did well with [established routines] ... [but] they keep having me back. And the money is good. You don't walk away from Ed Sullivan ... So, I was a victim of my own success, and I did some Ed Sullivans I hate. I have all eleven of them on a disc ... and I [won't] look at them. I don't wanna, it's too hard ... It's too hard to see yourself getting knocked down by a fastball pitcher ... On those Ed Sullivan shows I began to realize ... I didn't fit ... I was missing who I was." Despite the personal schizophrenia that plagued Carlin during the period, he remained grateful to Ed Sullivan as is evident in the Ed Sullivan homage on his album FM & AM. As a side note, Jack E. Leonard was another one of the seldom-impersonated celebrities George Carlin did a bang on mimicking of in his early years.
George Carlin made his feature film debut as an obnoxious car hop in 1968 in, of all things, a Doris Day movie. With Six You Get Eggroll was directed by familiar television personality Howard Morris and is weak even by Doris Day film standards. "I think I did that movie in 1966 or '67. But you have to understand this about me, to understand all these changes I went through. All my life, I had kind of been living with a dual purpose. [I was an] outlaw kid who broke all the rules, tried to get by with the least amount of effort, wasn't a big team player, didn't like the people who made all the rules, got kicked out of the Air Force, kicked out of the choir, kicked out of the Boy Scouts, kicked out of the altar boys, and all of that. That was the outlaw kid. The kid who started smoking pot when he was 13 ... At the same time, I wanted to be Danny Kaye. That's Person B. From when I was a kid, I wanted to be like Danny Kaye. Later, it evolved into wanting to be like Jack Lemmon. It had to do with being in the movies and being funny ... So there's the Danny Kaye dream, the dream of going to Hollywood ... And I had never realized the dissonance between the two people I was. I just pursued that life. My life. And there in the sixties I began to live out the Danny Kaye part, being a people-pleasing, mainstream comedian in the mainstream of show business. But underneath, there's this pot-smoker ... so now I had a real clash between my two selves ... Psychedelics helped me to have confidence in those instincts, and to act on them. As it played out, it turned out that I was good enough to make the move ... All that came to fruition after With Six You Get Eggroll. In fact, I found out after With Six You Get Eggroll that I couldn't act in movies. That was also critical. I found out I can't do this shit. Man, they want you to change a little bit here, get out of Doris Day's light, don't lean in too far, lean back, you're off-mike, you're out of the light, you can't do this, stand there, keep your legs crossed, remember this, say it with a little bit of sadness... Fuck all that!" In an interview with Alan King in 1990, Carlin said he never felt comfortable in the acting world, especially when cast in such flippant fodder. "I was lost. I felt stupid and embarrassed and incompetent." Watch the opening credits to With Six You Get Eggroll here and two psychedelic moments from the film here and here.
"I never really took part in show business. I'd show up but ... You had to do these variety shows and they'd put you in the bunny number at the end ... but once I turned the corner I left it." One of the programs that illustrated Carlin in that motif prior to "turning the corner" was on the variety program that actually became the voice of the anti-war movement, The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour. In this appearance George Carlin of course performed stand-up, but also appeared in the musical number "Daily News" wearing a red turtle neck to match those sported by Dick and Tommy. This is your rare chance to watch George Carlin sing in a musical number. Watch the entire episode here. The musical number in question airs at the 31:25 point, but the whole episode is worth viewing. Carlin is a trooper and obviously uncomfortable. Knowing just how uncomfortable he was makes the viewer uncomfortable too.
At this point George Carlin still had a year left to go in a two-year contract he held with Howard Hughes' Frontier Hotel in which he'd perform at the hotel for two weeks at a time, twice a night, and then return a month later to do it all over again. His Ed Sullivan appearances had garnered him enormous sums of money to play the Vegas rooms. The week prior to such a stint, George Carlin was the mystery guest on the game show What's My Line? Knowing what we know now, Carlin's banter with host Wally Bruner seems false and awkward. Carlin thanks Bruner for having him on the show but it seems to be mainly lip service. The exchange finished with this:
WALLY BRUNER: What are you doing now? You're at the Royal Box?
GEORGE CARLIN: I'm at the Royal Box, have another little time to spend there, then I go to Las Vegas to [The] Frontier.
BRUNER: Ahhh, It's a sweet world isn't it?
GEORGE CARLIN: Yes, indeed.
This Carlin veneer was phony then and it's phony now. Carlin conceded later that it was making him money, making him recognized and making him sick. "The hardest years of my life were the three or four years when I was doing straight, mainstream, bullshit television shows," he remembered, "I didn't know my head was different. I didn't understand that. If I thought about it at nine years of age [the dream of being on television] must still be valid at twenty-one, but it wasn't - that clicked in... from the acid. Thank God for acid." Watch Carlin on What's My Line? here.
In George Carlin's introduction to the book Murder at the Conspiracy Convention and Other American Absurdities by Paul Krassner (Barricade Books, 2002) he wrote, "As America entered the Magic Decade, I was leading a double life ... My affection for pot continued and my disregard for standard values increased, but they lagged behind my need to succeed. The Playboy Club, Merv Griffin, Ed Sullivan and the Copacabana were all part of a path I found uncomfortable but necessary during the early 1960s. But as the decade churned along and the country changed, I did too. Despite working in 'establishment' settings, as a veteran malcontent I found myself hanging out in coffee houses and folk clubs with others who were out-of-step people who fell somewhere between beatnik and hippie. Hair got longer, clothes got stranger, music got better. It became more of a strain for me to work for straight audiences. I took acid and mescaline. My sense of being on the outside intensified. I changed." Again with Larry Wilde he elaborated, "I began to change in sixty-nine, seventy ... That's when I began to experiment with acid. I had been a pot smoker most of my life ... what the acid did was to spring me past the frontier, to artificially get me to the next step ... [LSD] pushed me over to see that 'Hey, I'm wasting my time with these people, I don't really like them, I'm sort of entertaining the enemy. They're kind of a safe, play it safe, middle-class audience and I'm playing it safe with them - and I feel differently inside, let me get it out of me!"
This was evident to the wealthy, white bread crowd at The Copacabana, New York's posh, mobster run nightclub. Carlin had successfully played the venue in the past, but the guilt and dissatisfaction eating away at him, no longer allowed him to put on the Scott McClellan face of "I believe everything I'm saying and I'm happy to be here." The Copa was the place to record high-energy medleys of white America's favorite standards for every recording artist from Paul Anka to Jackie Wilson, but in 1969, Carlin could no longer muster it. "I was straining at the leash ... I knew I didn't belong in that place," Carlin said in Comedy at the Edge. He expressed his pain and dismay to the crowd over the course of the two-week engagement, "These places went out of style twenty years ago. I see Don Ameche dance past me one more time, I'm getting the fuck out of here." In the same book Zoglin explains that for Carlin it was liberating: 'The Copa let him play out his engagement but at the end of his last show gave him a pointed send-off. "It was very artistic, very cinematic," Carlin recalls. "Toward the end of my act, they slowly turned my light off. Instead of the usual thing where the band plays you off, they just brought the light down slowly. And they took the sound down at the same time. Very dramatic. It was almost sweet in a way. And I knew I was free."
Carlin remembered in a 2002 talk, "I was doing a lot of auditions for movies and stuff ... [nineteen] sixty-nine shows up ... In October [nineteen] sixty-nine ... at The Frontier I closed after one show. This was the incident where I said the word ass on stage. Now there were two separate incidents. In this one the golf people ... these golf assholes ... they had a golf thing and they all came early and I had to do my show early and they were all drunk ... I did this thing ... about my ass. 'I ain't got no ass ... some guys got a bigger ass, some guys got a smaller ass, guys in the service say, Hey Joe, where's your ass? Guy ain't got no ass.' For that ... I was cancelled ... they paid me off for that job ... I had a two-year contract ... I was making ten thousand a week ... I had been there two weeks, I had a week to go, they closed me after the early show that night, that was because of ass."
At the end of 1969 Carlin appeared on a slow moving game show called The Game Game. Watch the whole show here. At the start of 1970 he appeared on the panel of the game show He Said, She Said. Carlin then returned to The Frontier to continue on with the final few months of his contractual engagement.
"The following year, I came back in [August] 1970. I was there about three weeks and then ... that was the night I said shit. What I said on that show was, 'Y'know some people say shit. Buddy Hackett says shit. Redd Foxx says shit. I don't say shit. I'll smoke a little of it, but I won't say it.' That was everything I said. For that I was fired."
The January, 1982 edition of Playboy described the scene. "... Typical September night in Las Vegas, as the early show went on at Howard Hughes' Frontier Hotel ... A sign at the theater entrance read, WELCOME AWARD-WINNING SALESMEN. The opening act that night was a 32-year-old comedian named George Carlin. Although most had never heard of him, a few members of the audience remembered seeing him on John Davidson's summer replacement TV series - a conventional stand-up performer who did cute voices and jokes about his New York childhood. Vegas regulars knew Carlin better: He'd been an opening act at the Frontier for three years, was a reliable pro that earned $12,500 a week. On that night, when Carlin glared out at the audience with what appeared to be a combination of loathing and resolve, most people either didn't notice or thought he'd forgotten his contact lenses. When he opened with a dissertation on the number of ways to say "shit," the audience fell silent. Carlin's next routine was about Vietnam, and that's when people started walking out. Before he'd finished a piece on American business ethics, half the room was empty and others remained only to heckle him."
Carlin reflected on his paradigm shift shortly before his death, "The musicians I knew had gone through that transition ... I'm listening to Bob Dylan ... and I realize these artists are using their talent to project their feelings and ideas... not just please people ... I was in the wrong place. In 1967 ... I was thirty. I was entertaining people in nightclubs who were forty. They were at war with their kids who were twenty. There was a generation war. I was in the middle of it. I said 'what the fuck am I doing over here?' [The twenty year olds] are the people who will understand me and give me a chance ... I took two years to change and it happened on television ... happened on ... shows like Della Reese, Virgina Graham and Steve Allen," He added, "Virginia Graham was a real shit stirrer. She just loved to get me to talk about smoking pot and Henry Mancini... she got Henry Mancini to cop out to being a pot smoker on TV ... I went on there ... my beard was growing ... my attitudes ... were changing. And I talked about my changes on the panel... a lot."
The late seventies saw George Carlin fall out of favor. The burgeoning comedy club scene was giving birth to a new era of observational comedians that specialized in the innocuous, eventually spawning the tidal wave of mediocre performers and poorly named comedy clubs that populated the interstates of America in the eighties. The counterculture was suddenly considered a tired element and former radicals like Jerry Rubin had repudiated their previous positions and endorsed Ronald Reagan. The fact that Carlin had put away the LSD in exchange for dangerous amounts of cocaine did not help the status of his career. His material was becoming noticeably sloppy and the financial cost of his drug habit had ballooned to enormous proportions. To both sustain his coke addiction and remain a performer in the public eye, Carlin briefly reverted back to the world he had so soundly rejected during the time of his transformation. In the late seventies Carlin was hanging out with the squares again on things like Tony Orlando and Dawn, the sitcom Welcome Back Kotter (alongside Gabe Kaplan who had stolen some of Carlin's material for use in his own stand-up act) and a real odd piece of crap - Perry Como's Hawaiian Holiday. As we saw earlier, Carlin referred to the Como special in the same breath as the variety appearances of the sixties. His own admission in the nineties was that the 1973-1977 period had become a blank spot in his memory, and that everything that he knew about the era had only later entered his consciousness, not because he was remembering things, but because he read or saw on television information about the time period. When Carlin gave up cocaine, he adjusted his own act to the eighties and its observational comedy boom. Lucky for us the awkward lapse in Carlin's career was temporary and he was able to finish the final twenty years of his life in artistic triumph.
Ladies and Gentleman Lenny Bruce!! by Albert Goldman (1974, Random House)
George Carlin on Comedy, Interview with Larry Wilde
Playboy Magazine, January 1982
Murder at the Conspiracy Convention by Paul Krassner (Barricade Books, 2002)
Comedy at the Edge by Richard Zoglin (2008, Bloomsbury USA)
Inside the Comedy Mind w/Alan King, 1990
The Tom Snyder (radio) Show, 1997
The Chris Rock Show, November 1997
The Late Late Show with Tom Snyder, Spring 1998
Coast to Coast with Art Bell Carlin interview, 1999
Larry King Live, June 8th, 2001
Fresh Air, November 24, 2004
Inside the Actors Studio: George Carlin, 2004
George Carlin Interviewed by Noel Murray, The Onion, 2005
The Brian Leher Show, October 2007
The Opie and Anthony Show, guest Carlin, October 2007
Archive of American Television Interview w/Carlin, December 17th, 2007
Larry King Live, June 23rd, 2008