I miss George Carlin. He died recently and his fellow comedians held a memorial for him, citing his border crossings and daring innovations. Louis CK honored him as a mentor who opened his eyes to the power of comedy to uncover uncomfortable truths about our lives and make us laugh at them.
I was lucky to present George Carlin at Highways Performance Space in the early ’90s. Carlin did a routine that punctured the political correctness of our extremely hip audience and brought them to an astonished silence. (I wish I could remember its context!) In the green room, my daughter Jill and I were able to thank George and tell him what he meant to our family.
In 1973 my marriage ended and that split our family into two homes, one in L.A. and one in Laguna Beach. My kids and I spent a lot of time in the car, listening to comedy albums: “Waiting for the Electrician or Someone Like Him” by Firesign Theatre (1968), “Let’s Get Small” (1977) and “A Wild and Crazy Guy” (1978) by Steve Martin, anything by Tom Lehrer, and, most memorable of all, “Class Clown” (1974) and “A Place for My Stuff” (1984) by George Carlin. We listened to them over and over again. In those days, we four desperate drifters needed all the laughs we could get.
We listened to Carlin’s stuff obsessively till we could do whole routines verbatim. Thirty years later all of us can still do all of the Seven Dirty Words you can never say on television: shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits. (Raise your hand if you can do this with your mother.) Parts of these great works are still in our everyday family vocabulary. In group conversation, our timing is impeccable. Because of this training, Jill can call you up after an episode of “30 Rock” and do an entire Jack Donaghy monologue at full speed.
One of the greatest benefits of this interpersonal experience has been the readiness of my children to accept and share my twisted career. In 1976 I moved into a furniture loft in downtown L.A. with a performance artist and two years later I started a performance art magazine, High Performance. The third issue featured a cover shot of a performance by Hermann Nitsch in which a blindfolded man drinks blood. I was joined in 1982 by another sarcastic visionary, Steven Durland, and among our many border crossings was the publication of the first art magazine issue about AIDS.
In 1989, with gay performance artist Tim Miller, I founded Highways, a performance art space in Santa Monica that became a stage for artists confronting racism, sexism and other oppressions. It also became a mecca for gay activists and the locus for gay protest rallies, raves and performances by the likes of the fabulous Annie Sprinkle. My kids did not shrink from supporting these ventures and in fact Jill moved in and became my second in command.
Yes, there was some comedy involved in all this, but mostly it was serious intellectual and aesthetic business. I believe the bravery of artists like George Carlin prepared all of us to be ready for anything, to be able to face up to that which shocked and challenged us and to draw on empathy when confronted with despair and hopelessness. We had a kind of sensitive armor that many others didn’t have. And we still do. And we’re still laughing. When we are together it’s inevitable that we will sit down for an Eddie Izzard marathon or a couple episodes of “Louie.”
We’re good together. So it was double great when George Carlin showed up for our extended family at Highways. He let us give him a lot of hugs.
Linda Frye Burnham, 2012