A secondhand look at Carlin
James Sullivan has done an outstanding job in his new book “7 Dirty Words’’ positioning the late comedian George Carlin as a counterculture icon whose loathing of hypocrisy and love of language changed comedy forever. Yet Sullivan never quite offers a firm sense of Carlin the man, as if what we learned by observing the comedian onstage is all there is to know. Comedy is a faint form of autobiography, and we’re left with the impression that there must be much more to Carlin than Sullivan reveals with his outside-in approach.
Sullivan, who is a regular contributor to the Globe, offers a few predictable insights about Carlin — for example, connecting the comedian’s famous antagonism toward authority to his father’s abandonment of the family. Sullivan relies largely on secondary sources for much of his biographical sketch. We rarely hear Carlin’s own take on things. In fact, it appears Sullivan interviewed neither Carlin nor his family or friends.
Sullivan’s early pages relate how Carlin questioned his inherited Catholicism from an early age, dropped out of two New York City high schools, and joined the US Air Force. “[H]e was court-martialed three times,’’ Sullivan writes, and eventually was discharged. Sullivan describes Carlin’s struggles as a radio DJ, which included a stint in Boston. In fact, Carlin broke into the comedy business after teaming up with Boston funnyman Jack Burns.
In the beginning, a clean-cut Carlin built a successful career tailoring his routines to the taste of middle-class Americans who tuned into his appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show,’’ “The Tonight Show,’’ and elsewhere in the early 1960s. But he gradually became more and more conflicted about his comedy style. Sullivan relates the tale of a two-week stint the comedian did at New York City’s Copacabana Club. Almost suffocating inside his tuxedo, Carlin “started castigating the audience, telling them that places like the Copa had gone out of style twenty years before,’’ writes Sullivan. Carlin showed his contempt for the audience by “lying on the dance floor and describing the ceiling,’’ something mainstream entertainers like Milton Berle would never have done.
Finding himself in full rebellion mode by the early 1970s, Carlin grew his hair long and adopted a more confrontational approach that openly mocked what he viewed as mainstream American hypocrisies. Carlin gambled everything by changing his style, but he was following his own vision, and ironically, writes Sullivan, “the audience he was seeking had been looking for a comedian to call its own.’’ Carlin began gaining popularity as an enthusiastic pusher of boundaries. His most famous routine, “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,’’ pointed out the absurdity of censorship and, of course, famously invited censorship from the Federal Communications Commission.
When a progressive New York City radio station played Carlin’s “Seven Dirty Words’’ routine as part of a program on free speech, the FCC reacted by issuing a warning. The Supreme Court would ultimately rule in favor of the regulators, but Carlin had triggered a public debate about the limits of free expression. Sullivan shows how Carlin continued to evolve, following his blue period of provocative language with a black period of darker comedic musings. As Carlin himself said, “I find out where they draw the line, then I deliberately step across it.’’
In his later years, Carlin would become a curmudgeonly moral philosopher blasting Americans for their stupidity and overblown sense of entitlement. “I prefer seeing things the way they are,’’ Carlin would explain, “not the way some people wish they were.’’ Carlin loved rattling cages, upsetting apple carts, and rocking boats; in doing so, he would become an American comedic legend.
In his new biography, Sullivan manages to skillfully show us the drama of Carlin’s performing career and how it blended with the larger cultural landscape. But he gives us the outline of a life, one that fails to live and breathe. Sullivan never quite gets us inside the man’s head and heart, the dark places that fueled this unique comedic genius.
Chuck Leddy, a freelance writer who lives in Dorchester, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.