Two nights before what would have been George Carlin’s 79th birthday, his daughter Kelly gathered people at the Paley Center For Media to make an announcement: that the legendary comedian’s wealth of personal belongings, handwritten journals, unreleased material, and more will be donated to the National Comedy Center, a new museum in Jamestown, NY scheduled to open in 2017.
“During the last eight years, one of my biggest joys was when a comic would come over to my house and I’d say, ‘Do you want to see George Carlin’s stuff?” the younger Carlin told the audience – 10 steamer trunks’ worth of “stuff,” to be exact.
“My dad was a little OCD, a little compulsive, and he kept everything,” Carlin explained. “Clippings, calendars, photos, 8-track tapes of his albums, video tapes of his TV appearances. He had folders where he lists every single appearance on a late night show, who was hosting, what bit he did, and sometimes he even paper-clipped a setlist to the back of it. This man had issues.”
After seven years of nervously holding on to the trunks in her garage, and writing a memoir, A Carlin Home Companion, she felt like there was a natural ending happening (“They say after seven years, every cell in your body has been replaced,” she mused.) She was ready to let go, and first considered the Smithsonian museum as a proper resting place for her legendary father’s “stuff,” but decided against the ego boost after picturing the crowded warehouse at the end of Raiders Of The Lost Ark.
A friend who works with museums told her about the National Comedy Center in Jamestown, NY, hometown of Lucille Ball and an annual comedy festival in her honor. At first she dismissed it – ever since his death, she’s been pursued by comedy “hall of fames,” of which she was skeptical. Later she was contacted by Journey Gunderson, Executive Director of the Center, who invited her to do her one-woman show at the festival, and was impressed by their dedication to making the upcoming Center a legitimate comedy museum.
After Carlin’s announcement, a panel of comedians Lewis Black, Robert Klein, Larry Wilmore, and Daily Show creator Lizz Winstead took the stage for a discussion on satire and Carlin’s legacy with comedy historian and author Kliph Nesteroff. Not surprisingly, each comic was heavily influenced by Carlin’s work. He made each of them see what was possible in comedy.
“George had the most natural evolution in his work, and not only that, but it was funny at every stage,” Klein praised, citing his darker, more profound material being just as memorable as earlier stuff like the “Hippie-dippie weatherman.”
Black remembers taking Carlin’s albums down to the basement to listen to them, away from his parents like so many kids did back then, and told a story about coming back to his apartment after being on the road and listening to an answering machine message from Carlin: “Hello this is George Carlin. First, let me tell you Lewis, there’s nothing I can do for your career. But I just wanted to say that I’m very confident in your act.”
“And that changed everything for me,” Black said. “Because I didn’t give a shit about anything. I didn’t care. That was success.”
Winstead, who wrote about Carlin in her own memoir, explained how Carlin inspired her to do standup when she didn’t exactly identify with the first wave of women comics like Phyllis Diller and Joan Rivers.
“When I started to see women doing standup, I thought they were funny, but experientially they were talking about things that weren’t my life at all. I didn’t have a husband, I didn’t particularly think I was ugly… I didn’t think I could do it because I thought that’s what women talked about. Then I saw George Carlin on TV talking about religion, talking about bucking the system, talking about the little guy… So he had a really big impact on me.”
Nightly Show host Larry Wilmore, who recently gave a performance at the White House Correspondents Dinner that would undoubtedly be Carlin-approved, told the story of his starstruck experience with George.
“In the early 90s I was working at club called Igby’s, and George Carlin comes in, and immediately you lose the power to speak,” he said, remembering how he got the courage to have an actual conversation with Carlin about a set he saw of his recently. Carlin wanted more information (he meticulously recorded his sets, which will be in the archive, but apparently not this one) so he gave Wilmore his phone number, which he proudly entered into his calculator watch.
“I didn’t call for a couple of weeks or so, because I was just so nervous. One day I call, and sure enough he remembered the exact conversation. I told him what I remembered about the set and I thought that was it. Little do I know, he keeps calling me [for more information]. After a while I just had to be like, ‘Look George, I don’t know where the fuck it is!’”
The panel discussion turned to politics, as most conversations in 2016 do, and Kelly treated the audience to what her dad would say about Trump if he were alive today.
“Everyday, all day, all I get from people is, ‘I wish your dad was here. What would he say?’ And the thing I tell everybody is that my dad had this great line: “When you’re born, you get a ticket to the freakshow. When you’re born in America, you get a front row seat.’”