Alongside Duck Soup, Andy Kaufman’s “Mighty Mouse” bit, and season five of The Simpsons, there are few things that are held in such high esteem as the stand-up oeuvre of George Carlin. (Rather than yell at me on Twitter, please replace my Comedy Hall of Fame choices with your own personal favorites. You get what I’m going for here.) Earlier this month, the George Carlin Commemorative Collection brought together the man’s five-decade-long career in comedy, compiling each of his HBO specials and a plethora of extras encompassing this master’s work. And while he did have successful forays into acting such as Dogma or the Bill and Ted films, the thing that you won’t find on this set is his short-lived Fox sitcom, which attempted to transform Carlin’s stand-up into a narrative format. This model worked well for names like Jerry Seinfeld, Tim Allen, and Ray Romano, but sadly, The George Carlin Show remains deep in the archives.
The George Carlin Show premiered in January 1994 and lasted for 27 episodes across two seasons. Carlin resisted television before this point, but he was persuaded by the show’s script, written by the late television veteran Sam Simon. In an interview to promote the premiere, Carlin said, “… I had always resisted doing a sitcom. I was afraid of being in a living room with children who were smarter than I, but Sam and I had a meeting of the minds that we could do this without being typically sitcomy.” The premise was simple: What if George Carlin had never become a comedian? In this alternate dimension, he plays George O’Grady, a New York City taxi driver who spends the majority of his free time in a local bar, holding court by making observations about other patrons and life in general. He’s an opinionated smart-ass with a lot to say for 22 minutes.
The pilot, which was both written and directed by Simon, is a tidy little package, elegantly designed to give Carlin’s comedy a narrative stage. The story is very simple and the other characters each have brief moments, but ultimately this is The George Carlin Show and the viewers are given exactly that. The first episode, which has the wonderfully vague title of “When Unexpected Things Happen to George,” sees O’Grady newly unemployed due to his refusal to cut his ponytail and with nearly $3,000 in gambling debt. Sydney (Paige French), the waitress at his favorite watering hole, helps George establish where his character is at immediately. Sydney has had a recent modeling gig fizzle out on her and complains that she’s thinking about “giving up hope.” “Good for you!” George exclaims. “Hope sucks. People with hope are constantly worried about when it’s going to kick in. Meanwhile, a guy without hope? Free to enjoy himself.” This nice little Carlin nugget would reappear in 1997 much more succinctly in his book Brain Droppings as “Fuck hope.”
George’s bookie, played by Simpsons and Godfather alum Alex Rocco, has cut him off from betting since he’s too deep in debt, and with no job with which to pay back the money in installments, he informs George that he’s going to have to stop by his apartment and pick up some of his personal effects to cover the debt. George has other plans, though. There is a stranger in his dive bar – a stranger who wears a blazer and carries a small, prissy dog. He bets this stranger $3,000 that the Redskins will lose to the Giants, and after a little hesitance, the stranger accepts. The game begins and the Redskins immediately score, prompting Carlin to shout at the television, “I hope you die in a car fire!”
With only one play left in the game and the Giants down by one point with control of the ball, George goes into the bar’s bathroom, heads into a stall, dispenses a pair of toilet seat covers, and puts them under his knees to pray. He has a very conversational monologue with God, offering to read the entire Bible to determine if gambling is expressly labeled a sin if, and only if, the Giants make the next kick and win the bet for him. “Well, what are ya gonna do? Think you’re gonna help me?” he asks God. He’s doubtful, but as he steps back out, the Giants do in fact win the game. The only problem: The man with the dog doesn’t have the money on him, but he claims he’ll be back in 20 minutes with the cash. George takes the dog as collateral, surprising the man who warns him, “I don’t even like that dog.”
Jack the bartender (Anthony Starke) is putting up the stools when next we see George and the dog. The last customer remaining, still waiting on his money, George begins a conversation about God. Sydney reflects on her recent modeling troubles and says, “If there was a God, I wouldn’t need a boob job.” Jack, mildly offended, shoots back, “Yeah, well, waitressing may be a boob job, Sydney, but in these tough times you should be grateful for anything that pays the bills.” George heads back to his apartment, talking to his dog about his house rules on his way there, when they are joined by the bookie, who feels guilty, but begins to pick out items to cover George’s debt. When he gets to George’s jazz-record collection, Carlin tries to steer him away from his very rare Miles Davis record, attempting to give away the dog instead, claiming to not have room for him. Rocco insists: “You will by tomorrow. He’s way smaller than your media center. Besides, you don’t realize how much you need a dog right now.”
The next day, Carlin walks the dog to get some food at the pet store (which has a very Simpsons-y pun name “To Fur With Love”), where he meets the owner, Kathleen (Susan Sullivan). She likes jazz, and suddenly the dog has a name: Miles. With an excuse to chat up this woman and see her frequently, George suddenly sees the value in a dog, and when he arrives at his next stop, the bar, and is met by the dog’s owner with his $3,000, George faces a tough decision: wipe away the debt, keep his prized record collection, and give up the dog – or reject the money and keep his new friend? Instead, he chooses a third path. He asks the bartender for a pair of scissors and cuts off his ponytail. He’ll go back to his boss, get his job back, pay back his debt in installments, and keep Miles. A little bit of schmaltz, but still no wife or kids with zany one-liners.
The show, according to Carlin in a 2007 Television Academy Foundation interview, was ranked in the TV ratings in the mid-60s each week – neither a success nor a failure. In his posthumously published autobiography, Last Words, Carlin reflected on the show, saying, “I had a great time. I never laughed so much, so often, so hard as I did with cast members Alex Rocco, Chris Rich, Tony Starke. There was a very strange, very good sense of humor on that stage.” What tarnished the show for him was working with the late Sam Simon. Simon himself admitted, with regards to a contentious exit from The Simpsons, “that any show I’ve ever worked on, it turns me into a monster. I go crazy. I hate myself.” Carlin seemed to agree with this self-assessment, writing on his website that the lesson he learned from doing this show was to “always check mental health of creative partner beforehand.”
In the Television Academy interview, he went a little more into depth, indicating that not being given any kind of creative credit was also an issue. He cites Roseanne Barr firing everyone on the staff of her show after the first season and making a power grab as a method that was unavailable to him, as his show was not in the top ten like hers was. “The writer/producer club is a closed club,” he says. “You can get in it, but it’s kinda closed to a guy like me, comin’ from the outside … Didn’t know how to protect myself.” He claimed that halfway through the second season of The George Carlin Show, “when they called me, from Fox, in my trailer, and told me it had been canceled, I said ‘Thank you.’ ‘Cause it was mid-season. ‘Thank you for not waiting for the season to end.’” Once again, when reflecting in writing, Carlin was a bit more succinct. On his website, he put it plainly: “Couldn’t wait to get the fuck out of there.” Simon would move on from this show to direct more sitcoms before mostly transitioning completely out of television and working in his remaining years as an animal activist.
Ultimately, The George Carlin Show was more of a stumble in his career, but it led to one of his biggest successes. Speaking once again with the Television Academy Foundation, he said, “Now, I come springing back from there … I’m back in my own creative world … I say, ‘Wait! I’ve got so much shit in this computer. I’ll never do it all on stage. I’ll write a book!’” That book, 1997’s Brain Droppings, was No. 1 on the New York Times’ bestseller list for 18 weeks and led to a new creative stage in his career. It may not have been through television, but Carlin found his way into that writer-producer club after all.