From the first time I became aware of him, George Carlin has been one of my favorite comedians. One of the best things about George was that underneath all that humor was a whole lot of wisdom!
George Carlin Pt 1: “Just Gettin’ Started”
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My love of comedy and comedians goes back to childhood. I spent many hours on my knees in front of our family TV watching Ed Sullivan and other variety shows which occasionally featured comedians. I met the likes of Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Jonathan Winters, Phyllis Diller, Joan Rivers, and many more. Through this article series, “Favorite Comedians”, I’d like to help you get to know some of these comedic giants, too. We’ll get to know them on a more personal level and learn what made them tick.
Getting to Know George Carlin
To try to understand and really crawl inside the skin of George Carlin, we need to set the Wayback Machine to, well, sometime in the early 1950s. George was growing up in New York and was having problems both at home, with his mother, and at school. I don’t want to draw a lot of inferences regarding George’s behavior back then, but he seemed to deal with both problems the same way; he split.
Not a Fan of Discipline
I don’t know how many times George ran away from home. He ran to avoid his mother’s religious berating. And he ran from the way she always thought he should get a good education and go into advertising. He ran away a lot, sometimes for days at a time.
As for school, his self-confessed “record” for playing hooky was 63 days, “not counting weekends and holidays”. George would tell you that discipline was never his strong suit. And the fact that he had multiple courts martial when he was in the Air Force is documented proof of that. He just seemed to have a rough plan for how he wanted to spend his time on this planet. Certain things which most of us accept as just part of life – George saw as impediments to this plan.
But He Could Make People Laugh
Pretty early on George noticed that he was good at eliciting laughter from his friends and classmates. Silly jokes, rude noises, and even crude impersonations could very often get him off the hook for some other, more serious infractions and he capitalized on that. It is at least a contributing factor for George wanting to be a radio DJ.
Toward that end, George enlisted in the Air Force. (I know those two things don’t seem connected, but hang with me on this.) His plan was to get into the Air Force, serve his time, then use his GI Bill to go to DJ school. It didn’t play out that way, but maybe that’s for the best. George and “school” never seemed to mix well, so it was a fortuitous set of circumstances that got him into his first broadcast booth.
From Air Force to Radio
As you may rightfully assume, George partied a lot in the service. He was stationed in Shreveport, Louisiana and took full advantage of his time off base. During one party he met a local DJ and started spending off-hours at the station, learning the more technical parts of the radio world. By the time George was discharged from the Air Force, he already had his own show on the “Number One Station in Shreveport”. I know, that’s akin to being “the best ballerina in Galveston”, but George loved the work.
Boston and Jack Burns
After a successful run in Shreveport, George landed a radio gig in Boston. This was another of those times when fate seemed to intervene, because Boston was where George met his future comedy partner, Jack Burns. Jack was doing a morning show in Boston and he and George ended up rooming together. During that time they began to realize how well they played off of each other and started toying with the idea of doing a two-man stand up routine. Unfortunately, that possibility was cut short when George was offered a job at a radio station in Fort Worth.
“Burns and Carlin”
It was while doing radio in Fort Worth that George really started to appreciate the value of being able to do multiple voices and he added a number of them to his repertoire. One day in Fort Worth Jack Burns pulls up out of nowhere and told George he was headed for Hollywood. Jack and George actually put together an act at that point and tried it out in local clubs before deciding that they were ready for Hollywood. “Burns and Carlin” was born and that gave each of them a chance to expand their talents as well as their reputations.
From Radio to the Playboy Circuit
George and Jack got work almost immediately as a morning comedy team on a radio station in Los Angeles and from there they started working small clubs and coffeehouses. It was while working at one of these clubs that they were seen by both Lenny Bruce and Mort Saul. The material Burns and Carlin were doing wasn’t exactly outstanding, but it was edgy enough that Lenny and Mort decided to help them get some better-paying gigs, including the Playboy circuit.
Endings and Beginnings
Although the comedy team broke up in 1962, it gave both comedians a lot of exposure and experience. It also gave George the opportunity to fall in love with a certain hostess at one of the clubs they worked in Dayton, Ohio. Miss Brenda Hosbrook went on to eventually become Mrs. George Carlin within the year.
Without Jack to play off of, George began to rewrite some of their old material as a single act and started creating a string of characters which he used to springboard his career into television appearances and even record albums. We’ll delve deeper into this part of George’s career in our next installment.