George Carlin: Before and After

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The real shock and awe has worn off a little, that of George Carlin, as he might say, “going away.” I am able to better assemble some thoughts about, for me, the most important comedian we had.

“Going away,” George said about humanity. The planet is staying right here. But we, polluting little bastards, are going away. No one who ever did standup comedy made apocalypse so clear, so funny and so acceptable. His cosmological views reassured me. He called human beings, in a later HBO special, “an evolutionary cul-de-sac.” And while a lot of TV shows have claimed his legacy is the “7 Dirty Words You Can’t Say…” routine and the Supreme Court case that upheld our rights based on it, I don’t think so.

That was a landmark ruling but as far as I am concerned, George Carlin redefined what you can do as a comedian. He expanded the language. He got dark and then brought it back to goofy for those admirers he flipped out a little. He was a magnificent poet-philsopher-goofball and even when his material got crass, it had class.

George outlived his colleague Lenny Bruce, a brilliant comedian who was, alas, destroyed not only by his own demons but by the thing that can destroy any comedian: bad timing. The time in which Lenny performed was not a time for acceptance of his language and concepts. What I’m still thinking of, in George’s past, is the FM & AM album. It literally captures his transition from suit-and-tie, inoffensive guy to counterculture genius. The photos on the album and the two different sides of material are the great transition of doing ten years of a certain kind of material and then saying, I am ready for a change…and so is society.

I loved that George made Americans rethink their behavior as a people, their knowledge about world events and their responsibilities to the rest of the world as a superpower: “What the fuck do white people have to be blue about? Banana Republic ran out of khakis? The espresso machine is jammed? Shit, white people ought to understand that their job is to give people the blues, not to get them.”

George went too soon but he wisely used his later years to bring “cranky” to an art form. What better excuse than being old and the most prolific comedian around to really kick mental comedy ass and cause shift in the minds of fans. He questioned, as “motivated,” people like serial killers and CEOs. “And anyway, I think motivation is overrated. You show me some lazy prick who’s lying around all day, watching game shows and stroking his penis and I’ll show you someone who’s not causing any fucking trouble.”

The most important comedians always cause trouble. They create cognitive dissonance, making you chortle at something naughty and then stunning you into silence with some wry observation on just how waywardly screwed up life on this planet really is.

I’ll always treasure the one time I met George. I’ll always be in awe of the suit-and-tie guy from The Ed Sullivan Show who let his hair—and all our minds—grow.

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Chasing the Ending of The Sopranos

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I am amused at how upset so many viewers are at the ending of the HBO series The Sopranos.

We Americans are very much geared toward “closure,” a seemingly magical term signifying something akin to acceptance of a storyline’s conclusion, in the arts or in real life. So, the image of Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) watching his daughter join his family for a rare public outing or perhaps watching a gunman come out of a restroom with a gun pointed at him (and perhaps his family as well) is not the closure so many viewers apparently wanted.

But what did you want? Tony going into the witness protection program? Does that sound plausible? A last image of a fractured family, barely holding it together, eating onion rings, before, presumably, Tony will be going to jail? Or perhaps viewers thought one of the most affecting series in the history of American television should have concluded, after eight years, with the boss lying in a pool of blood, with family crying over his prone body, with a mournful swell of violins?

In fact, series creator David Chase, in writing and directing the last episode, came up with the perfect ending for a show so many people did not want to end. It is filled with ironies that are more rewarding to ponder than a clear-cut conclusion.

Take for example the irony of a show that had shatteringly powerful depictions of violence, now ended with an inferred but unseen fusillade of bullets. How about the irony of the group Journey on the jukebox singing “Don’t Stop Believin’?” That could refer to Tony Soprano believing in the future of his family. Or his wondering whether his life, devoted to the Mafia, was worth all the death and despair that attended it. Yes, could it be that as the screen went blank on Steve Perry’s singing voice wailing, “Don’t stop!” that David Chase found the best ironic comment on both the show’s storyline and our obession with how this remarkable show might end?

I hope those who are foaming at the mouth about the ambiguity of the end will keep in mind one of the most important strands of thought to come out of the last few episodes of The Sopranos. Tony Soprano’s psychiatrist, Dr. Melfi (Lorraine Bracco) is disturbed to learn that many in her profession find career criminals use therapy to justify what they do, rather than leaving it behind. And who gets to leave the Mafia anyway? And in what condition?

And what if some of the unease we felt in that last diner scene had nothing to do with a hit on Soprano? In fact, what must it be like to live your life wondering if each moment may be your last outside of a penitentiary?

One of the fascinating aspects to the series is how members of the Soprano bloodline cope with the knowledge of what the scion of their family does. Carmela, when not filled with maternal angst about her family, loses herself in materialism. A.J., suicidal after a failed love, turns from righteous indignation at society’s ills to a darkly transcendent moment, glorying in the destruction of an SUV he was in moments before.

And Meadow, most ironic of all, decides to go into law, motivated by her father’s humiliation at the hands of the FBI. It is an FBI that ostensibly has provided Soprano with information to annihilate his adversary Phil Leotardo, and perhaps, have his remaining adversaries do the same to him. The only character exultant during this is an FBI agent who relishes the self-destruction of the Jersey mobsters.

There is a perfect fatalism in not knowing whether Tony is gunned down. The point is that within that world, killing immediate family members was supposed to be off-limits. And yet, Phil Leotardo is whacked in front of his family. Before he goes down, an innocent man and woman are mistakenly killed. The fact that Tony Soprano’s wife and kids may witness his own death–and be potential victims themselves–at the end makes a stunning commentary.

The escalation of the war between Mob families in The Sopranos is the brutal, unflinching reminder that even their rules can go out the window. It is a reminder that a war in Jersey or a war in Iraq or a genocide in Darfur or even a war of silence between estranged relatives can go on and on and on, even when a majority of people involved don’t want it to. The rapid closure we sometimes seek in life, like the closure we wanted in The Sopranos, often eludes us.

Living with the Dead

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[Entertainment Today, June 23, 2000]

To you, the Dead may be loved ones, relatives, friends.

To you, the Dead may be those who wronged you, and those you hope are charbroiling like chickens in Hell.

Whether a channeler of 10,000 year old men named Grak or cynical bastard, you can’t help but wonder what life would be like if you could receive messages from those who’ve passed from this realm. Would it be via a voice, a dream, waking symbology or, as in Woody Allen’s “Oedipus Wrecks” segment of the film New York Stories, your not-so-dearly departed mother berating you across the skies of Manhattan?

When I first saw medium John Edward on CNN’s Larry King Show, I could not turn away, as he took call after call, validating the Dead friends and lovers of callers with specific details and passing along messages of hope and joy.

Edward is a clairaudient primarily, using mostly what he hears to connect two planes of existence. In talking to him prior to a recent Learning Annex appearance, I found a decidedly non-New Age figure, wearing a Casper (the Friendly Ghost) tee shirt and jeans, and talking straight talk like anybody who lives in Queens.

He came into the work as a disbeliever when, at the age of 16, his grandmother had a reading with a medium who heard her long-dead grandfather picking out a tune on a mandolin, an instrument he in fact had taught himself to play. He assumed she was a mind-reader, until predictions she made that day started coming true.

Working with a group of mediums (media?) at the University of Arizona, Edward has found the emotional need of those who have lost others to impact the ability to give readings. He’s currently working on a TV show to air later this year on the Sci-Fi Channel, entitled Crossing Over. One of the subjects had waited thirty years to get a message from his father. In another instance, the producers asked Edward to do a reading on a person brought in and instead, he received information for a member of the crew standing off to the side.

Edward has been given the nickname “The Terrier” because of his tenacity working with audiences, even when they do not recognize the information he receives. Sometimes, he will hear a name from a person’s past and get the sounds right and the name wrong. Other times, he will have startling clarity. He connected with the one woman in the ballroom of five hundred people whose daughter had been murdered, confirmed it via details and relayed a healing message.

There is a religiosity to this work, when you turn and look at the impact made on those people, knowing they will never be the same, that something has been healed.

“Someone in this area lost someone who fell through the ice and drowned,” Edward says, pointing to a part of the crowd.

Sure enough, a young woman is brought to tears, confirming Edward’s assertion the friend was an Indian and died not of drowning but hypothermia.

Edward refuses to disbelieve what he hears, even when his subjects are unsure in the moment as to a certain significance. “I have a rock on my desk,” he explained, “and it has one word on it: ‘TRUST.’”