My L. Ron Hubbard

 

 

UntitledI guess if you know nothing different, you have no idea as a child if you are growing up in an extremely religious home. My family were bible-thumpers. We weren’t Jehovah Witness, but as a family, we did knock on doors preaching the message of Jesus as the Savior. We didn’t speak in tongues like the Foursquare, but we were told that drinking or dancing were verboten. I can recall during many services, the Pastor would ask if someone wanted to come to the front to accept the Lord into their heart. I did this a few times, as I was moved by the message, despite being under the age of 8.

By the time I turned 8, I began to question these beliefs. I’m sure it had something to do with the weird behavior my father exhibited after attending church. From crazed accusations that my Mom was flirting with the assistant pastor (completely unwarranted) to going through a period where he would give me a daily spanking (mostly unwarranted) because he didn’t want to be accused of sparing the rod and spoiling the child, religion began to get a more thorough overview than I had given it up to this point.

Now you might think that at this age, how much deep thinking could I really give the matter? I offer up that I was a very precocious kid, who voraciously read sports books that were written for grown-ups. I was often used like a parlor trick at parties that my parents attended, reciting baseball stats like I was a young Rob Neyer. Sports books were my escape from the anguish that was tearing our house apart. I grew up very quickly. I can honestly say that my capacity for learning was as attuned at the age of 8, as it is today. (Much like my basketball career, I peaked early.) I absorbed the world around me like a sponge and it just became more difficult to accept some of the fanciful things that I was being told at my Sunday morning, Sunday night, and Thursday night church services.

Before my 11th birthday, my father had worked it out where I would have my own daily paper route. (He lied about my age to make it happen.) As I look at it now, it seems ridiculous that a child of this age could have this type of responsibility, especially since these were the days where collecting the money from the customers was part of gig. As tough as the job was (especially in the winter months), I will say it gave me a sense of responsibility and hard work—that I’ve spent the rest of my life trying to shake. The best part of it was definitely the money it put in my pocket. Here was my budget breakdown at the time.

20% Trading Cards
20% Candy
10% Records
20% Sports books or magazines
10% Pinball
10% I didn’t end up collecting, as a couple of my customers claimed they didn’t have it or would just pretend they weren’t home. It makes me ill thinking of these scumbags today, but at the time, I wasn’t confident enough to confront them, so I ended up taking the loss quite often. How stupid was it to make paper boys collect, when every other bill was paid through the mail?
10% College fund (Which my Dad eventually ended up taking and using to hire a private investigator to try to find us when my Mom took my brother and I into hiding to escape his abuse.)

Let me focus on the records. At the time, Steve Martin was exploding on the scene and I was captivated by the wild and crazy guy. I bought everything that he put out. I also started to buy comedy albums from other performers. I bought a few of Bill Cosby’s records that I could play around my parents. I also purchased Richard Pryor, Redd Foxx, and George Carlin albums. Despite my Dad and Mom being very young, (they had just turned 20 and 18, respectively, when I was born), they were not very hip. Religion had isolated them from most pop culture, except for a few K-tel 8 tracks I would play on the console. They had no concept of the dangerous ideas that Pryor and Carlin would fill my brain with, as I listened intently to them with the headphones plugged in.

At the time Pryor made me laugh more, led by his character Mudbone. When I analyze it now, I realize that Pryor’s use of the Mudbone character was like an old vaudeville performer, as he would weave old jokes into Mudbone’s original stories. Carlin impacted me in a different way. My first exposure to him was on Class Clown and it was pretty revolutionary. I have never done acid, but I’m guessing his routines on Class Clown worked in a similar way to me, as it opened up my third eye. Carlin’s questioning of authority was amazing to me, as I had never heard anyone do it before.

I have heard many people claim that they never realized how right their parents were until they became adults themselves. On many levels, my parents were ill-equipped to instruct me, as they were so young and were actually (on some levels) still children themselves. Now up until this point, I believed they were absolutely right, because I knew no better. Carlin gave me a window into another way of thinking and behaving. His logic seemed so pure and he delivered it in such a pleasant, non-judging tone that made it seem even more palatable. His tone has changed over the past couple of decades, which has turned some off. The material that he offered up in the 1970’s was so subversive for the time that it needed a spoon full of sugar in its presentation. As the years have went by and he has become an elder statesman, he’s used a more aggressive tone, ranting at a world that deserved his disgust. His anger never seemed forced, as I believe he used it as a tool to keep the modern audience focused. Audiences today are not the hippie college kids he catered to then. Instead the audiences are in need of instant gratification, which is why I’m guessing Carlin took a more ranting approach. Listen to an interview with him during this time and he generally delivered these same insights in a much more reasoned tone.

Some people can point to an author like Aristotle or Kant and speak to how their life was shaped by their work. Others might point to Ayn Rand or L. Ron Hubbard and claim the same. My philosopher was George Carlin. While I haven’t agreed with everything he has offered up, I have never run across anyone else who spoke more truths about modern society than him. When I began my career as a comedian, I aspired to follow in his footsteps. As the years have went by, I’ve had some modicum of success, but the realization eventually set-in that I wasn’t good enough to do a show on his level. While I have carved out a niche for myself and have continued to escape the real world in some ways, I have also made compromises in my act by taking the easier path because I was most worried about grading out well and being invited back. While I generally like what I do on-stage, I realized a few years back that I would never measure up to the quality that he has consistently presented. I am a mix of being self-aggrandizing and self-loathing.

I believe Carlin is easily the greatest stand-up comic in the history of the art-form. He was the best at social commentary. He was the best at exploring our strange usage of language. He was the best at observational comedy. He was one of the best at doing characters. (Listen to his early work as the Hippy-dippy weatherman, the wonderful wino DJ, and sportscaster Biff Barf.) Even if you exclude his magnificent material, you could make it a master course in standup comedy just from watching the way he used his voice, his facial impressions, and even his body. Sure Pryor was an incredible performer who could raise a magnifying glass to himself like no one else and make it so hilarious and emotional all at the same time, but Carlin’s body of work and versatility makes him an easy choice for me as the best ever at his craft. No person has had a bigger influence on my way of thinking than George Carlin.

I will miss him.

20 thoughts on “My L. Ron Hubbard

  1. 1.  Well worth the wait, Scott.

    I’ve met a few comedians in my time. Not one–and I mean, not one–didn’t have Carlin at the top of their list. To hear these comics talk, it was like a bunch of poets in a room; one or two might make more money and one or two might be more famous but everyone in the room knew who the best poet was. That’s Carlin–everyone who knew better knew he was the best.

  2. 2.  Carlin was definitely a very good stand-up comic, but I’ve always thought he was somewhat overrated. It seems as if the younger crowds (at the time) to which he catered gravitated to him as much for his irreverence and rebellious quality as for the comedy. When I listen to Carlin, there are certainly some genius bits and a lot of amusement, but also a lot of plain old silliness. I can go several minutes in a Carlin routine without laughing much even though it is entertaining to watch the odd facial expressions and funny voices. It’s almost like Carlin was really more than one comedian: the cutting edge social commentator with brilliant observation as well as the vaudeville clown telling crude jokes and making funny faces. I’ve never really gone for the latter, and too often Carlin spent his time in that role.

  3. 3.  Great piece, Scott. The perfect complement to the day of Carlin on the XM comedy channel yesterday.

  4. 4.  Great post.

    For me, early Carlin (even through the early 90s) vs. later Carlin (angry, bitter, less funny) wasn’t about the audience’s changing tastes, as you suggest, but the artist’s. When he was younger, he was more inclusive. He invited audience participation to come along with him in his routines, seeing ourselves and the our world in his comedy. He was a master of creating empathy, which then gave his humor more impact.

    The later Carlin, OTOH, was exclusionary and ranting. He shunned the audience participation and wanted himself to be the sole spectacle. Of course, as a giant of comedy, he could coast on past reputation and easily find a circle-jerk of head nodders to come along with him.

    Compare “An Interview With Jesus Christ” or “I Used to Be an Irish Catholic” with his latter day, anti-God rants. The former were good-natured and semi-respectful, semi-irreverent, and revolved around funny situations. The later stuff was just showing off for fellow non-believers by crapping on the heads of believers. And I’d even take issue with how “revolutionary” it is to bash Christianity. I would have loved to see him have the stones to do material on Islam, the Danish cartoons, etc.

    Regardless, I think Scott nails it in the last part of his piece above, talking about all the different facets of Carlin. In Class Clown, he talked about how Spike Jones was an influence and then weaved that kind of humor into his act as part of the larger piece on class clowning. That xit is so masterful, the ability to work on so many levels at once.

    And maybe that’s what the latter day Carlin lacked, for me. He became monochromatic.

    I used to be a Carlin fan. … Y’know, you grow.

  5. 5.  4 Some people simply can’t stand for their beliefs to be questioned. If Carlin felt that religion was evil and stupid (which I think he did), why should he be respectful towards it? I heard him mock Islam on Bill Maher’s show at least once. I don’t think he was afraid of mocking Islam, muslims just weren’t his, y’know, audience. I’m guessing that he tackled Christianity more frequently because his audience was, y’know Christian. His whole method was to get you thinking about your preconceived notions, so naturally as a former Christian himself and primarily performing for audiences who were vastly comprised of Christians (or at least ex-Christians), his attacks on religion were primarily against Christianity. Seems obvious to me. I’m guessing if his audience was mostly Kyrgystani goat herders he probably would have trotted out more jokes about man/beast carnal relations.

    Ironically, a “circle-jerk of head nodders” is an excellent way to describe the attendees of the super-mega-ultra churches of Joel Osteen, John Hagee, Joyce Meyer and all of the other pied pipers of materialistic Christianity.

  6. 6.  Josh. I also listened to XM much of the day. The interview that Sonny Fox did with him was the best overview of Carlin’s career I had ever heard. I met Fox when I was performing at the DC IMPROV and he is a really good dude.

    Mr. Pyke. You know I think you fulfill an important role here, but on this one I think you are mainly off. I have heard Carlin take on Muslims in a few places, and everything Chris writes is dead-on.

    Speaking of preaching to the choir, I have worked with so many panderers to our country is the best and let’s all give it up for the troops. Most of these guys didn’t even do it because they were speaking from the heart, but instead did it because they wanted to get a nice applause break and have the audience like them.

    On the Ron and Fez show, Ron spoke about opening for Carlin in Florida and how Carlin went off on golf courses. Well, as you know many people live in Florida for the golf, so it didn’t exactly make everyone happy. I’m guessing it might have made a few think, though. I would rate the golf course bit as one of the 5 best he ever did.

    While most comics who take on religion just do it on the coasts and college campuses, Carlin would go to small cities in the Midwest and South and do it. As someone who lives in an area where you never hear any disparaging remarks about religion, I can tell you I really appreciated it.

    I have tried doing material on the subject, but never felt it was worth all the headache I would get in return. I work in rooms which have 30-300 people in them. These people for most part come out for comedy, not come out to see me. It changes the equation with these outliers. I’m pretty brave on-stage, but very few have been as brave as Carlin. I hear the idea that an audience member is there to be entertained and not preached at. Fair enough, but I would argue that is what you get from 98% of standups, so I think it’s wonderful that there are a few exceptions.

    Also, keep in mind that Carlin spoke out against political correctness on the left, especially from the universities. He attacked facets of feminism and environmentalism. He wasn’t strictly liberal, he was a man who valued above all else the ability to be a free thinker. He had his personal foibles, but I never met a person who met him that had a bad experience with Carlin. (see Dennis Miller is a douchebag)

    Carlin was the most unique and important figure ever in standup comedy.

  7. 7.  5 Why should he be respectful? Hmmm…well, maybe because hateful bigotry is still frowned upon in some parts. I realize that many who feel enlightened take delight in spewing this form of hatred and ignorance, but that doesn’t mean there still isn’t a small minority who think respect for others is a good thing, even if you don’t agree with them.

  8. 8.  6 Do you mean is was the most important figure to the standup comic community, or the most important standup in American culture? If the latter, I think I’d have to disagree. Bob Hope and Bill Crosby strike me as two comics who probably had a bigger impact on American culture than Carlin.

  9. 9.  Can’t say I disagree with your last paragraph, Chris.

    If you’re implying that I can’t stand to have my beliefs questioned, that’s not accurate. I just didn’t think his God-hater rants were funny. Lotsa people did, though. Good on them.

    Also, I never said he had to be or should have been “respectful.” I merely explained how early Carlin was different than latter Carlin, IMO. You’re a smart guy, Chris, so don’t put words into my mouth, please.

    As for the muslim thing, saying xit on Maher’s show is somehow showing stones? You claim that he didn’t do this b/c his audience wasn’t muslim, but did a majority of his previous comedy deal only w/ what his audience specifically was all about? Pretty weak logic. The only thing I could believe is that he may have thought it too cliche, but even so, Carlin’s own take on even what had been cliche, is never cliche.

  10. 10.  William. Throwing out the word bigotry is something that should be done very carefully. When you are expressing opinions in life on race, I guarantee that someone will come off believing you are racist. Black comics since Pryor often use this extremely nerdy voice to characterize white people. I realize that it comes from a cartoon impression of whitey. No problem. Black comics use stereotypes about their own community waaaaay more than white ones do and I think that is cool, as well.

    Now should a comic, rapper, author, just throw out racial epithets just to get a rise out of people. I would rather not hear it, but generally these people will have no success with this approach, anyway. If a few stereotypes are explored, I think it can create an interesting discussion, especially if they have a unique take on it. Political correctness is the death of comedy and I will take on anyone who uses it as a blanket against free thought. What has happened in the past couple of years on radio is a great example of the damage it can do.

  11. 11.  I wrote standup comedy. Bob Hope had some influence on Carlin and Woody Allen, but he was a figure of his times. He had a staff of writers who came up with middle of the road stuff to please not challenge.

    Cosby is a fair example, but he has spent much of his career as an actor. He is the best storyteller I’ve ever heard, but little of his comedy ever made you question your beliefs, but I do think social commentary is the hardest feat in standup. No problem with that, as I’m a fan of all the unique flavors in comedy, though. I rate Cosby just below Carlin and Pryor and I can understand why some would put him at the top. My argument would be that he has spent more of his career being a TV star. Carlin wasn’t good at acting like anyone except Carlin, which I’m happy about, as it kept him in the standup ring.

  12. 12.  I was writing 9 when 5 was the last one showing, so I appreciate post 6 very much and would have changed what I said.

    BTW, Scott, it’s Dr., not Mr. (I’ll be paying off the student loans on that title for while yet, which means I’m going to get some mileage out of it when possible…)

    I would say this, though, about the subject of what I perceived as disrespectful: there is a difference between being disrespectful of people vs beliefs. As a Christian, I felt that Carlin went to the former in his latter years. And that’s my hangup. It didn’t bother other people. I get that.

    I think he also oversimplified some Christian theology for comic effect, rather than truly grappling with the meaning. I don’t expect him to be CS Lewis, but I knew in some of his bits he had to play ignorant to make some of his claims. An earlier Carlin would have been more ecumenical, which in fact would drive home the points better. For example, an earlier Carlin would have given the argument as to why the Bible speaks of money (at least in the context of what the nuns or priests told him), and then he would have hammered you with his comedic take. The difference is stark. This method allowed him to give people respect and show his knowledge on the subject, and then BOOM! make it funny. Instead, his latter schtick lacked any of these qualities. He got rid of the asides, the set ups. And that, to me, is why I felt it was exclusionary.

  13. 13.  In this same vein, early Carlin didn’t insult the intelligence of the audience. He could point our how ridiculous it was to be absolved of any wrongdoing via confessional. And he would find comedy in every single step, and mine it for all that it was worth.

    His latter day stuff would simply shout at the audience instead. “You can do anything you want, as long as you tell it to some *ssh*le afterwards in a dark room? F*ck that! That’s not how the world works, douchebags!” etc.

    Early Carlin is impossible to parody. Latter Carlin practically writes itself.

  14. 14.  I think that your analysis is dead-on. Where we disagree is the notion that someone needs to be more subtle in their approach. I understand it is what you like best. In today’s society, subtle just doesn’t work well with audiences, unless you are performing in Lake Wobegone.

    I guess I would describe it as an age thing. Earlier Carlin was classic rock. Later Carlin was punk rock. I loved them both. You didn’t. I guess that is the way it goes, good doctor.

  15. 15.  9 “Also, I never said he had to be or should have been “respectful.” I merely explained how early Carlin was different than latter Carlin, IMO. You’re a smart guy, Chris, so don’t put words into my mouth, please.”

    True enough, re-reading what you originally said you are pretty clearly saying that his later lack of respect is one of the things that turned you off, not that he needed to be respectful.

    “If you’re implying that I can’t stand to have my beliefs questioned, that’s not accurate. I just didn’t think his God-hater rants were funny. Lotsa people did, though. Good on them.”.

    I wasn’t trying to imply that about you, I know better. I do not think it’s accurate to call his later work “God-Hating” though—it’s hard to hate what you consider fantasy. I think he hated that the world view of a small group of ancient, violent animal herders has caused and continues to cause such divisions among humans. That these people were wrong about just about everything about the world around them matters not to most as they were ‘right’ about that one thing that can’t be disproved.

  16. 17.  But you’re right, Scott–times change, audiences change, and artists even change. I mean, I wouldn’t expect Carlin to keep doing Hippy Dippy or Place for My Stuff forever. His books were clever, too. I remember such inane Carlinisms as “multiply your shoe size by your hat size to find the distance you can kick your hat.” So many facets.

  17. 18.  So from your acknowledgment that Carlin did have some good stuff in his books (which all came out in the past 10 years), it is hard to just call his later work an air horn. Maybe a better analogy would be early Carlin was Ornette Coleman, later it was John Zorn.

  18. 19.  Actually, the book I had in mind was “Sometimes a Little Brain Damage Can Help” (1984), but point well taken.

  19. 20.  Excellent piece.

    I can’t believe it took me this long to get over here to see your take on Carlin’s passing.

    I tend to look at the old Carlin/ young Carlin question kind of like an athlete. Young Carlin is Willie Mays 1951/Michael Jordan 1992. Can’t be stopped. Can do everything, can do it better. Pushing the envelope. Reinventing the form.

    Old Carlin is Willie Mays 1971/Michael Jordan 2002. Can’t do everything he used to do. You have abiding respect for the body of work, and you still see glimmers of the guy he was. But he’s not that guy anymore, and it pains you just a little bit that you can see it.

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