George was a huge influence on me as a kid and I was proud as an adult to call him a friend. While The Beatles and the Stones were counter-culture from their arrival, George Carlin transformed from the traditional button-down comic into a counter culture hero. He led by example, Timothy Leary encouraged us to “Question Authority”, Carlin showed us how.
When Carlin put his unique spin on Mohammed Ali (then Cassius Clay) burning his Viet Nam draft card he redefined the range of a comic. Not content with just making people laugh, he wanted to make them think. His comedy challenged policy and he became an arbitrator of public opinion. He was commenting on a bloody war by peacefully waging one of his own. Words were his weapon and a closed mind was his enemy.
George drove himself to our first shoot and casually walked into the studio alone with a change of wardrobe slung over his shoulder. We clicked from the beginning which, upon reflection, shouldn’t have been surprising since much of my programming was done by George himself. Growing up in Japan without television, his albums FM & AM, Class Clown (which included track #9 – “The Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television”) and Occupation: Foole were committed to memory and became the spoken word soundtrack of my most formative years.
George was not the opinionated curmudgeon that he often projected. He was very thoughtful and generous, his word was his bond and he cared deeply for his family, his partner Sally and their dogs. Sally published a book after George’s passing of their correspondence that provides a glimpse of the warm, thoughtful, considerate, self-effacing man that he was off-stage (The George Carlin Letters).
George was in the process of working out material for what would turn out to be his final HBO special and sent me an email inviting me to his show in Vegas. In the email he admitted he was entertaining the notion of evolving his act into something fresh, reinventing himself as he felt maybe he had become a known quantity and felt that his irreverent, thought-provoking, signature word-smith style might have become too predictable. My response encouraged him to be true to himself but consider that from where he sat maybe he didn’t see his own growth. I suggested that in a culture where it is common to reinvent oneself to stay relevant, perhaps he was taking the more daunting approach of trying to remain relevant by perfecting his craft. His response was “I don’t know if it’s possible to be both humbled and proud simultaneously…but if it is, I am. See you after the show.”
As the lights dimmed a large security guard came over to my booth to confirm I was George’s guest. He instructed me to meet him at stage left after the show. George killed. That was the first evening he ever did “Modern Man” live on stage without notes. It was his closer and it brought down the house. When the set ended I waited for the crowd to clear and made my way over to a small group of about a dozen people waiting to go backstage. After a few minutes the security guard stepped out and walked in my direction as he apologized on George’s behalf “Mr. Carlin isn’t feeling well and felt it best to call it an early night.” He continued to address the group “Mr. Carlin apologizes for any inconvenience and thanks you all for coming tonight” as he stepped squarely on my foot. As everyone moved to the exit he looked me in the eye, then at his foot on top of mine and then over his shoulder at the crowd headed for the door, then he escorted me back to George’s dressing room. George was in great spirits and was hyped about the show, especially the “Modern Man” bit. It turned into a very memorable evening.
Shortly after that Vegas gig but before his HBO show we shot the portrait that appears on the cover of his last book, Last Words, which was released posthumously. The audio book is haunting as it’s read by his older brother, Patrick, whom survived him and sounds eerily like George.
The last time I photographed George was for the key art for that final HBO special, It’s Bad For Ya. We had four different set-ups prepped in my studio and my assistants all knew how much this shoot meant to me. George and I had discussed his health issues and, frankly, I was aware this might be our last shoot together. There was a storm on the east coast and the clients from NYC were grounded so they contacted a designer from a local design firm to represent them at the shoot.
When George got on set, to break the ice I asked if there was a photograph he had always wanted to shoot but had never done. He told me he always wanted to just riff through some material and have it photographed to capture his expressions and hand gestures but had always been told it wouldn’t work. I was confounded by that statement as it’s easily done, so we just had him stand on a grey seamless and let him go. He launched into an amazing monologue about his childhood in Brooklyn, he was riffing and throwing in some prepared material along the way. After about 8 minutes he stopped, everyone was grinning from ear-to-ear impressed by a private show of original material from the master. As the designer looked at the images on the monitor, George and I started to discuss his wardrobe for the next shot and my crew moved to the first set we had prepped. The designer walk over and said “George, I think we’ve got everything we need.” I was stunned. I immediately invited the designer into my office. After I impressed upon him the importance of this session given the factors at play, he immediately reconsidered and agreed. As we stepped out of my office George already had his jacket on and was thanking the crew for the quick, painless shoot. The launch sequence had been initiated and there was no stopping the countdown. As I walked George to the car, I was deflated that the shoot that we had spent days prepping was sitting untouched. I will always consider that to be the one that got away.