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.
There is a common adage that one should never meet their heroes. It’s generally good advice as I have had the reality-shattering curtain pulled back on plenty of “Wizards”. Meeting George was a calculated risk as he was as influential to my adolescent development as anyone could have been and one I never regretted.
True to his "Gang of One" concept, George drove himself unaccompanied to our first shoot and casually walked in with a single 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. When we wrapped that first shoot he made sure we had each others' contact info and even though we were a generation apart, over time we came to realize we shared some common character-defining traits and had come to the a lot of the same basic “big picture” conclusions.
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 The George Carlin Letters: The Permanent Courtship of Sally Wade after George’s passing. It's a record of their correspondence that provides a glimpse of the warm, thoughtful, considerate, self-effacing man that he was off-stage.
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 indicated that after this HBO special he was entertaining the notion of evolving his act into something fresh, reinventing himself as he felt maybe he had become too much of a known quantity, 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 that same security guard stepped through the backstage door and locked eyes with me as he walked in my direction. He stood beside me and issued an apology on George’s behalf “Mr. Carlin isn’t feeling well and felt it best to call it an early night.” He shifted his weight and stepped squarely on my foot as he continued "George apologizes for any inconvenience and appreciates everyone coming out tonight". As everyone turned to the exit he looked down at his foot on top of mine and then over his shoulder at the crowd headed for the door. After a moment 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. I was impressed at how fluid and seamless the show had been and it occurred to me that in preparation for an HBO taping he would be concerned about honing-in on a specific run time. I asked if the set had run long to which he responded "Yeah, I gotta shave 21 seconds off it". 21 seconds. To be off 21 seconds on an hour and 9 minute show is testament to his process of writing, rewriting, performing, pacing and perfecting every word, pause, impression and expression.
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. It was George's plan that it be released in conjunction with the opening of the Broadway show that he had previewed at our final shoot. The audio book is haunting as it’s read by his older brother, Patrick, whom survived him and sounds eerily like George.
I photographed George for the key art for his 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 anointed a designer from a local design firm to represent them at the shoot.
To break the ice I asked George 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 I just had him stand on a grey seamless and let him go.
George had long wanted to do a one-man show on Broadway and launched into an amazing monologue about his childhood bouncing around Manhattan. We got a preview of that show he had been working on for years but never got to realize. After 8 minutes without a pause (according to the metadata on my camera) he stopped to a silent room of pretty jaded industry vets realizing we were watching a master at work. After a moment my studio erupted in applause. With this pleasant but unplanned detour out of the way, George and I started to discuss his wardrobe for the next shot as my crew moved to the first set we had prepped.
The designer scrolled thru the images on the monitor and exclaimed “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 would never be realized. I never had George in front of my camera again.