Friday, January 18, 2013

Thoughts on George Carlin's final, unrecorded (?) performance

I find myself scouring Youtube for footage from any of George Carlin's stand up performances that took place between the airing of his final HBO special, It's Bad For Ya, in March 2008, and his death in June of that year. I can find nothing. Apparently his final concert took place June 15th at Orleans casino in Vegas, exactly one week before he died. Amazingly, not so much as a minute of poorly-recorded cellphone video exists online of this show; either absolutely no one recorded it, or HBO or the Carlin estate have been vigilant in making sure that none of the footage has leaked online. Or have had it removed, if it ever did.

That's perhaps not such a great loss, actually; chances are the material was very close to what one sees on his final HBO DVD. Carlin had said - on an extra on the It's Bad For Ya DVD, actually - that after recording a HBO special, he would generally "coast" - his word - with the old material, gradually adding something new and taking something old out as he saw fit. He likened the process to darning socks, saying that eventually, if you have a pair of socks, and repair them any time they get holey, you will eventually replace all the old material with new material, raising the philosophical question of whether they were the still the same pair of socks, or a new pair (my metaphysics prof Norman Swartz used an historical boat that had been rebuilt a bit at a time as his example, to illustrate the problem of identity through time; either analogy works just fine). According to Carlin, in this same extra (an interview called "Too Hip for the Room"), he would generally coast with the old material for about six months before he would start to get bored of it and factor in new stuff he'd been writing. This means that whatever he was performing in June of 2008 was probably not so different from what one sees on the It's Bad For Ya DVD.

There might be another reason why footage of that concert, if it exists, isn't circulating, however. You may not be aware of this, but as new stuff got factored in to his routine, Carlin would actually appear onstage with a notebook, occasionally pausing to have recourse to it. (If you're especially attentive, there is even something that may be a notebook that he appears to covertly glance at a couple of times, visible on the table beside his water bottle, in the It's Bad For Ya DVD). He admits this practice in the selfsame extra, but I have firsthand knowledge of how it actually looked onstage, because I saw him live at a Vancouver casino myself, as he was working up to recording It's Bad For Ya - the only major-league stand up performance I have seen. Several times during that routine, he would pause to flip through a few pages, selecting things he wanted to try. Whatever we might say in his defence - he was 70, he was a huge star, etc - this was, in fact, somewhat startling to witness. Having had no advance knowledge that this was his modus operandi, I expected to be seeing polished, memorized material, such as I'd seen on his HBO specials. I had often wondered how someone like Carlin remembered so much material and delivered it in such a confident, coherent fashion, simply from memory, and was shocked to discover that the answer was in fact that he didn't. The live performance I paid $80 to attend was essentially a practice run for what would later make it onto the DVD; he introduced the set by saying something very much to this effect, in fact, suggesting that when the DVD came out we could buy it and see the whole thing in its polished final form. Well! - talk about the Wizard of Oz. Though eventually I settled in and enjoyed his routine regardless, it was somewhat disillusioning, somewhat of a minor scandal to be told such a thing, somewhat of, well, an insult: in effect, "you people aren't really that important, so, fuck you, I'm just going to practice this stuff on you." Cool that we were hearing new material, cool that we were being allowed insight into his creative process, and yes, still cool that I got to see George Carlin once in my life... but, I mean, I remember when Nomeansno did a "practice gig" to see how All Roads Lead to Ausfahrt played live, they announced it as such and sold tickets at a cheaper rate... For me, shelling out $80 to see any comedian perform was a big commitment of resources, and I have to admit that the notebook was a little disappointing, a bit of bad form on his part.

Anyhow, it may be that HBO, the Carlin estate, or so forth, is vigilant in keeping footage of Carlin consulting a notebook while performing off of the internet, to preserve some of the illusions of virtuosity the HBO specials create. IF there was new material in the June 15th show, no doubt he had it written down on stage with him. Or perhaps footage of that concert has been suppressed for quality control reasons? He was, after all, one week from death; maybe it wasn't his strongest performance, that night?

For whatever reason - I expected to be able to find some of his final concert footage online, and I can't. If it was ever there - it sure isn't now.

And that's sad, because it means that whatever new material Carlin WAS working on at that point is now somewhat lost, at least when it comes to public access of it. Maybe he had some inspired routine he was working on, even if only in notebook form, that he tried out for the first time that night? Maybe he had comments on mortality - a theme particularly significant in some of his later shows - that would seem particularly prescient or profound given that he was unwittingly a week from the grave? Whatever observations he may have shared with the audience that night, they may not have been as polished or as perfect as they would have been, had he been allowed the time to develop and polish and record them for HBO, but they still would have been part of a new George Carlin routine. Funny that no one seems to have made a big deal of preserving it for public consumption - or maybe they have, but on an even more underground, bootleg-level than one finds on Youtube: maybe there's an underground internet forum or group or such that are trading audio of such concerts even now? I really wouldn't know. You'd think SOMEONE SOMEWHERE recorded that last show, eh?

...Or maybe it exists somewhere in an archive that only Carlin scholars will be allowed to access. Who knows?

An amusing footnote: the week after George Carlin died, I was flipping through the Georgia Straight and came to the ads for casino concerts, and there was an ad for a scheduled George Carlin show at River Rock or such, with a photo of the man; and across his chest was written the word, "cancelled." I couldn't help but laugh, particularly given that it was obvious that Carlin himself would have seen the humour in the ad, in its unintentional, startling bluntness. George Carlin has been cancelled: indeed. I saved that ad, and found it now, tucked in my DVD. If I had a scanner hooked up, I'd share...

Incidentally, this all started for me tonight because of the annoying hubbub around Lance Armstrong, and my own feelings about the man, which are fairly close to Carlin's. I'll choose my own heroes, too, thanks.


Stall Master said...

You're joking, right? I mean, you've got to be joking. The man literally passed away that year at 70 years old.

I saw Carlin the same year, 2008, in January. He did a competent, well timed show and even though he returned to his notepad, it hardly disrupted the performance. They were brief glances, nothing more.

There is much evidence to suggest that Carlin was a master of memory and competent, seamless execution of his routines. He had an expansive career, with a trajectory that illustrated this point repeatedly. I feel like we were extremely fortunate to experience Carlin try out new material on us in a performance that also included more familiar reworked gems from previous routines.

To suggest that it was an insult to the audience for him bring his work on the road and onto the stage is tone-deaf at best. Since it was your first (and only?) "major league" stand-up comedy show, I understand your expectations were high. However, lamenting about the 80$ ticket price in context to the way Carlin delivered his material (months before his death, no less), sounds a little bit misguided and ultimately ungrateful.

The “Practice Run / Fuck You” that you saw was what stand-up comedians do.

George Carlin was not NoMeansNo. Stand-up comedy is an exceptionally different artform than musical performance. I will concede that it was an equitable act for the Canadian punk band to let their audience in on a reduced price for unfinished material; however, multiple factors are problematic in this comparison. While I could argue the main differences, I will avoid splitting hairs and give you the cop-out variable:

The name. You’re paying for that “major league” name. It’s George Carlin, come on man. 80 bucks was hard for me too. I was 20 years old, and although my expectations were high, I wasn’t let down by seeing someone who is clearly a master of his craft chisel away at new stone.

You're right: He did make a bit of a "disclaimer" at the beginning. It included remarks about new material, but also material he had to adjust for his Canadian audience. Perhaps that had a little bit to do with the selective nature of his performances for those dates?

"Illusions of virtuosity"? You can’t believe this. You actually think that HBO presents a perfectly illustrated example of any performance, let alone Carlin’s? Of course there is editing. The fact that this came as such a surprise to you is frankly baffling, seeing as how you discuss your exploration of Carlin’s Bonus material on his DVDs and other interviews of him discussing his methods.

The final element of this article that I found to be odd was the tasteless musing on the “cancelled” performances and the accompanying image. While I will acknowledge the dark humor that perhaps Carlin would have appreciated in this advertising flub, the commentary preceding it just made you sound a little spiteful. Having said that, I’d still love to see the photo in question that you apparently tucked into your DVD.

Your article was enjoyable to read, even if just for its capability to inspire this long-winded retort.

Like you, I was searching for a bootleg, a recording, anything I could find from the show in 2008 I attended. Like you, I was unsuccessful. I feel like the two of us, though, may have a very different appreciation for such an artifact. “Minor Scandal”, indeed.

Allan MacInnis said...

Guess I'll start here: you are, on some level, right - it was indeed childish of me to think that the live phenomenon was going to be anything akin to what I had seen on teevee, and I probably should have known better... but what can I say, it was when I was 12 or 13 -
a child - and just discovering standup comedy on VHS that I formed the impression that comedians like Carlin (or Robin Williams, or...) were capable of superhuman feats of memory and improvisation. Buddies and I talked at some length, as I recall, on the topic of "how can they DO that?" It was amazing to me - and because I never go to live comedy shows, and never thought about much as an adult, is actually an illusion, sustained by every HBO special I watched, which I wasn't disabused of until this one show in question. I mean, I was genuinely surprised, disappointed, and so forth, for all of about two minutes: WHAT, he's using a notebook and telling us to buy the HBO DVD if we want to see him without it? (Is the term "butthurt" appropriate here? I don't use it often). But, I mean, OF COURSE comedians consult their notes from time to time, even great ones. It was daft of me to think otherwise, naive of me to be disappointed.

But I was.

Still, I settled in and, as I also say, I DID enjoy the show, and I'm glad I got to see him once, and I probably wouldn't even care, had a chance to see him again, if he consulted his notes from time to time, now that I know it was something he did. My point in bringing it up at all - which I kinda feel you're missing - was that I wonder if HBO (or whomever) might not encourage posting video online of Carlin consulting a notebook; since they obviously want to foster the illusion that it's all spontaneous and unscripted and so forth, maybe there's footage that does exist that reveals otherwise that they've discouraged people from seeing? I mean, there's *some* reason that there's no footage online of those final shows, right? In the age of the cellphone, surely someone recorded SOMETHING...

But whatever. I do kinda feel like you're reading more disrespect into this piece of writing than I intended. Carlin was a genius, and who cares what I think? There's certainly no spite at all meant in my being amused by the "Carlin cancelled" clipping. I mean, if I could show it to Mr. Carlin, I would - hey, check it out, man, you got cancelled!

I think I might have a photo somewhere of the ad. I can't post it here in the comments, so it'll have to go up in Jan. 2018. If I can find it, I'll put it up.

I wonder what George Carlin would make of call-out culture (or of policing people online for being "tone-deaf?" - which often involves an interestingly vituperative tone itself). Every now and then there are these developments that you really wish your deceased idols could comment on (like, what would Lemmy make of the Trump presidency?). Anyhow...

Unknown said...

So this is incredibly old and I don't know if anyone will see it, but I did get to see George Carlin in Pensacola, FL a couple weeks before his death(show was June 9th). The show itself was great, and he was definitely on top of his timing, and was trying out some new material.

But man, he looked like a completely different person. He had put on a ton of weight, I imagine from his health issues, and I hardly recognized him at first. Didn't seem to have an effect on his performance at all, he was still great and I'm really glad I got to see him once before he passed. I've been a fan of his since watching him on Shining Time Station as a little kid.

But when he passed, while I was very sad, I think it helped me to accept it a bit more easily, seeing him like that beforehand.

Allan MacInnis said...

Glad it is interesting - he was totally Skinny George when I saw him...