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.

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