Carlin at Carnegie

My father would have turned 69 on the 25th of May (which is when I started drafting this). But he died twelve years ago after a very rapid struggle with renal cancer that metastasised in his brain.  I've written about that time here, for those who care.

He was a career civil servant, which was and is a noble profession. But for about 15 months in the early 1980s, he had a kind of awesome job. He was responsible for home entertainment for foreign-posted employees of the Department of External Affairs. It was the dawn of home video, basically. He made the decision to use VHS as opposed to Betamax. He purchased a few dozen VCRs and sent them overseas. And he built a fairly large video library. Every six weeks a package of tapes would be sent out by diplomatic courier to a station; a few children's, a few family, and a few adult. At the station they would be borrowed and circulated among the staffers and then shipped back. (Places with easy access to English-language entertainments were typically exempted, of course.)

On weekends he would bring a VCR home, along with a few tapes, until it was more feasible to buy our own: a ridiculous thing to do in 1981.

It was the old Panasonic. This model had a digital clock: the year previous it still had an analogue. To set a recording you would adjust the little stick to the appropriate place on the hour dial (yes, just like a cheapo travel alarm clock), turn the dial to the desired channel, depress the record button, and voila.  Ours had the accuracy of a precise start time, but it would still only stop when the tape ran out. A wired remote control: an actual switch with pause and play/record. Pausing on play turned the screen a slate static. We had that until the late 1980s: until well after dad left.

But I digress. One day he brought home Carlin at Carnegie (linked here to a wacky Japanese YouTube equivalent).

This was Carlin's first special since his heart attack, and his third overall. It was also related to his A Place for My Stuff album but recorded separately from it. This was the last time that the recording process didn't generate both a special and an album: so it is the last time the two were considered as separate avenues of performance. And it was more in keeping with a spot on tour, mixing new routines and older bits: there are routines taken from albums as far back as Toledo Window Box. And it was the first special that made it to home video. But the historical context is largely irrelevant save for how I reacted to it.

I would have been ten. I did not know what Carnegie Hall was. I think I knew what 'cunt' meant based on reading cadged copies of Penthouse and discovering the letters section. (I was a precocious, bookish pervert.) But I also knew about stand-up comedy. There was a curtain one walked through, and the camera stayed nice and still. It came in five-minute chunks and was repeatable at school. 

What the fuck was I looking at?

The stacks of chairs on the unadorned stage betrayed an intentional lack of artifice. Like the bare brick wall or the curtain, this showed that a raw performance, and not a capital P performance was taking place. And he just walked on, settled the crowd, and asked the inevitable question:

Have you noticed that most of the women who are against abortion are women you wouldn’t want to fuck in the first place?

So yeah: it messed me up a little.

It isn't his best work: the 1980s are his post-heart attack, cute period, when he is oddly middle-aged and resting on laurels. His game-changing FM/AM - Class Clown - Occupation: Foole hat-trick from the early 70s fuelled his reputation, and the "goofy shit" drug albums that followed were in the past. It really isn't until 1988's What Am I Doing in New Jersey? that the "angry Carlin" for which he is now most remembered emerged.

But  as an introduction to Carlin, and more importantly as an introduction to what stand-up is, it could not have come at a more important time. Kevin Smith has also written about its influence on him (he had HBO and recorded it on his Betamax). The coincidence of the material and the medium of home video places it as a pivotal piece in the history of stand-up.