It’s Thanksgiving weekend here in the US, which means eating turkey, watching football, going absolutely insane over “deals” at the stores, and arguing about politics with relatives you only see once per year. It’s also a time for reflection and specifically for giving thanks for the good things in your life. Even during a tough year Thanksgiving reminds us to look at the positive aspects of our lives and recognize them. It’s a powerful sentiment – it’s so easy to get caught up in both your day-to-day existence and the things causing you stress, and we can all use a little reminding about the important things and people who are in our lives and make it even a little bit better every single day.
I’ve been particularly reflective this year, because 2016 has been tough at the Life in the Vinyl Lane household. Not hard as in we couldn’t make the mortgage payment or couldn’t put food on the table, mind you, but things like job changes and tons of work related travel (I think I’ll end 2016 having taken about 26 business trips…), and also my dad facing some health challenges. The last of these, of course, is the most serious.
There comes a point in your adulthood when you come to grips with the fact that your parents are getting older and that chances are you will outlive them. You also come to accept the fact that you can’t be sure how or when that will eventually happen – will they have a slow decline, will someone get seriously ill, or will it happen suddenly and without warning? I’ve watched my friends grapple with these challenges, showing great courage when faced with heart-breaking situations. Well, 2016 was my year to join the club.
I was thinking the other day about the trips my parents and I used to take, most of which were by car (or to be more precise, by van). When we lived in the southeast, every summer we’d drive straight through in one day to Long Island to stay with my godmother. When we moved back to Seattle it was road trips to Lake Tahoe or Reno, once again driving straight through in one day with my dad doing pretty much all of the driving, taking maybe a one hour break for a nap. We even once offered to drive a friend’s Winnebago from Anchorage, Alaska to Lake Tahoe for them when they moved, and just so happened to do it at the same time that Mount St. Helens blew it’s top, the icing on what had already been a disastrous, Griswold-esque trip. The things I remember most about these endless drives are the van smelling like an ashtray, peeing on the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, and listening to comedy tapes in the front seat with my dad.
Like all fathers and sons, dad and I tried to bond over a number of things over the years. Things like bowling and chess I enjoyed, but he was just so good at both that eventually I lost interest. The opposite was true for those early Atari video games, which he enjoyed but I was so much better than him that it took the fun out of playing. We did, however, land on two things as I reached my early teens – baseball cards and comedy. He later turned baseball cards into a full time business, but comedy always remained a simple pleasure, not one we indulged in often together, but when we did we could go for hours at a time. And on those road trips we’d dust off all of our comedy cassettes and play them one after the other in the car. And the one comedian we both loved equally was George Carlin.
I was lucky enough to see Carlin live a few years before he passed away, down in either Vegas or Tahoe. His show was highly political, so while not perhaps as much fun as his earlier stuff Holly and I were both glad for the opportunity to see him perform. Fast forward to Friday and we find ourselves at Easy Street Records for the RSD Black Friday event, and the comedy section of the used records caught my eye. I wondered if they have any George Carlin… of course they did! And for five bucks I couldn’t not buy his all-time classic, Class Clown. It’s hard to believe that we used to buy comedy albums, even more so that we bought them on vinyl. But we did. The last one I remember getting was Sam Kinison’s Louder Than Hell right when it first came out in 1986.
But back to Carlin. I was wondering if this 44 year old material would still hold up today. And the good news is that it does, at least it does if you’re of a certain age. Great comedy is about telling a story and Carlin was one of the all-time greats in this regard, giving you very real-life stories that have funny twists to them. There’s nothing crazy, no massively bizarre and improbable scenarios; it’s just stories of growing up in New York City and attending Catholic schools. There’s no shocking turn at the end of the story, or the need to scream or yell or be extreme, just a man on stage talking to you and making you laugh.
One of the things that strikes me as I listen to Class Clown for the first time in probably 30 years is that for a guy who is so famous for his commentary on obscene words, “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” he doesn’t swear much during his routine – hardly at all, in fact. But that routine was actually very important in a legal sense, as a dispute between WBAI radio and the Federal Communication Commission (FCC) about the station playing it on the public airwaves went all the way to the Supreme Court. The Court determined that Carlin’s routine was “indecent but not obscene,” resulting in what became known as “The Carlin Rule” about words that you can’t use on public airwaves. Because the government needs to protect the children from hearing the word “piss”. I mean, after all, I’m sure they’ll never hear that word anywhere else…
Carlin resonated with dad and I in part because we both spent a lot of time in Catholic schools and Class Clown has some great stuff on side B about the Catholic experience. “I Used to be Catholic,” “The Confessional,” “Special Dispensation – Heaven, Hell, Purgatory and Limbo”… things that are funny in and of themselves, but a bit funnier if you grew up around this stuff. The side closes with what is undoubtedly Carin’s masterpiece, “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” a combination of seemingly simple comedy that also acts as a biting commentary on society and government. Amazingly, and perhaps disappointingly, it still sounds fresh and relevant today, in part because we’re still worried about words.
Class Clown was a fun trip down memory lane. I may need to play this one again for dad and see if he still enjoys it as much as I do. Get well soon, pops.