In late October, W 121st Street, between Amsterdam and Morningside Drive, in New York City became George Carlin Way. The result of thousands of petition signatures and a very persistent Kevin Bartini(@kevinbartini), the small neighborhood in Morningside Heights is now branded with the late, great comic’s name.
George Carlin was conceived, yes conceived, in Curley’s Hotel in Rockaway Beach, NY, which means he was a New Yorker since before he was born. He often cited the neighborhood he grew up in as having had an indelible mark on his growth and development. So much so that according to his daughter, Kelly, he maintained contact with some of the people he knew then.
Carlin lived across the street from Corpus Christi church, and around the corner from several seminaries and other theological establishments. But while his immediate childhood surroundings were dense with religious influence, he spent most of his time a few blocks over in West Harlem with the Black, Hispanic, and Irish kids, who had the biggest impression on him.
His show business career began as a radio announcer, but got his comedic break as part of the comic duo Burns and Carlin, who then became The Wright Brothers. His appearances on The Merv Griffin Show and other daytime programs honed his skills in writing material, which he very prodigiously maintained through the end of his life.
It was during this time that he began to deviate from the clean-cut business crowd for whom he was performing. It was the ’60s and the counter culture in the US was becoming more and more prevailing and thoughts and ideas were intermingling with rebellion and insight and George Carlin really began to take shape, as did his beard. And the resulting metamorphosis took form on stage.
From there, he’s gone on to release some 21 stand-up specials, each one unique in its brilliance but all bearing the signature of his insights and relentless telling of the truth as he saw it. Two of the most famous all-time bits are the “Seven Dirty Words” and the “Invisible Man in the Sky,” the former being the grounds for a Supreme Court case by the FCC(that’s how you know you’ve made it). Carlin was notorious not only for churning out original material, but for doing it, literally, until the last year of his life.
One of the hallmarks of his work is that he was a true logophile. He loved words. It is one of the marvels of his performances to see him go on for several minutes playing with them, simultaneously like a master glass smith, making calculated, timed, and subtle adjustments and shifts, and also like a lion with a mouse in the complete and final control he had.
Over time, he stopped thinking of his material as stand-up routines, but as essays, one-man shows that he wrote out in completion and then performed. And they most certainly came across that way. I personally see his 20+ albums as the manifesto of a stone column that saw the blueprints for its house and was duty-bound to suggest how to make it better.
George Carlin is forever embedded in comedy by way of the innumerable comics he’s influenced. So, it’s only right that he be embedded in the neighborhood that influenced him. On the night of the unveiling, there was a stand-up show at Caroline's on Broadway to honor this occasion, hosted by Colin Quinn, who spoke at the unveiling ceremony, and featuring guests Jim Norton, Eddie Brill, Kevin Bartini, Ted Alexandro, and others. They are all comics who strive towards Carlin’s model of artistic integrity, which is, according to Colin Quinn, “the ability to critique all the hypocrisies in society, yes, but also to be real enough to see that you’re as guilty as everyone else in the game.”