This afternoon, the 400 block of West 121st St by Amsterdam Avenue will be renamed George Carlin Way, cementing the stand-up’s legacy as America’s most important counter-culture comic. Well, that was the plan, at least, but nothing goes that smoothly in New York, so due to construction, the George Carlin Way sign will temporarily hang on the corner of Morningside Drive and W 121st St, being moved to its proper place at a later date.
The renaming comes thanks to a three-year campaign started by NYC comedian Kevin Bartini, who presented New York City Council with more than 9,000 signatures from supportive locals. The unveiling ceremony takes place at 1pm, but there’s a show later tonight at Carolines on Broadway to celebrate the occasion, called, appropriately enough, The Seven Dirty Words: George Carlin Finally Gets His Own Way, featuring Bartini, Jim Norton and Colin Quinn. One of those in attendance will be George’s older brother Patrick, who spoke to us about just what it means to see this sign go up.
What does it mean to the neighborhood to have that sign there?
I think it means a lot, because he was just a neighborhood guy. He never left the neighborhood. Every time he was gigging in New York, he was seeking out the guys, all the kids we hung out with, and they would drive out in whatever rental car he had, down through the Financial District, smoking joints! It was wonderful.
Considering the number of comics who were influenced by him, do you think this is an important move for the New York comedy scene in general?
I think it’s wonderful. George had a special gift: It’s one thing to have wisdom and shit like that, and it’s another thing to be able to put it out there and not like act like you’re imitating Socrates or some shit, with something profound, you know? He could just get up there and talk and you’d think, Goddamn, he’s right! He turned my personal ass around. I was to the right of these fucking bullshitters on TV—in 1976, when he came to California, I was looking to join the John Birch Society. I was a working stiff, out there selling cars. George came out west with a whole bunch of fucking Panama Red. Holy shit! We’re driving around in his car, listening to John Hartford and Bob Dylan. From the moment that George started to talk, I knew he was way ahead of me on the hipness scale of what life is about. He was a guy I always paid attention to, so I listened to him and I listened to Dylan and I smoked that reefer, and I said, “Ah, fuck this, man, I’m gonna let my fucking hair grow, grow a Goddamn beard, fuck all this!” He did so many things for me and for the neighborhood.
I read that when George was discharged from the Air Force, he was labeled an “unproductive airman.” Do you think they’d approve of this street renaming?
I would hope they would understand it. He was no more suited for the Air Force than he was suited for any of that regimented shit. He was great at his job at repairing bombs sites, stuff like that, but he was proud of his record as a fuck up. We both got a couple of court martials in the Air Force, but that has nothing to do with doing your job, man! I was so good at my gig, same as he was. He told me, “I’m a little jealous of you on that one court martial,” because I was once court martialed for inciting federal troops to riot! But I’m sure the Air Force will take it with a grain of salt; he was a good productive airman, but he was tough to bottle down. He played “All Shook Up” by Elvis Presley, and dedicated it to his colonel, because he would shake when he got mad. These are things that are natural to do, if that’s the way you are. You’re busy being you, but they want you to be some other fucking moron that they have in mind and there’s a clash there. If you’re lucky, you have that spark within you that George and I did, and that shit doesn’t take.
Is it true that the local church, Corpus Christi—your former school—was against the idea?
Yeah, but I’m gonna be really charitable to them, because I’m pragmatic about it. It was just a really progressive school, a parochial school for the working class kids, man! George got the benefit of that for his primary education, so even when he would get down on religion, he always praised Corpus Christi for the beautiful education system and all the good stuff they did for him there. The church was there when we moved in to the neighborhood, so I say, let the church have that block.
Was there anything specific that the church objected to?
Oh, just him being George! I mean, Jesus Christ, you got a church here and you want to put a thing right on the street where the kids can look across and see the George Carlin sign and be sullied by it [Laughs].
So you guys moved the sign down a block to Amsterdam Avenue. Were you okay with that?
Yeah, it was a compromise. There was a bar there called The Campus, because we were close to Columbia, but believe me, there were no Columbia students going to The Campus. [Laughs] There were just old Irish guys drinking and young neighborhood guys. When I was dating my wife back in 1955, myself and Mary and Georgie, we would go there and drink beers and stuff before we would go off to the dance at Notre Dame. It was a neighborhood corner, and that’s where his thing is going up. It’s really more appropriate that he be down on Amsterdam Avenue than up on Broadway.
Finally, the most important question: What would George himself have made of all this?
I think he would be observing it, tongue in cheek, and enjoying the stir that it’s causing. That’s what he would enjoy—the hubbub! He wouldn’t take it serious. The one [George’s daughter] Kelly and I wish he’d seen was when we went to pick up his award, the Mark Twain Award. As we go by there’s a bunch of ranting fucking loons with “George Carlin is in Hell!” posters. I poked Kelly and I said, “Look at that shit, man!” She said, “Yeah…Dad would be so proud!”
Yeah, it was a free show! I often think, if only people of that ilk realized the joy they bring at their silliness! [Laughs] At their absolute moronic-ness, man. It’s wonderful. I love this big free show. You are in a big fucking circus man, and you don’t have to perform, you can lay back. What I always say is, there are those who get the joke and there are those who are the joke. And that’s it!