Mostly I try to stay on-topic for this blog, but I’m going to veer wildly off today to talk a little about George Carlin, and my experience as his webmaster. But first, please watch the video about rights, which is Carlin near the end but still ripping.
Growing up in the 80s, George’s HBO specials were my gold standard, not only for comedy but for freedom of expression and ideas. He was anti-theist, anti-government, and anti-bullshit in ways that were revolutionary for the time and for today.
I guess I knew when I became a comic in 1990 that I would never be as good as George, but I still felt inspired and wanted to build comedy that asked questions and twisted reality like his did. Then, after several years on the road with, at best, moderate success, I found myself in LA, sick of performance and sick of the lifestyle. All is wanted was to be a software engineer, and turns out I hit the perfect time in history to have an impact in that field.
But imagine my surprise when, in 1999, I found myself sitting across from George Carlin’s business partner for laugh.com, Bob Kohn, at the Friar’s Club in LA over lunch. Bob was asking me to come be the engineering lead for laugh.com. They were going to rerelease classic comedy and new content online. This was the age of Flash, mp3s, and boundless optimism about what the Internet could be.
Of course, I said “yes”.
A few weeks later, as I was in the process of rebuilding their site, I sat across from George in an office on Wilshire, where he was asking me why the web firm that he had hired to build georgecarlin.com was charging him $80,000 for a license for an Oracle database. I said “George, let me take a look at it”.
The database was being used to pull exactly one text field into his homepage.
It took me an afternoon or two to write him up a simple content management system, and replace Oracle. Then we were off to the races. I was George’s webmaster for around six years, and I never sent him a single bill.
Georgecarlin.com site around 2005 via the wayback machine. Apologies for the design.
He was a kind guy, not anything like his stage persona that I saw. Unbelievably dedicated to his craft. Extremely interested in technology. Spent hours a day honing and practicing jokes. Did hundreds of shows a year.
As a guy who had been a comic, working with him before his death in 2008 convinced me I had made the right choice in becoming a technologist. I could never have rivaled his output or skill, but I could build and maintain things he could not.
There were two major things I did with George on the website: fought incorrect Carlin quotations in viral emails, and managed his message board. In the days before social media, memes would spread via email mostly, and many people sent emails of quotes supposedly said by Carlin. This drove him insane, because most of the quotes were sentimental crap and he never would have said them. So we had to post the truth on his website denying them.
Yep, the web used to be a source of truth. Sigh.
But the message boards (or BBS, Bulletin Board System as we called it), was where the action was on the site. As admin I let freedom reign in the days before Reddit and social media. It was beautiful chaos, and the only times I ever stepped in was when it degenerated to death threats. Which was very very rare. Anyhow, I salute the insane Carlin fans who populated those boards. Good folks with good ideas mostly.
It really never occurred to me that someday the entire Net would reflect this chaos, but with automated bots and paid actors promoting products. But that’s because I was CTO of a video streaming company at that time, working with George on the side, and I thought video was the future, protecting us from the trash of text. I was right, and wrong…text will persist because of its ease of scanning, and video will also blossom and wilt in a million forms over the coming decades.
George had wanted to do more video stuff on his site, but he was dedicated to his craft of standup, and didn’t want the distraction. So besides the message board, the site stagnated, and eventually was taken over by his daughter. But for a few years my phone would ring and it would be George, asking about posting a message or asking about some tech he wanted to understand better.
But the one memory I have clearest is when we spent a day in my buddy’s Venice apartment recording audio for a series of very dark Flash greeting cards you could send to friends via email. George was the funny, nice, consumate pro he always was, and I cringe now to think about how crappy our setup was – George stood in a hot closet for most of the day, which was our soundbooth. This was a guy who owned aircraft, had cases before the Supreme Court, and a 40 year history of standup and movies.
My favorite audio bit he recorded that day was:
“You’re born alone, you die alone, and in between…you’re all alone”
Carlin had lost his first wife to cancer. He was happy and bitter at the same time. He was a Capitalist who hated the system. He had pill and alcohol problems. He crafted every word of every routine that somehow came out in what appeared to be extemporaneous rants.
He was a perfect, flawed human.
I have never followed a guru, and George was not one for sure. But I was lucky in a way that few people are to be treated as an equal by one of my intellectual idols. To see his human side. His cozy house in the canals of Venice, CA.
One night George invited me to watch some new material he was working on at the Laugh Factory, and he made sure to point me out and make fun of me in the audience during his set. He made a joke about my bald head or something like that, I honestly can’t recall. But I do remember him apologizing backstage to me afterwards with a serious face, making sure I was not really offended. I assured him I was not.
I had been anointed by a godkiller, and it still brings a smile to my face.