Host, Dave Schwensen, and his friends Kelly, Tom, and Logan have chosen some of their favorite comedians from the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. They take a look at how these comedians got started, their most successful comedy albums, and their lasting influence today!
George Carlin’s career took off in the ’60s and continued through the decades. The country watched as he transformed from straight edge comic to long-haired hippy comedian. Throughout his career, he appeared on The Tonight Show 130 times, produced 23 comedy albums, wrote 3 books, and several movies. Listen in as Dave, Tom, and Kelly introduce us to George Carlin and his 1972 album “FM & AM.”
Dave Schwensen: Well, welcome to What's So Funny? I'm Dave Schwensen and today I'm joined by Tom Megalis and Kelly Thewlis. Hello guys.
Kelly Thewlis: Wow. Hi, hi.
Tom Megalis: I didn't even know I was going to be invited to this, so I'm pretty excited.
Dave Schwensen: Well, it's a last minute thing. We weren't sure we wanted to hang out with you.
Tom Megalis: But yeah. Thanks Kelly. Dave, I appreciate it.
Dave Schwensen: What have you been up to? Kelly, what are you up to?
Kelly Thewlis: Oh my gosh. Well, hopefully doing some more zoom shows. I've done a few of those already and they're fun. They're different, but they're fun.
Dave Schwensen: Yeah. They really are different. I've been following that and it's real interesting. I mean, comedians will find a way to make people laugh.
Tom Megalis: How is that though, Kelly, when there's no audience really responding?
Kelly Thewlis: I mean, it's not too much different than my other comedy shows.
Tom Megalis: Thank you.
Dave Schwensen: I knew I'd get a laugh in here.
Kelly Thewlis: No, a lot of them actually have audience members on the zoom call. That way you still do have some audience feedback. So that's helpful because then you do get a little bit, yeah. I mean, it's different, but like I said, it's just figuring out the new thing. We're all very resilient as comedians.
Dave Schwensen: Well Tom, I see you all the time on the internet with all your artwork and everything going on. You just haven't stopped. I mean, you're like mass producing things. It's great.
Tom Megalis: Thank you, first of all. Secondly, I'm always sort of alone in studio.
Dave Schwensen: Aren't we all nowadays?
Tom Megalis: Yeah, we are. We are all alone, but it didn't change my whole gig much because I always work alone and now I occasionally put a mask on when weirdos come in, but before it used to be weirdos came in wearing masks and this is no joke. I had this happen like a, I don't know, a year or so ago when somebody is wearing a mask. If you remember back then, anybody who wore a mask, we thought was what are they doing? Very few people wore masks ever.
Tom Megalis: And a guy came to my studio once with it and he said, "Well, I just don't know what kind of environment this is." I'm like, "Oh man."
Kelly Thewlis: Well you people, okay.
Tom Megalis: Art types have germs. Anyway. So thank you. Yeah, I've been busy. It's exciting. Here we are doing this remotely. This is exciting, you know?
Dave Schwensen: Yeah. Well, I've gotten so used to doing everything remote with my comedy workshops, I do for the improv comedy clubs, it's all gone on to online workshops, which in some way of course, we miss that personal touch being on stage and doing it in front of a big audience, but I've started working with comedians from around the entire country. Matter of fact, I got someone on my workshop starts tonight who lives in Japan.
Kelly Thewlis: Wow.
Tom Megalis: Wow.
Dave Schwensen: Yeah. California, Washington State, Florida. It's just been a... I'm enjoying it, working with a whole different crew that I didn't get a chance to do.
Kelly Thewlis: I will say that is been one of the cool plus sides to all of this is that I've been able to do shows again. And like some of my old comedy clubs in Los Angeles, I hadn't performed in since I moved, I was able to perform with them again. I've been able to do a show that was New York based and just all over. And then we've had audience members from all over too. So that's the cool thing, you get a wider exposure than I ever thought possible.
Dave Schwensen: Well, it's like being on tour without having to leave home.
Kelly Thewlis: Yeah, you don't have to even put on pants. It's great.
Dave Schwensen: I wouldn't go that far. Let's talk about our topic today. Our subject today, our comedy legend today is George Carlin.
Tom Megalis: Yeah.
Dave Schwensen: I'm really excited about this show. When you mentioned George Carlin, anyone who's a fan of comedy knows exactly who he is. He just really changed the face of comedy back in the late '60s, early '70s. And when you see all these polls of the top comedians, whether it's Comedy Central, Time Magazine, whatever, it's always Carlin and Richard Pryor are the top two, maybe Lenny Bruce gets thrown in there. It's those guys. And we're talking about one of them today, George Carlin.
Tom Megalis: There aren't a lot of legends. I mean, as you mentioned, there's that top tier and he took it because he focused on standup. Don't you think?
Dave Schwensen: Oh yeah.
Kelly Thewlis: Yeah.
Tom Megalis: Guys, he really decided this is what I am. It impressed me that he said, "I'm a writer who performs his writing. I'm a stand up. That's what I am."
Kelly Thewlis: He made a 130 appearances on the Tonight Show and produced 23 comedy albums. And he wrote three books and he appeared in several movies. I mean, he just was constantly, constantly working.
Tom Megalis: Is that a record for the Tonight Show? I mean 120-
Kelly Thewlis: It's got to be close. That's a lot.
Dave Schwensen: And the thing is too, he was also a co-host. I mean he would substitute host with Johnny Carson would take off George Carlin would be the host.
Tom Megalis: I think at one point he said his success was doing what you love, doing it well, and then being recognized for it. So it's kind of like he did all that. I don't know. It's kind of, he's an interesting dude.
Kelly Thewlis: He really is.
Dave Schwensen: And he really worked hard at his craft. I want to say this because, and I'm not going to say I was real personal friends with George Carlin, not at all. I got to meet him and work with them and I've interviewed him for two of my books and I-
Kelly Thewlis: Oh wow.
Dave Schwensen: I want to go on the record as saying he was a really nice guy. I just found him to be helpful. My books help young comedians how to write comedy, how the comedy business is. This is kind of a fun story. All right. So back in those late '80s, I was managing and booking talent for the New York Improv Comedy Club, the original club on West 44th Street over in Hell's Kitchen. And one of our regular comics, a guy who his favorite, like he's also a legend. His name was Bob Altman. He was known as Uncle Dirty. And he was like, I always said the best shows at the improv were always at the bar rather than on the stage because they all hung out. So if Uncle Dirty came in, it'd be like norm from cheers. Okay?
Dave Schwensen: I remember one night I was standing by my managers stand or whatever I had in New York and Uncle Dirty came in the door and he says, "Dave," he says, "I want you to meet my best friend, George." I turned around, George Carlin is standing there. Uncle Dirty says, "He stole my act." Because Uncle Dirty was this guy in the early '70s. We had his albums hanging up at the wall down there. He had the long hair and the beard, it looks like John Lennon on Abbey Road. And he wore the bib overalls and he was Uncle Dirty. And there was Carlin, he grew his beard and had his hair. And Carlin didn't take any offense. They were best friends.
Kelly Thewlis: Wow.
Dave Schwensen: And he just was this nice guy and said hello. He asked me, he said, "Uncle Dirty says George has five or seven minutes. He wants to work out on stage. Can you get him on stage tonight?" I'm like, "Are you kidding me? It's George Carlin, yeah." So the comic who was on stage, I signaled him to get off. He's giving me a look like, why do I got to get off? I just got on stage. He comes back. He goes, "What the heck's going on, Dave?" He looks over he sees George Carlin standing next to me. He goes, "Oh okay."
Tom Megalis: You got bumped man.
Dave Schwensen: And the part of this story too, is Carlin had the sniffles, okay? I tried to make a joke about drugs, okay? Because Carlin had that reputation and he was like, he didn't get offended. He says, "No, no, no, no Dave." He says, "I have allergies. I got these allergies. I'm sniffling and he had a little box of Kleenex in his back pocket. And he pulled it out and he blew his nose. He says he just has allergies. I said, okay, I'm sorry. Anyway, he went on stage to do his seven minutes and he took his notebook up. I always say this for new comics. Don't be afraid to take your notebook on stage if you're working on new material.
Dave Schwensen: Carlin went up with his notebook. He's taking notes where he would do a joke and the audience would laugh. He goes, "Okay, okay. I think I can get better laugh than that. I'm going to do that joke again. I'm going to try a different punchline."
Tom Megalis: That's hilarious. You do the punch line again?
Dave Schwensen: Yeah, so he'd do the joke again with this different punchline or different wording.
Tom Megalis: Oh my God.
Dave Schwensen: And he would judge which one got the better laughs and that's what will go on his HBO special. We were able to watch him put this together on stage and he did.
Tom Megalis: That's hilarious.
Dave Schwensen: He treated a great club, like the Improv. That was his open mic. The word got around New York City to the other comedy clubs that I had, the Improv, we had George Carlin on stage. So all these comics I would never normally see because they'd been going to the other clubs all of a sudden they were standing in the back of the showroom at the Improv watching George Carlin. The best part about this story is when he finished his seven minutes, he announced to the audience. He said, I was just getting that ready for TV special. So that's all I wanted to try out.
Dave Schwensen: But the next thing you know, he sneezed. He took out his Kleenex, Oxy Kleenex in his back pocket. He sneezed and blew his nose. He did 20 minutes on the Kleenex. And it was hysterical. It was, I just always remember this, my gosh. I mean, he's one of the few, I will call a comic genius. But he did 20 minutes on his box of Kleenex. It's this little bag of Kleenex [inaudible 00:09:06].
Kelly Thewlis: Wow.
Tom Megalis: Like his laboratory. He was like, I'm going to work it out, test it on your people. When he was doing the early TV stuff, I remember him saying that he didn't even test his material out live. He would do it on television first. He goes, it's like I'm to try it on TV. If it works there, it'll work in the live act. He was doing it backwards, which is kind of risky, huh?
Dave Schwensen: Yeah.
Tom Megalis: A lot of people like my son who's just young, they're all in their early twenties. And they, it said that that's the Carlin they loved. The angry '80s Carlin. The older even into the '90s and just that the angry bitching Carlin. And I thought that's kind of interesting that he appealed to a wide range of people. And a lot of the younger people just dug that version of Carlin, not so much the hippy dippy weatherman, that whole thing, the early stuff. Which to be fair, that was TV at the time.
Dave Schwensen: It was typical. The Ed Sullivan show, Hollywood-
Tom Megalis: Variety shows.
Dave Schwensen: [crosstalk 00:10:12] Griffin Show. You watch some of those things, you could see it was a competent comedian. I mean, the Las Vegas type and this and that, but not really anyone that stood out, I don't think compared to the other ones that were at that time. And matter of fact, I look back at some of his stuff in those days. He was most famous for what, the Indian Sergeant?
Tom Megalis: That was the first bit they did on TV. Did you guys know that? That's all he had was that bit.
Dave Schwensen: Yeah.
Kelly Thewlis: I did not realize that was his very first.
Tom Megalis: Yeah. He did that on part of the Jack Paar Show, the first one, right? That was his first appearance. Maybe it was Jack Paar and he only had that bit.
Dave Schwensen: You know that he rewrote the bit and made it for Pirates.
Tom Megalis: He just changed. It was the same fish out of water scenario. Just changed it from Indians to pirates.
Dave Schwensen: Yeah, exactly. And you look back and I'll be honest with you right now. It's the '60s. It is what it is. Not exactly politically correct-
Kelly Thewlis: No.
Dave Schwensen: ... by today's standards. I'm shocked when you follow the evolution of that bit too. And the other thing also, if now we go way back. So this is for the comedy historians and the people that want to go on YouTube and look around, the Smothers Brothers television show. It's very political at the time, very controversial at the time. And they brought on George Carlin to do the Indian Sergeant bit. And they even threw a headband at him with a feather in it that he wore while he was pretending to be-
Kelly Thewlis: Wow-
Dave Schwensen: I'm like, okay.
Kelly Thewlis: Well, the bit really makes fun of the trope of the Native American that you see in the films of the time. Because westerns were just wildly popular during that time. So it makes fun of that. And it makes fun of his own experience in the military, which he did not have a pleasant military experience from what I've heard. But yeah, so that's what it really makes fun of. But even so it's still not politically correct just as those films aren't politically correct anymore.
Dave Schwensen: That's a piece of the times, that's what it was at that time. Just like you explained what the movies and things like that-
Tom Megalis: And it killed. The bit killed.
Dave Schwensen: Yeah, oh yeah. Everyone said it was their favorite bit. That's what he was known for, but it begins the evolution of George Carlin because I mean, this was around 1969. He was still wearing the suit. He was still clean shaven. He had the nice haircut. He was appealing to the corporate audience, the older crowd in Vegas, that kind of stuff. And then he released his album, AMFM.
Kelly Thewlis: FM and AM was the name of the album. And it was released in January, 1972. And yeah, it really took off. That was the one that on one side he was the AM side, he was more cleaner, clean cut comedy. And on the FM side, that's when he kind of released his raunchy persona that we all know him for, so to baby step into it and it won him a Grammy.
Dave Schwensen: And the reason I think he made that switch. I mean, everything that was going up on the different personas because he was very influenced by Lenny Bruce, okay, in expressing himself. And he was constricted by the network because he did a lot of television. So there were a lot of things he couldn't say on television but the counterculture going on, the war protests at the time, civil rights, everything going on and he was a more youthful. He might've been little bit older than the hippies, but yeah, he's the same age as, I guess, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, those guys. I mean they were all making statements and he just fell into that.
Dave Schwensen: He really became the comedy equivalent of that. The outspoken counterculture guy, like Bob Dylan of comedy, let's call it what it is.
Tom Megalis: Well, it's also a chance to be truthful to yourself instead of doing as we mentioned a lot of the comics at the time were doing cookie cutter material. Guys were interchangeable. It's like, you look at one guy and you're like, they all seem about the same. They're all doing... It's the mother-in-law jokes, the suburban jokes, the whatever. Everybody could do it. It's equivalent of maybe airline jokes now or something like fast food jokes or it's like, but what's personal to you? And I think the artist in him said, I got things I need to say about the government, about society.
Dave Schwensen: And you Tom as an artist, you can relate to that. You have to express yourself in your work. And that's what Carlin really again like Richard Pryor, George Carlin, Lenny Bruce. These guys were really stepping out on the edge doing this at that time in the late '60s, early '70s. Carlin lost a lot of money, a lot of gigs, a lot of the corporate audiences that he would have for his stuff.
Tom Megalis: All new material, man, reinventing himself and also letting go of that success. Think of that. You're really successful, you really have a brand and you're like, screw this brand. I think he realized that he was between 40 year olds and 20 year olds. I think at one point he said, here's these young people that had these antiwar and all these ideas and here's their parents that I'm appealing to. And I'm like, wait a minute, these are my people. I'm 30, I'm right between them. This is who I want to appeal to. So I think there was a conscious effort to go, this is my new audience. These are the people.
Dave Schwensen: Well, he looked at comedy as an expressive outlet and that can be traced back to 1960, 1961. He was with Lenny Bruce, when Lenny got busted for obscenities, I can't remember where.
Tom Megalis: Yeah, right.
Dave Schwensen: And the police came on and Carlin was there and they wanted him to testify. And he says, "I don't remember hearing anything bad." And they threw him in the police car with Lenny Bruce.
Kelly Thewlis: Oh wow.
Tom Megalis: And that's something man-
Dave Schwensen: Took them both to the jail, yeah.
Tom Megalis: But his early influences were not Lenny Bruce, it was like Mort Saul.
Kelly Thewlis: Danny Kaye was big role model, which is interesting.
Tom Megalis: His acting, right?
Kelly Thewlis: Danny Kaye's a pretty wild character. I mean, for anyone who doesn't quite know who he is, he's he had his own show. I know him primarily from the film White Christmas. But yeah, he's a pretty clean cut wearing suits kind of guy of the '50s and '60s. I was shocked when I found out Danny Kaye was his role model?
Dave Schwensen: Well, he took it so seriously too. I mean, you watch his bit. I mean, I'll go right into that. Let's get right into the meat of this. The seven words you can't say on television. Come on. I mean, that was what? 1971, 1972?
Tom Megalis: Classic bit though.
Dave Schwensen: Nobody talked like that. I mean, Lenny Bruce, I mean, you had the antiwar movement, you had the late '60s, you had people protesting and all this, but you still couldn't really cross that line with what those words are. And there George Carlin comes out and says, here are the words. But the thing is, it's such a clever, well thought out, well-written bit. And it's simple. I mean, you listen to this, go. Why didn't I think of that? It's so true.
Tom Megalis: [crosstalk 00:17:01] We can't talk about the words.
Kelly Thewlis: We can't say it literally.
Tom Megalis: We're not allowed to on this podcast. If you think about it, it's almost genius to put that on an album. I got to get this album and hear it. What are the seven words you can't say? This is dirty.
Dave Schwensen: It was being played on college campuses all around the country. Just like again the antiwar demonstrations, things going on. He was the comedy spokesperson for that stuff. Then on you watch him evolve right up until his... I mean, he passed away what is it? Like 2008, 2009, something like that. And just months before he passed away, he filmed another HBO special.
Tom Megalis: Still working.
Dave Schwensen: Yeah, he was still working and he was still angry. It was still thought out. It was worded correctly. He was one of those guys, like I said, when he would go on stage and I worked with him a number of times, it wasn't just that one time in New York. Even in Los Angeles.
Tom Megalis: One of the coolest things, guys, is that for me to just remember Carlin was, he was the first host of SNL.
Kelly Thewlis: Oh yeah.
Tom Megalis: The very first host. And at the time Lauren Michael said he was going to revolve hosts like Tom Lynn, Richard Pryor. And then George Carlin said again, I don't feel comfortable being in sketches. I just want to do little monologues. And Lauren Michael says, yeah. And then he was on again in '84, but later he said, I was never invited back to any reunions, any tapings, not even to be in the audience and like get up in a tuxedo and go, "Hi, it's me, George." Nothing. He goes, and he never understood why. And then later he said, "I think it was because I was so blitzed on cocaine all week." Like hardcore Coke. He goes, "Even now I've watched my SNL in '75 and see me grit my teeth going, man. I was so flying on Coke." I think it was the time.
Kelly Thewlis: At that time, yeah, they all were. Well, he got arrested in Milwaukee. He was just performing. And that was in '72 and he was saying obscenities and he got arrested for that during a Summer fest. And so six cops pulled him up and they didn't realize he actually had cocaine before he got them. They just pulled him off for obscenities.
Dave Schwensen: He did not consider himself to be a dirty comic.
Tom Megalis: That's interesting.
Dave Schwensen: Yeah. It was a part of the language that he used and he actually talked about emphasizing it. He said he can get in front of an audience. He said, if he's doing a bit and he looks like they're maybe not paying as much attention as they should, or they didn't seem as interested, he would drop an obscenity in it. I'm not going to tell you, he gave me the word. He said, I would say that. He said it was like a speed bump. He said, you could see everybody's heads bounce up and look at him. Then he would have their attention again. And that's how he used it. And it was very interesting.
Kelly Thewlis: That's so important because I mean really George Carlin, I feel like that album Class Clown, where the seven dirty words that you can't say on television. That's where that track comes from. It's from Class Clown. And I feel like that's the album that it's like, once you do an open mic, they just hand you that at the door. It's like every comedian is required listening of that album. That's how everybody knows George Carlin.
Kelly Thewlis: But it's interesting to hear the fact that he was so purposeful when using swear words. I think a lot of times, because it's done in a way that's not you that's not thought about. I think a lot of times I'm guilty of it too. I'll just throw things in there on sets, not even really realizing it. And it's very fascinating to hear that him being who he is, he actually purposely knew when to put it in. It wasn't just there because that's how he talked, it was there because he's like, all right, now it's time to ramp up my set. I'm losing them. But this there he was so meticulous with words.
Tom Megalis: Interesting.
Kelly Thewlis: It's very interesting.
Tom Megalis: Strategic. I mean, it wasn't like Richard Pryor who was kind of the rhythm. That was his rhythm and part of his general dialogue rhythms. You look at when he teamed up with Jack Burns, both working in radio at the time they became a team and then drove to Los Angeles together to try it in LA as a team. But he said that their act was so filthy because it was developed in coffee shops. But he said, our act was so filthy and just way off. But when we got to LA, we thought we better clean this up and they did. And they were sitting there watching Jack Paar three weeks into their career. And they said, that's some day we're going... They were sort of doing riffing on how they were going to be talking on the panel with Jack Paar.
Tom Megalis: And he said, and then 10 months later we were on that show. So within 10 months they had skyrocketed and made that a dream.
Kelly Thewlis: Wow.
Tom Megalis: He said, we had a manager in four weeks in LA. Lenny Bruce had seen them and said, these guys are great. And they got a manager or an agent based off of Lenny Bruce seeing them within 10 months, we were on that show. They were good. They were good.
Dave Schwensen: They were good. And they had his experience working together. They were best friends. They were roommates, Jack Burns and George Carlin. And so even when they're on the radio and again, I mean, it's another story Carlin told me because when he started on the radio, the general manager told him and he was a DJ, just like he makes fun of it. W-Y-N-O, W-I-N-O, wino whatever.
Kelly Thewlis: That's the way he was.
Tom Megalis: He was probably a good DJ.
Dave Schwensen: Yeah, and the thing was, he told me, he said the station manager told him, "You're a naturally funny guy, but some days you're not going to feel funny on the air." He says, "What I suggest you do is carry a notebook with you. And every time you think of something funny, every time you find a subject, a topic that you think is funny, write it down. And that way you can always have something to talk about on the radio." Carlin told me he started doing that and he told me, he called it his arsenal.
Kelly Thewlis: Wow.
Tom Megalis: Awesome.
Dave Schwensen: That was his arsenal. When he got out of the air force in the '50s, that's what he was doing. I can assume Jack Burns was doing the same thing. They were just writing stuff, writing, and he just never stopped writing. This guy was a writing machine.
Tom Megalis: I think that's the key. Don't you think, Kelly? I mean, you being a comedian on stage and you got to write, right? Even if you're writing on stage, but it's all about material, constantly working on stuff, right?
Kelly Thewlis: The more you work on it, the better you get. Actually, it was really interesting too... Just going back to what you're saying, like Lenny Bruce, didn't just say, wow, they're great. He actually said that there's a quote from him somewhere saying that at the time comedy really wasn't groundbreaking and George knew it and he decided to go into a different direction. I mean, since there's, it's so interesting to have like Lenny Bruce be like, I recognize... Game recognizes game, you know? It's like, he just recognizes there. He's like, Oh, George sees what's going on. It's not groundbreaking. And then he was a big player in making comedy groundbreaking.
Tom Megalis: George had a history of heart issues through years of heart attacks and all kinds. But if he didn't, his brother's still alive in his 80s, 90s, I think George would... I don't know if he'd be on Netflix. He probably would have a Netflix thing right now. It's HBO is doing probably still great stuff, I would think. As an artist, I think he was continually growing. And he said that at one point is, an artist is always looking to grow and to change and to evolve. I can do better on the next painting. I can do better on the next... If that's in you, you're always going to want to grow even if you're... As long as you're breathing, right?
Kelly Thewlis: That's right.
Tom Megalis: You can stand and think you're going to try to get better and go, even if you're 90, "Oh man, this next joke is going to be the best. This next bit." You hope.
Dave Schwensen: That's what we're all aiming for, right?
Tom Megalis: Yeah 90 years old, Dave, you're going to write your best book at 95, Dave. Kelly, you're going to be 103. You're going to be killing this standup.
Kelly Thewlis: I'll be in a wheelchair, but I'll be killing.
Tom Megalis: You'll be killing.
Dave Schwensen: And that's the story of George Carlin. I think we've come to the end of our time here.
Tom Megalis: We have?
Kelly Thewlis: We definitely have. I got a text message from our producer, Sarah-
Tom Megalis: Where's she?
Kelly Thewlis: She's muted. She's muted, but she says we got to wrap it up. It's like too much good stuff in one.
Tom Megalis: She doesn't text me.
Dave Schwensen: All right. Well, listen, I'm going to sign us off right here. As always, it's been a pleasure talking with both of you. I just enjoy talking about George Carlin, just a legend in the comedy business. And we're going to say goodbye to Tom Megalis.
Tom Megalis: Bye guys. I love you guys. Keep positive. How about that?
Dave Schwensen: Yes and then Kelly Thewlis, we'll say goodbye.
Kelly Thewlis: Oh, goodbye. I wish I had an inspiring thing to say too. Keep positive also. How about that?
Dave Schwensen: We'll save that feeling for the next time, okay? The next show. And I'll say I'm Dave Schwensen. I've just had a blast talking with you guys. I hope you enjoyed the program. This has been, What's so funny? And until next time, keep laughing.