He has been dead for seven years. He was cremated and his ashes spread in undisclosed locations. Physically, he is gone, but he remains in my sense of humor. In the years leading up to his death he was working on an autobiography, it was released after his death. It is a very entertaining read.
George was one sharp dude. His mind never seemed to stop working. While he lacked formal education his intellect was razor sharp and he grasped things that are way beyond me. I’ll be honest, not everything he said or believed I agree with but I always enjoyed his view of the humanity and for saying many things we thought but never said. His album, FM & AM, was a watershed moment in both his comedy and social expression. Remember, this was more than 40 years ago, and it was perfect for pushing the social boundaries. In the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s, the George who played mainstream clubs and on television was a pretty traditional comedian. He was one of the first observational comics and even though his material was for general consumption, his mixture of quirky and hip subjects were pushing at his own boundaries.
In 1972 when FM & AM was released, George’s hair was shoulder length and he shed the business suit for bellbottoms and body shirts. The real George had arrived. His appearances on The Smothers Brothers Show and Flip Wilson had shown his evolution. That same year, 1972, came the landmark Class Clown. With this album, the metamorphosis was complete. Remember, “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” it was on that album. The first time I heard that album was in Benny Boydston’s class in high school. Someone brought it to play and for some reason Mr. Boydston allowed it. As we listened to those taboo words and tried to refrain our adolescent laughter, Mr. Boydston did not look surprised or dismayed, he looked around at us and soaked up our reaction. While I thought at the time we were fooling him, he knew exactly what he was doing. I don’t recall if we talked about the record after it was over, I just recall being surprised that he let us listen to it in class!
There were many things on those two albums that I can still quote. As the years passed, George gained company as other “hip” comics used the new freedom to sell albums, appear on television and make films. George did those things too but he never seemed to get wrapped up in fame or being the hottest comedy performer. He continued to play the road and really seemed to enjoy taking his show to where people lived. He never really made a huge impact on television or movies. Neither medium really captured what was special about him. If you recall, he opened the first episode of Saturday Night Live delivering a monologue that was hip, but didn’t quite fit the format of the show. In the 1990s, he had a sitcom that was pretty mediocre even though it was created by one of the Simpson producers.
HBO was where George found his stride. His many specials were the tailor-made format for his material and how he showcased his subject matter. George didn’t do jokes per se, he provided social commentary through biting monologues. Often his humor was dark and it made even some of his biggest fans uncomfortable. You either loved him or hated him, and George really didn’t care which way you felt.
In the last decade of his life, George experienced a number of health and emotional challenges. He entered rehab for alcohol and pain pills, suffered serious heart problems, and lost his wife of nearly 35 years. He never stopped working although his work seemed to reflect this stage of his life. George did find love again, continued his many appearances, wrote several successful books and began to receive the acclaim for his long career and influence on countless comedians who followed him.
I met George once, very briefly as he passed through town to do one of his shows. He was polite, signed the obligatory autograph and seemed to listen as I told him how much I enjoyed his recordings. In person, he seemed small and quiet, not the large personality and huge influence that he was. I’ll never forget the brief eye contact we made as I said thank you for signing my picture. In his eyes I thought he was telling me, thank you. He might just have a spec of sand in his eye and I totally misunderstood the look. He might have been thinking, “Another nut from the 70s.” In that case, he would have been right.