July 1, 2008

George Carlin Was One Unique Performer

By Mike Weatherford

By now, you may have read too much about the genius of George Carlin and why we will miss him.

Please indulge one more, Vegas-centric observation about the comedian who died a week ago today, because it also speaks to the often-sad state of entertainment here.

It's as simple as this: How many 71-year-old performers worked so hard to keep changing their act and come up with new material? To not ride on past glories? To still have something important to say?

How many entertainers who are 10, 20 or 30 years younger even try?

Jay Leno, who just performed local benefits for Iowa flood victims, has done mostly the same live set for years. He sprinkles the first few minutes with topical jokes before delving into stock material about Domino's pizza and the Menendez brothers.

Now let's be fair and pragmatic: Both Leno and Carlin have/had their reasons. Leno's busy doing a TV show. That's probably a good enough excuse for fans loyal enough to be repeat customers at his shows. (I'm figuring most people just see him once, to say they did.)

Carlin also had a TV show, of sorts. He did 14 HBO specials, spaced two or three years apart, and geared his entire life around generating material for them. I remember him calling out of the blue to explain this years ago, responding to a Review-Journal comment he didn't like. The fact that he called cold still stands out more than the detailed explanation of his cycle.

The approach had its pros and cons. Carlin replaced the routines gradually; if you saw him at The Orleans just after the last HBO special, you would have been happier not to have watched it. On the other hand, look how static David Copperfield's career has become without his annual CBS showcase.

All this is not so much to deride the acts offering consistent, proven material as to explain why Carlin was so unique. After he blew his stack and insulted an MGM Grand audience, then parted company with the casino in 2004, the comedian had to do what might be as much damage control as he ever offered in his unapologetic life.

"You don't get hard-core fans every night filling every seat. You get that on the road. In Las Vegas, the audiences are mixed, because that's the nature of the city."

But, he moved to the less-prestigious Stardust instead of changing his act, because "I would feel like somebody's pawn, like they get to run my art and they don't."

To even use the word "art" on the Strip is another reminder of the age-old division between art and commerce. Carlin's death reminds even those who don't occupy such a unique position that we can always aim higher.

Mike Weatherford's entertainment column appears Thursdays and Sundays. Contact him at 702-383-0288 or e-mail him at [email protected]

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