Fans of the late George Carlin may know that Carlin’s comedy career actually began first as a radio disc jockey, and then as a duo with Jack Burns.
But few who think of the legendary stand-up comedian remember or are quick to recall it was Carlin’s knack for impersonations — and particularly his impersonations of the star comedians of the time in the early 1960s — that provided him with his big break.
Here, on a Throwback Thursday (#tbt), friend of the site Kliph Nesteroff posted this review on his Old Showbiz Tumblr of Carlin’s first solo stand-up shows in Chicago following his break-up with Burns in 1962.
The critic at this Carlin performance at Chicago’s Gate of Horn took special note of the impersonations, from then-President John F. Kennedy to comedians Jack E. Leonard, Mort Sahl and Lenny Bruce. Of the latter, the reviewer called Carlin’s take “a hilariously mumbling and mordant burlesque of Lenny Bruce.”
One future giant in the world of stand-up comedy taking on and taking down the current champion of comedy.
If it takes your breath away, just imagine what it felt like for Carlin and Bruce.
In fact, as Carlin explained (recounted by Nesteroff in 2008 on WFMU’s Beware of the Blog in a retrospective following Carlin’s death): “He was so satisfying to watch,” Carlin said of Lenny Bruce. “I was a young aspiring comedian. He helped Burns and I. A place called the Cosmo Alley. Our first job ever. Our manager Murray Becker knew Lenny from the Navy and I used to do an impression of Lenny in the act. So he brought Lenny in to see the impression but hoping Lenny would like [the rest of our material]. Lenny called GAC the next day, that was a big agency in that day, like William Morris. The president of GAC signed us the next day … we got a telegram. They want to sign us, all fields, based on Lenny Bruce’s reaction. And that started us, and that started my own career.”
You can enjoy Carlin’s Lenny Bruce impersonation still, as he recorded it on “Burns and Carlin at the Playboy Club Tonight,” an EP which came out in 1963.
It’s part of a track which led into Carlin’s other signature impersonation of a fellow legendary comedian, Mort Sahl.
And here is Carlin in one of his first solo TV performances, as President Kennedy in 1962.
Buy “Burns and Carlin at the Playboy Club Tonight” via iTunes or Amazon.com: