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Tara Sullivan

How my father’s friendship with George Carlin developed my love of words

Famous comedian George Carlin passed away in 2008.
Famous comedian George Carlin passed away in 2008.Sam Morris

Inflection doesn’t work in print, but if it did, you could appreciate even more how comedian George Carlin reaches the climax of his iconic stand-up routine comparing the difference between baseball and football.

Having already chosen two voices to underscore the inherent juxtaposition of the two sports — it is with deep and serious resonance that Carlin growls, “Football is concerned with downs — what down is it?” While it is with a sunny, high-pitched lightness that he notes, “Baseball is concerned with ups — who’s up?” — Carlin masterfully sets up his conclusion.

“And finally,” he says, “the objectives of the two games are completely different:

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“In football the object is for the quarterback, also known as the field general, to be on target with his aerial assault, riddling the defense by hitting his receivers with deadly accuracy in spite of the blitz, even if he has to use [the] shotgun. With short bullet passes and long bombs, he marches his troops into enemy territory, balancing this aerial assault with a sustained ground attack that punches holes in the forward wall of the enemy’s defensive line.

“In baseball the object is to go home! And to be safe! — I hope I’ll be safe at home!”

It’s no surprise that someone who makes a living among words would count Carlin as a favorite comedian, and when you consider that the words I love most have to do with sports, putting this particular routine at the top of his historic comedic resumé naturally follows. During the stay-at-home constraints of the coronavirus pandemic, when we are all looking for ways to feed our sports-less viewing habits, suffice it to say the routine is worth watching.

Thankfully, there is an endless stream of funny material out there — and who couldn’t use a laugh in these strange, unsettling times? Have suggestions? Send them along.

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I would certainly include Bob Nelson’s routine from a 1980s Rodney Dangerfield HBO special, when two balloons transformed his roster of football players into hilarity. Or more recently, the fantastic Key and Peele sketch reading off rosters for the fictional East/West College Bowl. But of course, for sheer comic genius combine with sports, maybe nothing should top Abbot and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” a routine so perfectly written and timed that one utterance of “I don’t know! Third base!” will always make me laugh.

Yet for me, Carlin is the best, and here’s the reason why.

Carlin spent a lifetime working his magic on the English language, and even for those put off by his infamous “seven dirty words you can never say on television,” or unimpressed with early work like the “hippy, dippy weatherman,” his wry, observational humor is regarded as among the best in the history of comedy.

George Carlin hosts "Saturday Night Live" in 1975.
George Carlin hosts "Saturday Night Live" in 1975.Herb Ball/NBC

It was a lesson my father learned in grammar school.

My dad, Jim Sullivan, counts Carlin among his oldest childhood friends and counts himself among the earliest witnesses to a budding comic genius with a unique outlook on the world. The two grew up only a few blocks apart in the same Upper West Side New York neighborhood, back in the days when it wasn’t simple geography that determined alliances. It was parishes, and as fellow members of Corpus Christi Catholic Church and its accompanying parish school, my dad and George ended up in the same first grade class.

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By the end of second grade, they’d be separated for all future classes, a move implemented by teachers weary of their laugh-out-loud antics. When my dad saw what his buddy had done to the brown wallet he carried throughout that second grade year, it confirmed he’d found a kindred spirit. Taking the sharp end of a protractor — “the only weapon of choice we had,” my dad laughed — he’d scratched a message into the leather: “Bored of Education.”

They were instant friends, not surprising given their similar Irish-American upbringings and the relationship already formed between their two lrish moms, both named Mary. But it was more than that. My dad, who would later serve the United States government for years as a decorated Customs agent, has spent a life driven by the same love of words and language, an avid reader and information sponge, one who could just as quickly become engrossed in a conversation about old radio programs as he could about current world politics. He’s been the go-to public speaker at family gatherings for as long as I can remember, and his on-the-spot ability to turn a phrase or tell a story is the stuff of family legend.

Many years after they’d graduated grammar school, at one of the many reunions those old Corpus Christi alums would hold, Carlin, while talking to a third classmate, referred to my father as “the funniest [expletive] I ever knew.”

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Imagine that. The two would remain close throughout high school, fellow students at Cardinal Hayes, both under the watchful eyes of characters Carlin would later call “The Mean Dean” and the “Sinister Minister.” Their paths would diverge, Carlin off to chase Hollywood lights after a few too many run-ins with Hayes’ resident dean of discipline, Stanislaus Jablonski, my dad to graduate, serve in the Air Force, begin a career and start a family while earning his degree at night from the City College of New York.

Sadly, Carlin left us too soon, passing away of a heart attack in 2008 at age 71. But he sure left a hell of a legacy, one that for me, is topped by a comparison between baseball and football.

Just brilliant.


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.