Tom Murrin, a performance artist whose frenetic shows
fashioned kooky narratives out of found objects and homemade masks and made him
a longtime favorite in the downtown avant-garde arts scene in New York, died on
Monday in Manhattan. He was 73.
The cause was cancer, said his wife, Patricia Sullivan.
Mr. Murrin, whose stage names were Tom Trash and, later, the Alien Comic, was a
playwright and an avant-garde impresario as well as a performer of his own
shows, which he was apt to put on almost anywhere — on the street, in music
clubs and on stages that included landmarks of experimental theater in New York
like La MaMa, Dixon Place and P.S. 122.
For years he put on monthly celebrations of the full moon, in which he and other
artists thanked the moon goddess he called Luna Macaroona for shining good
fortune upon the world.
A native Californian and former lawyer in Los Angeles, Mr. Murrin came to New
York in the 1960s and wrote several plays — some with sexually suggestive titles
— that were presented at La MaMa in its early years.
In the 1970s he lived for a time in Paris, where he began acting in plays, and
then moved to Seattle, where he turned to performing full time. As part of a
dance and theater company, Para-Troupe, he began creating shows for himself and
other performers and developing what became his signature technique: telling
absurdist tales at rapid-fire pace and illustrating them with quick costume and
mask changes. A performance, he said, consisted of anything someone wanted to do
“with purpose and style.”
The shows were often determined by the detritus he picked up on the street;
hence the early stage name Tom Trash. A broken umbrella might become an antenna
to listen in on another world. A dish drainer might suggest a prison cell. He
made masks and other types of headgear — some elaborate, some consisting of
simple, suggestive drawings on cardboard — and whipped them on and off with
breathless abandon in performances.
During the mid-1970s Mr. Murrin traveled around the world and performed, often
on the street, in Japan, the Philippines, India, Greece, France and Scotland. By
the end of the decade he had returned to New York and taken his streetwise,
antic storytelling to nightclubs, appearing as a kind of punk-rock stand-up
comedian at CBGB, the Pyramid Club and the Mudd Club, as well as at Irving
Plaza, opening for rock bands, including X, Pere Ubu, the Stranglers and James
In an interview in 2008, he described his work as “like a show and tell.”
“I’m talking about the political scene of the day,” he explained. “I’m talking
about the weather, I’m talking about a dream I had, I’m talking about breaking
up with a girlfriend, I’m talking about whatever I feel like talking about, but
I’m making the props and the visuals fit along with it in some way, and then
changing the visual as fast as I can.”
He continued: “When I was on the street, that’s what I learned to do. You’re
going to do a street show, you want to get out there, you want to put it down,
you want to do it, you want to get a crowd, you want to pass the hat and get
paid and then get out of there before the cops or someone else says, ‘You’ve
been here too long.’ ”
Thomas Lee Murrin was born on Feb. 8, 1939, in Los Angeles, where his father,
Ms. Sullivan said, was an aide to Howard Hughes. He graduated from the
University of Southern California law school and worked in private practice in
Beverly Hills before moving to New York, where he continued his law studies at
New York University. At the same time, he was writing plays for the alternative
theater scene that became known as Off Off Broadway.
In later years, as an éminence grise among performance artists, Mr. Murrin wrote
regularly about alternative theater for the magazine Paper and supported
performers who, like him, inhabited the theatrical fringe.
His full-moon extravaganzas were often produced with four artists he encouraged
— Jo Andres, Mimi Goese, Lucy Sexton and Annie Iobst (together they were known
as the Full Moon Crew) — and those shows, along with holiday variety shows he
presented at La MaMa, helped push along the careers of troupes like Blue Man
Group and the Five Lesbian Brothers and of artists like Holly Hughes, Lisa Kron,
Ethyl Eichelberger, and David and Amy Sedaris.
In addition to Ms. Sullivan, whom he married in 2001,
Mr. Mullin is survived by
a sister, Patricia Jedynak.
EAST LANSING, Mich. (AP) — The comedian who made his name on
the "Axis of Evil Comedy Tour" made one thing clear when he opened a recent set
at Michigan State University: "Tonight, it's not Islam 101."
For every joke Dean Obeidallah made about his Arabic heritage or Muslim faith,
there were others about student loans, Asian-American basketball phenom Jeremy
Lin, the presidential race and full-body scans at airports.
The last topic might seem like fertile ground for a Muslim comic, but the punch
line goes to another time-honored funny topic: male anatomy.
"They're looking at my image on the monitor," he said. "All I can think of is,
'please don't laugh, please don't laugh.'"
Arab-Muslim stand-up comedy is flourishing more than a decade after the
terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. While comics like Obeidallah, Ahmed Ahmed and
Amer Zahr differ on approach — and there are disagreements among some— they're
all trying to do more than just lampoon themselves or their people for easy
"I think our own community pushed us a little bit. They were tired of hearing
jokes about ... having problems at the airport. ... They wanted a more nuanced
approach to comedy," Obeidallah said during a multi-city swing through Michigan.
"You want to be dynamic. The same act, it's boring. People will not come back to
see you a second or third time."
For example, he drew big laughs for a joke about the U.S. media's current
obsession with Lin: "He's a testament to all of us. If you work hard, believe in
yourself and graduate from Harvard, anything can happen." Later, he poked fun at
many Americans' blissful ignorance of the world beyond its borders: "We don't
know much about other countries. ... We're busy— we have to keep up with the
Kardashians. That takes up a lot of time."
Muslim and Arab humor didn't begin with 9/11, but it marks an important turning
point for the way many Muslims looked at themselves as Americans and how they
joked about it with others, said Mucahit Bilici, an assistant professor of
sociology at New York's John Jay College.
"The discrimination, prejudices and stereotypes from which other Muslims suffer
are a godsend for the Muslim comedian," Bilici wrote in a chapter he contributed
to the book "Islamophobia/Islamophilia: Beyond the Politics of Enemy and
Obeidallah, 42, a New Yorker who started in comedy a few years before 9/11 while
working as a lawyer, said most U.S. Arabs — himself included — "just thought
they were white people" before 9/11. He said some in society thought differently
"Our comedy reflected that abrupt realization that our world has changed around
us, even though we had nothing to do with 9/11," said Obeidallah, who is of
Palestinian and Sicilian ancestry and said he has embraced the Islamic side of
his heritage in recent years as a tribute to his late father.
"People began to treat me differently after 9/11, even friends. Not in a bad
way, but more were asking me questions about Arabs, and they never asked me
questions before about that topic. So I started to talk about that in my
Obeidallah, who calls himself a "political comedian" and envisions entering
politics, said he has seen the rise of Arab and Muslim comics since 9/11 through
his work with the Arab American Comedy Festival. He said it was a small pool in
the early years but the New York festival has added nights and turned people
Amer Zahr, also originally a lawyer, began stand-up shortly after the attacks.
The 34-year-old of Palestinian heritage grew up in the Philadelphia area in a
Christian-Muslim household. He was in his first year of law school in 2002 at
University of Michigan when a group of Arab comedians including Obeidallah came
"At that point the shows were so small, so (someone asked), 'Is there anybody
who wants to get on stage to ... fill some time?'" he said. Now he tours
internationally and lives in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn and performs March 9
at the Arab American National Museum.
"I told a couple stories about my Dad, and everyone loved it," he said. "So I
thought, 'OK, this is kind of cool.'"
Zahr said his evolution since 9/11 hasn't been about going beyond culture and
religion so much as refining it: moving past "my Dad says funny things" and "we
smell like garlic" to talking about the New York Police Department's
surveillance of Muslims and his encounters with Israeli soldiers.
"In the beginning it was just, 'Let me be very vanilla. We're in the spotlight
and people want to hear about us,'" he said. "Later on, I was getting into
really making people think twice ... about how they feel about us."
Ahmed Ahmed, 41, a comic and actor who launched what would become the Axis of
Evil Comedy Tour, was born in Egypt and moved to southern California shortly
after birth. He found a champion fairly early on in Mitzi Shore, who ran the
influential The Comedy Store in Hollywood. He recalls some prescient
conversations with Shore.
"Before 9/11 I had been doing comedy for about 7 years and the year before 9/11
was when Mitzi hired me," Ahmed said. "She had an epiphany that there would be a
war between America and the Middle East. ... She said, 'Arab comics are going to
be necessary in the world to break down misconceptions and stereotypes.'"
Ahmed said Shore told him she wanted him to open her club's show four days after
9/11. He resisted, but she told him, "You need to go up there and get it out of
the way — you'll know what to do."
He obeyed and set about entertaining "a very somber" audience of about 40
people. He asked for a moment of silence for the victims and families, then:
"For the record my name is Ahmed Ahmed, and I had nothing to do with it. I'm
just saying that so nobody follows me out to the car after the show."
"We sort of broke the chain of hesitation of what was OK, what was not OK to
speak about," he said.
Over the decade, he saw Arab comics "come out of the woodwork," which he
considers a mixed blessing. Ahmed said it "started becoming watered-down and
competitive," and "ugliness" emerged within the growing community of comics.
Some are "using religion as a platform for recognition," says Ahmed, who had a
strict Muslim upbringing and considers himself one "on my good days." He said he
has had disagreements with a few other Arab comics, including Obeidallah.
Of course, disputes among comedians are nothing new. Bill Cosby has berated
other black comics for using the N-word. He twice turned down the Mark Twain
Prize for American Humor before accepting it in 2009 because he said he was
disgusted with that and other profanity thrown around by performers honoring
Richard Pryor, the award's first recipient in 1998.
If that's progress, it's the kind Ahmed could do without — or find much humor
"It's disappointing when it's Arab or Muslim comedians ... because we're such a
new sort of novelty," he said. "You would think that one would wait for several
years until we've had a real voice as a comedy community."
Patrice O’Neal, a stand-up comedian who boisterously took on
controversial topics like race, AIDS and his own struggle with diabetes, died on
Tuesday. He was 41 and lived in New Jersey.
He died in a hospital in the New York City area from complications of a stroke
he suffered on Oct. 19, his agent, Matt Frost, said.
“See, I’ve got to lose weight now to stay alive, and that’s not enough
motivation for me,” Mr. O’Neal said in one of his television specials on Comedy
At 6-foot-4 and about 300 pounds, Mr. O’Neal commanded the stage with not only
his bulk but also his penchant for flashy clothing and chains, and his
confrontational style. He was loud and unpredictable, frequently veering away
from prepared material with a curse-laden segue.
Mr. O’Neal’s reputation for brash honesty led many to call him a comic’s comic.
He could alienate audiences and celebrities alike, both of whom he mocked
He was quick to dismiss his detractors. “Liars don’t like me,” he told Punchline
magazine, which covers the comedy world. “They don’t want to be given anything
He did not spare himself: his size and his diabetes were often incorporated into
Mr. O’Neal had a career most comedians would envy. He had stand-up specials on
HBO as well as Comedy Central and appeared on television comedies like Michael
Hurwitz’s lauded “Arrested Development,” NBC’s version of “The Office” and Dave
Chappelle’s hit Comedy Central sketch series, “Chappelle’s Show.” He also
performed regularly on the “Opie & Anthony” satellite radio show.
Mr. O’Neal appeared in a handful of movies, including the Spike Lee drama “The
25th Hour” (2002), released a stand-up album and DVD, “Elephant in the Room”
(2011), and was co-host of the short-lived Comedy Central show “Shorties
Watchin’ Shorties,” which featured the voices of comedians like Dane Cook, Denis
Leary and Greg Giraldo riffing as animated babies.
His last widely viewed performance was at the Comedy Central roast of the actor
Charlie Sheen in September. “I respect Charlie Sheen, I do,” Mr. O’Neal said,
then added, “Not his body of work.”
During his set he likened Mike Tyson to Muhammad Ali, not because they were
boxers but because both became acceptable to white people. And he advised
Steve-O, a recovering drug addict and a star of MTV’s “Jackass,” to relapse.
Patrice Lumumba Malcolm O’Neal (he was named after the Congolese independence
leader Patrice Lumumba, and his last name has often been spelled Oneal) was born
on Dec. 7, 1969, in Boston. He began performing at open mikes there, and by the
late 1990s he was working clubs in Los Angeles and New York.
He landed a guest appearance on the MTV comedy “Apt. 2F” in 1997 and worked
briefly as a writer for World Wrestling Entertainment before he had his first
stand-up special on Comedy Central and was seen on the short-lived sketch series
“The Colin Quinn Show.”
George Carlin, the Grammy-Award winning standup comedian and
actor who was hailed for his irreverent social commentary, poignant observations
of the absurdities of everyday life and language, and groundbreaking routines
like “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” died in Santa Monica,
Calif., on Sunday, according to his publicist, Jeff Abraham. He was 71.
The cause of death was heart failure. Mr. Carlin, who had a history of heart
problems, went into the hospital on Sunday afternoon after complaining of heart
trouble. The comedian had worked last weekend at The Orleans in Las Vegas.
Recently, Mr. Carlin was named the recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for
American Humor. He was to receive the award at the Kennedy Center in November.
“In his lengthy career as a comedian, writer, and actor, George Carlin has not
only made us laugh, but he makes us think,” said Stephen A. Schwarzman, the
Kennedy Center chairman. “His influence on the next generation of comics has
In an interview with The Associated Press, Jack Burns, who performed with Mr.
Carlin in the 1960’s as one half of a comedy duo, said “He was a genius and I
will miss him dearly.”
Mr. Carlin began his standup comedy act in the late 1950s and made his first
television solo guest appearance on “The Merv Griffin Show” in 1965. At that
time, he was primarily known for his clever wordplay and reminiscences of his
Irish working-class upbringing in New York.
But from the outset there were indications of an anti-establishment edge to his
comedy. Initially, it surfaced in the witty patter of a host of offbeat
characters like the wacky sportscaster Biff Barf and the hippy-dippy weatherman
Al Sleet. “The weather was dominated by a large Canadian low, which is not to be
confused with a Mexican high. Tonight’s forecast . . . dark, continued mostly
dark tonight turning to widely scattered light in the morning.”
Mr. Carlin released his first comedy album, “Take-Offs and Put-Ons,” to rave
reviews in 1967. He also dabbled in acting, winning a recurring part as Marlo
Thomas’ theatrical agent in the sitcom “That Girl” (1966-67) and a supporting
role in the movie “With Six You Get Egg-Roll,” released in 1968.
By the end of the decade, he was one of America’s best known comedians. He made
more than 80 major television appearances during that time, including the Ed
Sullivan Show and Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show; he was also regularly featured
at major nightclubs in New York and Las Vegas.
That early success and celebrity, however, was as dinky and hollow as a
gratuitous pratfall to Mr. Carlin. “I was entertaining the fathers and the
mothers of the people I sympathized with, and in some cases associated with, and
whose point of view I shared,” he recalled later, as quoted in the book “Going
Too Far” by Tony Hendra, which was published in 1987. “I was a traitor, in so
many words. I was living a lie.”
In 1970, Mr. Carlin discarded his suit, tie, and clean-cut image as well as the
relatively conventional material that had catapulted him to the top. Mr. Carlin
reinvented himself, emerging with a beard, long hair, jeans and a routine that,
according to one critic, was steeped in “drugs and bawdy language.” There was an
immediate backlash. The Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas terminated his three-year
contract, and, months later, he was advised to leave town when an angry mob
threatened him at the Lake Geneva Playboy Club. Afterward, he temporarily
abandoned the nightclub circuit and began appearing at coffee houses, folk clubs
and colleges where he found a younger, hipper audience that was more attuned to
both his new image and his material.
By 1972, when he released his second album, “FM & AM,” his star was again on the
rise. The album, which won a Grammy Award as best comedy recording, combined
older material on the “AM” side with bolder, more acerbic routines on the “FM”
side. Among the more controversial cuts was a routine euphemistically entitled
“Shoot,” in which Mr. Carlin explored the etymology and common usage of the
popular idiom for excrement. The bit was part of the comic’s longer routine
“Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” which appeared on his third album
“Class Clown,” also released in 1972.
“There are some words you can say part of the time. Most of the time ‘ass’ is
all right on television,” Mr. Carlin noted in his introduction to the then
controversial monologue. “You can say, well, ‘You’ve made a perfect ass of
yourself tonight.’ You can use ass in a religious sense, if you happen to be the
redeemer riding into town on one — perfectly all right.”
The material seems innocuous by today’s standards, but it caused an uproar when
broadcast on the New York radio station WBAI in the early ‘70s. The station was
censured and fined by the FCC. And in 1978, their ruling was supported by the
Supreme Court, which Time magazine reported, “upheld an FCC ban on ‘offensive
material’ during hours when children are in the audience.” Mr. Carlin refused to
drop the bit and was arrested several times after reciting it on stage.
By the mid-’70s, like his comic predecessor Lenny Bruce and the fast-rising
Richard Pryor, Mr. Carlin had emerged as a cultural renegade. In addition to his
irreverent jests about religion and politics, he openly talked about the use of
drugs, including acid and peyote, and said that he kicked cocaine not for moral
or legal reasons but after he found “far more pain in the deal than pleasure.”
But the edgier, more biting comedy he developed during this period, along with
his candid admission of drug use, cemented his reputation as the “comic voice of
Mr. Carlin released a half dozen comedy albums during the ‘70s, including the
million-record sellers “Class Clown,” “Occupation: Foole” (1973) and “An Evening
With Wally Lando” (1975). He was chosen to host the first episode of the
late-night comedy show “Saturday Night Live” in 1975. And two years later, he
found the perfect platform for his brand of acerbic, cerebral, sometimes
off-color standup humor in the fledgling, less restricted world of cable
television. By 1977, when his first HBO comedy special, “George Carlin at USC”
was aired, he was recognized as one of the era’s most influential comedians. He
also become a best-selling author of books that expanded on his comedy routines,
including “When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?,” which was published by
Hyperion in 2004.
He was “a hugely influential force in stand-up comedy,” the actor Ben Stiller
told The Associated Press. “He had an amazing mind, and his humor was brave, and
always challenging us to look at ourselves and question our belief systems,
while being incredibly entertaining. He was one of the greats.”
Pursuing a Dream
Mr. Carlin was born in New York City in 1937. “I grew up in New York wanting to
be like those funny men in the movies and on the radio,” he said. “My
grandfather, mother and father were gifted verbally, and my mother passed that
along to me. She always made sure I was conscious of language and words.”
He quit high school to join the Air Force in the mid-’50s and, while stationed
in Shreveport, La., worked as a radio disc jockey. Discharged in 1957, he set
out to pursue his boyhood dream of becoming an actor and comic. He moved to
Boston where he met and teamed up with Jack Burns, a newscaster and comedian.
The team worked on radio stations in Boston, Fort Worth, and Los Angeles, and
performed in clubs throughout the country during the late ‘50s.
After attracting the attention of the comedian Mort Sahl, who dubbed them “a duo
of hip wits,” they appeared as guests on “The Tonight Show” with Jack Paar.
Still, the Carlin-Burns team was only moderately successful, and, in 1960, Mr.
Carlin struck out on his own.
During a career that spanned five decades, he emerged as one of the most
durable, productive and versatile comedians of his era. He evolved from Jerry
Seinfeld-like whimsy and a buttoned-down decorum in the ‘60s to counterculture
icon in the ‘70s. By the ‘80s, he was known as a scathing social critic who
could artfully wring laughs from a list of oxymorons that ranged from “jumbo
shrimp” to “military intelligence.” And in the 1990s and into the 21st century
the balding but still pony-tailed comic prowled the stage — eyes ablaze and
bristling with intensity — as the circuit’s most splenetic curmudgeon.
During his live 1996 HBO special, “Back in Town,” he raged over the shallowness
of the ‘90s “me first” culture — mocking the infatuation with camcorders,
hyphenated names, sneakers with lights on them, and lambasting white guys over
10 years old who wear their baseball hats backwards. Baby boomers, “who went
from ‘do your thing’ to ‘just say no’ ...from cocaine to Rogaine,” and pro life
advocates (“How come when it’s us it’s an abortion, and when it’s a chicken it’s
an omelet?”), were some of his prime targets. In the years following his 1977
cable debut, Mr. Carlin was nominated for a half dozen Grammy awards and
received CableAces awards for best stand-up comedy special for “George Carlin:
Doin’ It Again (1990) and “George Carlin: Jammin’ “ (1992). He also won his
second Grammy for the album “Jammin” in 1994.
During the course of his career, Mr. Carlin overcame numerous personal trials.
His early arrests for obscenity (all of which were dismissed) and struggle to
overcome his self-described “heavy drug use” were the most publicized. But in
the ‘80s he also weathered serious tax problems, a heart attack and two open
In December 2004 he entered a rehabilitation center to address his addictions to
Vicodin and red wine. Mr. Carlin had a well-chronicled cocaine problem in his
30s, and though he was able to taper his cocaine use on his own, he said, he
continued to abuse alcohol and also became addicted to Vicodin. He entered rehab
at the end of that year, then took two months off before continuing his comedy
“Standup is the centerpiece of my life, my business, my art, my survival and my
way of being,” Mr. Carlin once told an interviewer. “This is my art, to
interpret the world.” But, while it always took center stage in his career, Mr.
Carlin did not restrict himself to the comedy stage. He frequently indulged his
childhood fantasy of becoming a movie star. Among his later credits were
supporting parts in “Car Wash” (1976), “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure”
(1989), “The Prince of Tides” (1991), and “Dogma” (1999).
His 1997 book, “Brain Droppings,” became an instant best seller. And among
several continuing TV roles, he starred in the Fox sitcom “The George Carlin
Show,” which aired for one season. “That was an experiment on my part to see if
there might be a way I could fit into the corporate entertainment structure,” he
said after the show was canceled in 1994. “And I don’t,” he added.
Despite the longevity of his career and his problematic personal life, Mr.
Carlin remained one of the most original and productive comedians in show
business. “It’s his lifelong affection for language and passion for truth that
continue to fuel his performances,” a critic observed of the comedian when he
was in his mid-60s. And Chris Albrecht, an HBO executive, said, “He is as
prolific a comedian as I have witnessed.”
Mr. Carlin is survived by his wife, Sally Wade; daughter Kelly Carlin McCall;
son-in-law, Bob McCall, brother, Patrick Carlin and sister-in-law, Marlene
Carlin. His first wife, Brenda Hosbrook, died in 1997.
Although some criticized parts of his later work as too contentious, Mr. Carlin
defended the material, insisting that his comedy had always been driven by an
intolerance for the shortcomings of humanity and society. “Scratch any cynic,”
he said, “and you’ll find a disappointed idealist.”
Still, when pushed to explain the pessimism and overt spleen that had crept into
his act, he quickly reaffirmed the zeal that inspired his lists of complaints
and grievances. “I don’t have pet peeves,” he said, correcting the interviewer.
And with a mischievous glint in his eyes, he added, “I have major, psychotic