Arts & Entertainment

To the late George Carlin: Thank you for starting my dream

It was 1971, and I was 15 years old.

George Carlin was touring the U.S. playing sold-out theaters.

He had released several albums and my family owned them all.

Mom, dad, myself and 13-year-old brother made the 210-mile trip from Tri-Cities to Seattle to see him at The Paramount Theater.

The anticipation in the theater was electric. Several people were openly smoking joints before the show began. Remember, this was 1971. We had good seats.

What I clearly remember is sitting there before the show and looking at the stool with a pitcher of water on it and the microphone standing there all alone bathed in a blue light. It's as clear as if it were last week.

I'd never seen a comedian perform live. I was absolutely mesmerized that this person was going to come out and entertain this entire audience with nothing but that microphone and his brain. It was a moment that would change my life. It set me thinking in a different way and sent my life down a path that I am forever thankful I found.

That night, George Carlin made me dream.

He didn't disappoint. He came out and killed. The crowd loved him. My sides and face ached from laughter after the show.

High school and college came and went. I watched comedians on Johnny Carson. In the back of my mind, I dreamt of what it would be like to be a comedian.

Wouldn't it be great to just entertain with nothing but a microphone and your thoughts? But really, what are the odds of that happening?

In the early '80s, while teaching at Ruth Livingston Elementary School in Pasco, I still thought about trying stand-up comedy. I was filling notebooks with ideas I thought were funny, but was absolutely terrified of giving it a try.

By this time, comedy was booming and clubs were opening all over the country. In 1983, I drove the 210 miles to Seattle, went into the Comedy Underground club and signed up to do the open mic. I was going to give this stand-up thing a try! Fifteen minutes before it was my turn, I chickened out. I told the emcee to take my name off the list.

I walked out of the club and drove home disappointed with myself. I taught another year of fourth grade before I went back and signed up for the open mic again. This time I went onstage.

Two years later, I quit teaching and have made my living with a microphone ever since.

In 1987, I was a finalist in the Seattle Comedy Competition, which was held at the Paramount in Seattle on the very stage where I'd seen George Carlin 16 years earlier. It's still one of the most vivid moments of my career. I kept looking in the area where I'd been seated years earlier and realized that my dream had come true.

In the mid-'90s, I was performing at The Maxim Casino in Las Vegas, near Bally's where George Carlin was appearing. I walked over to Bally's and gave the concierge a note to give to Carlin.

It said: "Hey George, I'm performing across the street at The Comedy Max. You're the first comedian I ever saw live and the main reason I'm now in the biz. I wanted to thank you. Brad Upton."

A couple of hours later, the phone rang in my room and a familiar voice said, "Brad? Georgie!" I was stunned! We talked a few minutes and he invited me to his show that night. George told me to come down to the stage door after the show and tell the security guy that he was expecting me.

I rushed over after my show and watched the last 15 minutes of his and then went backstage, talked for about 15 minutes and had my picture taken with him. He couldn't have been more gracious.

In 2001, I was asked to perform in The Legends and Friends portion of the Las Vegas Comedy Festival at The Stardust casino. Before the show I was backstage in Wayne Newton's dressing room with some of my favorite comedy legends: Norm Crosby, Pat Cooper, Jack Carter and Pete Barbutti. I listened to these guys tell hilarious stories and berate each other in the way only a room full of comedians can.

At the door a familiar voice said loudly, "Hey, I heard there's some bitter, old co******kers in here." The legends turned, en masse, and said as one, "Georgie!!!"

Carlin hugged everyone. It's still a favorite memory to be standing around with all of that comic royalty and being treated like a peer. George watched that show from the back of the room before leaving to do his own show.

Afterward, his manager sought me out and said George asked him to personally tell me how much he enjoyed watching me work, that he's now a fan. No validation will ever compare.

For the past 22 years I've made a very nice living with just a microphone. I've headlined comedy clubs all over the country. I've seen all corners of the world headlining on several cruise lines, opened for some of the biggest names in show business, been heard all over the country on the radio, been on national TV.

The weekend before he died, George was playing at The Orleans in Las Vegas at the same time I was at The Las Vegas Hilton, opening for the legendary Johnny Mathis.

All that made possible because back in 1971, George Carlin started a dream for a 15-year-old boy.

* Brad Upton is a Richland High graduate who taught school at Ruth Livingston Elementary in Pasco before he gave up teaching for stand-up comedy in the early '80s. He lives in the Seattle area with his wife and son, and he continues to blaze a trail on the comedy circuit across the country, as well as the high seas.