Rick Moranis’ Brutal Impression of George Carlin on ‘SCTV’ Shocked Carlin into Reinventing Himself

Rick Moranis’ Brutal Impression of George Carlin on ‘SCTV’ Shocked Carlin into Reinventing Himself

SCTV’s Rick Moranis insists that he was actually a huge George Carlin fan. “How could I not be?” he asks in a new oral history of Toronto’s Second City comedy troupe. But that didn’t stop him from taking shots at the master in the early 1980s. “There came a point where I saw (Carlin) on a talk show, and he was reading off cards,” says Moranis. “I had a feeling I could look like him, so I did an impression of him reading off notes and telling lazy jokes.” 

The Moranis imitation (repeated a few times in various SCTV sketches) was a “pretty vicious take,” explained Patton Oswalt in the documentary George Carlin’s American Dream. But Moranis wasn’t the only one who’d noticed the turn in Carlin’s stand-up. “He had kind of collapsed in on himself a little bit,” said Oswalt, “where he was literally parsing words to a point where it sounded like somebody doing a parody of George Carlin.”

In another SCTV bit, with Moranis’ Carlin standing in for Woody Allen, he begins another language rant before Eugene Levy’s character cuts him off: “Come on and stop doing those stupid bits! Women hate them. I hate them!” 

Carlin was well aware of Moranis’ impression and the opinions of other comedians at the time. In the documentary, Carlin recalled a magazine quote from Cheech Marin: “George Carlin is obsolete. He’s talking about peas now.” 

Most comics would get angry at that kind of criticism and mockery, and Carlin was no exception. But rather than railing against his critics about unfair treatment, he took the ridicule as a challenge. “I say to myself, I’m going to make these people pay by getting better and learning how to really be a fucking artist,” Carlin said. “And it gave me an inner resolve to be terrific. To go to a new level. To just fucking show the world what was really inside me.”

And that’s just what Carlin did, reinventing himself with a third act like few stand-ups have ever been able to pull off. His scorched-earth tirades fueled several award-winning HBO specials as he turned his inner anger into righteous comedy. But that didn’t make Moranis any less terrified when he ran into Carlin years after the fact. “I was at an awards show,” Moranis remembers in the Toronto Second City oral history. “Across the aisle was Carlin, sitting there. We looked at each other, and he just said, ‘Brutal. Brutal, man. Brutal.’” 

Moranis could only “sort of shrug” and gesture about how much he loved Carlin. The two funny men never got to speak that night, or at any time before Carlin passed away. Later, Moranis was contacted by Carlin’s daughter, Kelly, who wanted to include the SCTV clips in a tribute she was putting together. Moranis assured her: “Look, I want you to understand that, believe it or not, that was really done out of reverence.” 

“She said, ‘No, you don’t understand. It had a profound effect on him. He wasn’t aware that he was really being lazy. He was unhappy and wasn’t doing the kind of work that he wanted to be doing. And your impression caused him to change his approach.’” 

“God,” says Moranis now, “am I glad I spoke to her.”

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