I'm not the kind of person who has a lot of heroes but George Carlin was one of mine. I seriously feel like someone has kicked me in the guts. While the world was definitely a better place for having George in it, he wasn't here nearly long enough.
George Carlin, Splenetic Comedian, Dies at 71
By MEL WATKINS
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 been far-reaching."
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 the counterculture." 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.
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 heart surgeries.
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 tours.
"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 hatreds."