George Carlin, the man whose photo should be next to the word irreverent in the dictionary, died of a heart attack on June 22 after going to St. Johns Health Center in Santa Monica California, complaining of chest pains.
Carlin wrote books titled “When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?”, “Napalm and Silly Putty” and “Brain Droppings”. He was a performer who could pull in large audiences of college students even if he was old enough to be their grandfather. Age was irrelevant to his fans, his vision of the world wasn’t.
Carlin was born in the Bronx on May 12, 1937. It’s unlikely anyone knew that day the force of nature that had been unleashed on the world. While known for his stand up comedy which evolved into his own unique brand of comic philosophy, Carlin also had an acting resume that stretched back to a 1968 episode of “That Girl”. In 2004 he even did a comic/dramatic turn as Ben Affleck’s father in Jersey Girl.
The actor/writer/ comedian made an appearance on “Inside the Actors Studio”. Perhaps his best known film role was in Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure. Carlin, who was known for pushing the edge of the envelope, but there are generations of children who were introduced to him as the Narrator in “Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends” in 1984. He returned to children’s television when he appeared as Mr. Conductor in “Shining Time Station” for which he received EMMY nominations. The young children who watched those shows are all grown up and old enough to have seen and heard the real George Carlin.
He wrote three best selling books and recorded 22 solo albums over a career that spanned 50 years. But it’s his stand up work that he’ll be remembered most vividly for. Carlin was a favorite on college campuses where his sharp wit, his irreverent humor with no holds barred language was a hit with young audiences.
In a 1991 interview with the LA Times Carlin talked about what went into his brand of comedy:
“There are three ingredients in my comedy. Those three things which wax and wane in importance are English language and wordplay; secondly, mundane, everyday observational comedy — dogs, cats and all that stuff; and thirdly, sociopolitical attitude comedy.”
His evolution from stand up routines to comic philosopher was a long one spanning years of working in front of audiences. It was his HBO special called “Jamming in New York” in 1992 that Carlin remembered as a major turning point in his work. In an interview in 2007 the LA Times he recalled:
“That was the point where I probably became more of a writer who performed his own material. The material became more like essays, they became more socially conscious, and it was just a major jump from being what I think of as only an entertainer to being an artist-entertainer”
Carlin often talked about words and how they’re used and how language has evolved over the years as he did in this routine:
But the stark bit of comedy that put Carlin on the map was “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television”.
It was a monologue that got Carlin arrested when he performed it in Milwaukee in 1972.
That monologue prompted a landmark indecency case after New York’s WBAI-FM radio aired “Filthy Words” from a Carlin album in 1973. The case was appealed to the Supreme Court which ruled that the routine was “indecent but not obscene”. The Federal Communications Commission found itself with broad to determine what constituted indecency on the airwaves.
While Carlin will be remembered for making people laugh at their own foibles this court case made him as he said “a footnote in legal history which I’m perversely kind of proud of.”
Carlin was performing in Las Vegas up until a week ago and just last week it was announced that Carlin would receive the Mark Twin prize for American Humor. He was to be honored at the Kennedy Center on November 10th with a tribute performance by his fellow humorists.
George Carlin may be gone, but the essence of the man is still with us in his books, recordings, performances on video and in the memories of his legion of fans.