Tuesday, June 24, 2008

George Carlin R.I.P.

Legendary comedian George Carlin passed Sunday at the age of 71. The cause was heart failure.

Carlin was born May 12, 1937 in New York City. He attended Cardinal High School and then Bishop Dubois High School. He dropped out of high school to join the Air Force, in which he served as a radar technician. Carlin was discharged from the Air Force in 1957. In 1959 he went to work for KXOL in Fort Worth, Texas. It was there that he met Jack Burns. The two formed a comedy team, performing around Forth Worth. In 1960 the two headed to Los Angeles. In total the team of Burns and Carlin stayed together for two years before deciding to pursue individual careers. They released one album, Burns and Carlin at the Playboy Club Tonight in 1963.

At the start of Carlin's career he had been fairly conservative. In his early appearances on shows such as The Mike Douglas Show and The Ed Sullivan Show he was clean shaven and dressed in suits. For much of the Sixties, Carlin was perhaps best known for such routines as Al Sleet, the "hippie-dippie weatherman," the Indian sergeant, and Wonderful WINO (a radio station with a very stupid DJ).

By the end of the Sixties, however, Carlin had transformed. He grew his hair out, grew a beard, and began dressing in jeans and T-shirts. And while amusing observations on humanity and life in general had been a part of his act from the beginning. Carlin's comedy took on a new edge, becoming more topical and biting. The reason for the change in George Carlin as a comic was his exposure to Lenny Bruce, whom he first saw in the early Sixties. When Carlin first saw Bruce perform, he realised his comedy was not exactly earth shattering and decided to set off in a different direction. In fact, Carlin was in the audience in December 1962 when Lenny Bruce was arrested for obscenity in Chicago. Carlin was arrested as well for refusing to show the police officers any identification, saying he did not believe in government issued IDs.

In the Sixties Carlin appeared on television regularly, allowing viewers to watch his transformation. His first appearance on national television was on The Mike Douglas Show in 1965. He would appear on The Hollywood Palace the following year, and would make his first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1967. In 1968 he made the first of many appearances on The Tonight Show. Carlin made a guest appearance on That Girl and was a regular performer on the short lived Away We Go as well. It was also in 1966 that he released his first solo album, Take-Offs and Put-Ons. He made his film debut in 1968 in With Six You Get Eggroll.

The Seventies saw George Carlin's popularity soar. It was in 1972 that he first performed his most famous monologue, "the Seven Words You Cannot Say on TV." The seven words were those that are considered so offensive and so inappropriate that they cannot be uttered on radio or television. Even after 36 years, most of the words are not considered unsuitable for broadcast. The routine was recorded for his album Class Clown, released in 1972. "The Seven Words You Cannot Say on Television" landed Carlin in trouble and in legal history books. It was in 1973 when he performed "the Seven Words You Cannot Say on Television" at Summerfest in Milwaukee that he was arrested for obscenity. A variation on the same theme, "Filthy Words," was recorded for his album Occupation: Foole in 1973. The album was broadcast uncensored on October 30, 1973 on New York City radio station WBAI. A complaint was filed with the FCC, with the warning that "...in the event subsequent complaints are received, the Commission will then decide whether it should utilize any of the available sanctions it has been granted by Congress." Pacifica, the owners of WBAI, appealed the FCC's decision, which led to a landmark Supreme Court case which ruled the sketch was "indecent, not obscene." The Court also decided that the FCC has the authority to forbid broadcasts containing offensive language during hours when children may be listening. This would result in the short lived "Family Viewing Hour," in which the networks decided only to air family friendly material during the hour of 8 to 9 PM EST (7:00 to 8 PM CST). Starting in 1974, the Family Viewing Hour faded away in 1977.

The Seventies saw Carlin appear on such shows as The David Frost Show, The Mike Douglas Show, The Flip Wilson Show, and The Tonight Show. The first of his many HBO specials debuted in 1977. Carlin was also the very first host of Saturday Night Live in 1972. He guest starred on Welcome Back, Kotter and appeared in the film Car Wash. He was also the narrator of the movie Americathon. His first book, Sometimes a Little Brain Damage Can Help was published in 1984.

The Eighties would see Carlin doing less television, beyond four different HBO specials, The Tonight Show, and The Simpsons. He appeared in the films Outrageous Fortune, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure and Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey. The Nineties would see George Carlin a regular on two different TV shows. He took over the role of Mr. Conductor from Ringo Starr on Shining Time Station and starred in his own sitcom, The George Carlin Show as a New York cab driver. He also continued to appear in HBO specials. He appeared in the films The Prince of Tides and Dogma. His second book, Brain Droppings, was published in 1997.

The Naughts saw Carlin appear in the films Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, Scary Movie 3, and Jersey Girl. He also provided voices for Cars and Happily Ever After. He appeared in more HBO specials and had three more books published: Napalm and Silly Putty, When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chop, and Three Times Carlin: An Orgy of George.

Today George Carlin is so much of an institution that it might be hard for some to believe that at one time his comedy was considered shocking and offensive by some and revolutionary by all. His routines generally centred around wry observations meant to lay bare the hypocrisies and absurdities of modern, American life. Among his favourite subjects was the illogic of the English language, not only tackling "the Seven Words," but such politically correct words and phrases as "bathroom tissue" being used instead of "toilet paper" and "mobile home" instead of "trailer." Indeed, while many of his contemporaries would pepper their routines with obscenities merely for shock value, Carlin used them it was to make a point, his routine "the Seven Words You Cannot Say on Television" being a prime example. And no topic was too sacrosanct for Carlin to tackle, everything from drug use to sex to religion. Not that every topic Carlin covered was controversial or even dealt with humanity. Among my favourite routines he ever performed was one on cats and dogs.

George Carlin would not only become an exceedingly popular comic, but a very influential one as well. His influence can be seen on such varied comedians as Chris Rock and Jerry Seinfeld. If Carlin's influence was wide reaching, it may well be because he was one of the most intelligent and observant comedians of all time. And while I may not have always agreed with all of his views, I also believe it was because he was one of the funniest comedians of all time as well.

1 comment:

Jeff Barnes said...

Hey Terry! I found a link to your blog on your Facebook profile. On Monday morning I came down to breakfast after the Monster Bash convention and heard that George Carlin had died the day before. I was stunned! He was funny as hell but he was so much more than a comedian. He was a true sage and a voice of wisdom in these crazy times.