Comic Who Chafed at Society and Its Constraints,
Dies at 71
MEL WATKINS & BRUCE WEBER / New York Times 24jun2008
called the American Dream because
George Carlin live at the Beacon Theatre in New York City
George Carlin, whose astringent stand-up comedy made him an heir of Lenny Bruce, who gave voice to an indignant counterculture and assaulted the barricades of censorship on behalf of a generation of comics that followed him, died on Sunday in Santa Monica, Calif. He was 71 and lived in Venice, Calif.
The cause was heart failure, said his publicist, Jeff Abraham. Mr. Carlin, who performed earlier this month at the Orleans hotel in Las Vegas, had a history of heart problems.
“By and large, language is a tool for concealing the truth,” read a message on Mr. Carlin’s Web site, GeorgeCarlin.com, and he spent much of his life in a fervent effort to counteract the forces that would have it so. In his always irreverent, often furious social commentary, in his observations of the absurdities of everyday life and language, and in groundbreaking routines like the profane “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” he took aim at what he thought of as the palliating and obfuscating agents of American life — politicians, advertisements, religion, the media and conventional thinking of all stripes.
“If crime fighters fight crime and firefighters fight fire, what do freedom fighters fight?” he asked in a 1980s routine, taking a jab at the Reagan administration’s defense of the Nicaraguan Contras.
During a career that spanned five decades, Mr. Carlin emerged as one of the most popular, 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 hero in the ’70s.
By the ’80s, he was known as a scathing social critic, wringing laughs from the verbal tics of contemporary language like the oxymoron “jumbo shrimp” (and finding another oxymoron in the term “military intelligence”) and poking fun at pervasive national attitudes. He used the ascent of football’s popularity at the expense of the game he loved, baseball, to make the point that societal innocence had been lost forever.
“Baseball is a 19th-century pastoral game,” he said. “Football is a 20th-century technological struggle. Baseball is played on a diamond, in a park. The baseball park! Football is played on a gridiron, in a stadium sometimes called Soldier Field or War Memorial Stadium.”
Through the 1990s and into the 21st century, Mr. Carlin, balding but still pony-tailed, prowled the stage — eyes ablaze with intensity — as the comedy circuit’s most splenetic curmudgeon, raging over the shallowness of a “me first” culture; mocking the infatuation with camcorders, hyphenated names and sneakers with lights on them; 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’ ” and “from cocaine to Rogaine”; and foes of abortion rights. “How come when it’s us it’s an abortion,” he asked, “and when it’s a chicken it’s an omelet?”
George Denis Carlin was born in New York City on May 12, 1937. His mother, Mary, a secretary, separated from his father when he was an infant, and he grew up with his mother and his older brother, Patrick, on West 121st Street in Manhattan.
“I grew up in New York wanting to be like those funny men in the movies and on the radio,” Mr. Carlin 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 dropped out of high school and joined the Air Force, and while stationed in Shreveport, La., he worked as a radio disc jockey. Discharged in 1957, he moved to Boston for a radio announcer’s job, then to Fort Worth, where he was a D.J.
Along the way he met Jack Burns, a newscaster and comedian. They worked together in Fort Worth and Los Angeles, performing on the radio and in clubs and even appearing on “The Tonight Show” with Jack Paar. The comedian Mort Sahl, whose penchant for social commentary Mr. Carlin came to share, dubbed them “a duo of hip wits.”
Still, the Carlin-Burns team was only moderately successful, and, in 1960, Mr. Carlin struck out on his own.
He made his first television solo guest appearance on “The Tonight Show” in 1962, in the interim between Paar’s departure and Johnny Carson’s arrival; the host that night was Mr. Sahl. His second wasn’t until 1965, when he made the first of 29 appearances on “The Merv Griffin Show.”
At that time, he was primarily known for his clever wordplay and reminiscences of his Irish working-class upbringing in New York. But there were intimations of an anti-establishment edge. It surfaced, for example, in a parody of television newscasts, for which he invented characters like Al Sleet, “the “hippy-dippy weatherman”: “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’s theatrical agent in the 1960s sitcom “That Girl” and a supporting role in the 1968 movie “With Six You Get Eggroll.” He made more than 80 major television appearances during that time, including on the Ed Sullivan Show and Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show”; he was also regularly featured at nightclubs in New York and Las Vegas.
He was one of America’s most popular comedians, but as the convulsive decade of 1960s ended, he’d had enough of what he considered a dinky and hollow success.
“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 (Doubleday, 1987). “I was a traitor, in so many words. I was living a lie.”
In 1970, Mr. Carlin staged a remarkable reversal of field, discarding his suit and tie, as well as the relatively conventional and clean-cut material that had catapulted him to the top. He reinvented himself, emerging with a beard, long hair, jeans and a routine steeped in drugs and insolence. A backlash followed; in one famous incident, he was advised to leave town when an angry audience threatened him at the Playboy Club in Lake Geneva, Wis., for joking about the Vietnam War. Afterward, he temporarily abandoned nightclubs for coffee houses 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 with his newer, more acerbic routines.
One, from “Class Clown,” Mr. Carlin’s third album, became part of his “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” with its rhythmic recitation of obscenities. It was broadcast on the New York radio station WBAI. Acting on a complaint about the broadcast, the Federal Communications Commission issued an order prohibiting the words as “indecent.” In 1978, the Supreme Court upheld the order, establishing a decency standard that remains in effect; it ensnared Howard Stern in 2005, precipitating his move to satellite radio.
Mr. Carlin refused to drop the bit and was arrested several times after reciting it onstage.
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 jests about religion and politics, he talked about using drugs, including LSD and peyote; he kicked cocaine, he said, not for moral or legal reasons but because he found “far more pain in the deal than pleasure.”
Three of Mr. Carlin’s comedy albums of the 1970’s — “Class Clown,” “Occupation: Foole” and “An Evening With Wally Lambo” — sold more than a million copies. In 1975, he was chosen to host the first episode of the late-night comedy show “Saturday Night Live.” And two years later, he found the perfect platform for his stinging and cerebral, if sometimes off-color, humor in the fledgling world of cable television: the first of his 14 HBO comedy specials, “George Carlin at U.S.C.” was aired in 1977, the last, “George Carlin: It’s Bad for Ya,” in March.
During the course of his career, Mr. Carlin overcame numerous personal trials. His early arrests for obscenity (all of which were dismissed) and his problem with cocaine were the most publicized. But he also weathered serious tax problems, a heart attack and two open-heart surgeries; his health problems cost him five years of productivity between 1977 and 1982. Though he had been able to taper his cocaine use on his own, he said, he continued to abuse alcohol and also became addicted to Vicodin. In December 2004 he entered a rehabilitation center.
“Stand-up is the centerpiece of my life, my business, my art, my survival and my way of being,” Mr. Carlin once told an interviewer. And while it did always take center stage in his career, Mr. Carlin also acted in films, among them “Car Wash” (1976), “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” (1989), “The Prince of Tides” (1991), and “Dogma” (1999).
He also wrote books, expansions on his comedy routines, including “Brain Droppings” (1997), “Napalm & Silly Putty (2001) and “When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?” (2004), all published by Hyperion. A 1994 sitcom, “The George Carlin Show,” lasted a single season. He also did a stint narrating the children’s television show “Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends.”
Mr. Carlin won a total of four Grammy Awards. He was recently named the recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, which he was to receive in November at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington. The Kennedy Center said Monday that the prize would be given posthumously and that the evening would be a tribute to his life and work.
In addition to his brother, Patrick, Mr. Carlin is survived by his wife, Sally Wade, and a daughter, Kelly Carlin McCall. His first wife, Brenda Hosbrook, died in 1997.
Mr. Carlin’s most recent work was especially contentious, even bitter, full of ranting against the stupid, the fat, the docile. But he 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.”
Anahad O’Connor contributed reporting.
This article has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: June 25, 2008 Because of an editing error, an obituary on Tuesday about the comedian George Carlin misstated the location of the Playboy Club where he angered an audience by joking about the Vietnam War. It was Lake Geneva, Wis. (There is no town named Lake Geneva in New York.)