There’s a pall hanging over a few segments of the population this week—the comedy geeks, those that came of age in the late ’60s and early ’70s and the all-around truth-seekers—that makes it hard to concentrate. Kind of puts a damper on writing, or reading, or listening to the latest in a never-ending string of next-big-thing bands, or having yet another inane conversation about any variety of artistic endeavor, knowing that George Carlin, who suffered heart failure and died Sunday in a Santa Monica, California, hospital, will no longer stalk the stage.
The guy was an artist to the fullest extent. Back when he began performing as a duo with fellow disco jockey Jack Burns in 1959 and through his appearances on Carson, Merv Griffin and The Ed Sullivan Show, he was more concerned with being a crowd-pleasing entertainer. But that was before Lenny Bruce.
“I loved that he saw Lenny Bruce and then changed his act completely. He was already fairly successful by then; it takes huge balls to drop something that’s working and move into unknown territory.” –Laurie Kilmartin
Carlin was in the audience at San Francisco’s Jazz Workshop when Bruce was arrested for obscenity in 1961. Refusing to provide ID, Carlin was subsequently taken to jail in the same vehicle as his fellow trailblazer. In the years following, he traded suits for jeans, earrings, long hair and a full beard, as well as shticky character routines for darker, highly philosophical dissections of religion, politics and, most infamously, language. His zero-bullshit approach hammered home that it wasn’t just the folks in charge who made ordinary life so bewildering; those who didn’t think for themselves were equally at fault.
“I’ll never forget when that special he taped at Carnegie Hall aired on HBO. It seemed every student in my junior high somehow sneaked into their parents’ living rooms and saw it at some point. And although we’d only seen it once, we knew word for word his ‘Seven Words You Can’t Say on TV’ bit by heart. We’d recite it over and over again to each other as a chorus on the playground.” –Lisa Landry
Carlin was arrested for violating obscenity laws after performing “Seven Words” at Milwaukee’s Summerfest in 1972. The later airing of similar material on New York’s WBAI led to the landmark FCC vs. Pacifica Foundation case, which resulted in “indecent” material being banned from broadcast during hours when children may be in the audience.
Carlin accumulated four Grammys and three American Comedy Awards over the years (including one Lifetime Achievement prize in 2001), but at 71, he had also logged three heart attacks and four major heart surgeries. December 2004 saw him checking into a rehab facility for an addiction to pills and alcohol following his firing from a long-standing headlining gig at the MGM Grand in part for telling an audience of 700, “People who go to Las Vegas, you’ve got to question their fucking intellect to start with. Traveling hundreds and thousands of miles to essentially give your money to a large corporation is kind of fucking moronic. That’s what I’m always getting here is these kind of fucking people with very limited intellects.” He began playing the Stardust the following February and eventually moved to the Orleans, where he most recently performed June 12-15. He was next scheduled to appear August 7-10 and 14-17.
“The first time I met him, Robert Schimmel and I were working in Vegas, and we were working at the same hotel … I [just ran] this comedy festival in Johnny Carson’s hometown, and I had called him and asked him to be part of it. He paused and said, ‘You know, I can’t do it for certain reasons.’ I wasn’t sure what that was. I was thinking today earlier, if he knew ...” –Eddie Brill
Second only to Richard Pryor, Carlin topped the list of Comedy Central’s 100 Greatest Stand-Ups of All Time. Four days before his death, it was announced that he would receive the Kennedy Center’s 2008 Mark Twain Prize for Humor on November 10.
“Watching Carlin inspires me to keep writing and to move my writing toward my truth, less concerned with how the audience reacts and more concerned with whether or not my piece has honesty. We all want to be funny; Carlin showed us that the real funny, the stuff worth talking about, comes from deep within, sometimes uncomfortable, but always honest.” –Vinnie Brand