As one of America’s greatest ever stand-up comedians, George Carlin spent five decades shining the light on social and political issues, delving into unknown territory and always telling the truth. His brand of comedy shocked, stimulated, educated and ultimately amused his audience. He was a lover of the English language and possessed wicked memorising skills, constructing routines such as ‘Modern man’, hardly taking a breath as he rolled from word to word. A precursor of modern day stand-up, Carlin never stopped grafting away at his craft, producing twenty albums, fourteen HBO specials, writing three best selling books and touring across America with over a hundred live dates a year.
Born on May 12th, 1937, in Manhattan, Carlin was brought up by his mother alone, after his father left when George and his brother were still young. He was raised a Roman Catholic, something that he could not help but rebel against – as later takes on religion in his act show plainly. After a bout in the air force followed by numerous disk jokey jobs, his career in show business started in the early 60s as part of a double act with his friend, Jack Burns. The pair named themselves ‘Burns and Carlin’ and enjoyed moderate success, playing venues across the country and releasing an album, but Carlin always wanted to be ‘a single’.
Eventually going it alone, Carlin broke onto the stand-up scene in the mid-60s, performing ‘safe’ comedy routines, portraying the image of the clean cut conventional comedian of the day, wearing a tidy suit with his hair short and combed. He was making a comfortable living with this persona, but he knew deep down it was just not who he was. Shedding the suit and adopting a scruffy hippy dress sense, complete with beard and long hair, Carlin discovered his true identity. In 1972 he released two groundbreaking albums, ‘FM & AM’ and ‘Class Clown’. The raw, racy and rebellious tone of the material on both albums helped cement the image of George Carlin as a counter-culture icon. One of his most famous routines, ‘Seven words you can never say on television’ even got him arrested on stage while performing at a festival in Milwaukee. Those seven deadly words – shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits – where apparently too much for the American public to handle.
George Carlin continued to challenge authority, holding the flame passed on down by his hero Lenny Bruce, doing his bit for the oppressed of America the way he knew best. As the public image of Carlin grew stronger, his personal life was becoming a turbulent roller coaster, a drug-fuelled trance, experimenting with all different kinds of substances throughout the 70s. Getting himself back on track and eventually managing to settle his addictions, Carlin focused on his career. His popularity remained strong and continued into the 80s, he started selling out larger venues and released a string of successful albums (A Place For My Stuff, Carlin On Campus).
As the decade progressed, a notable change in Carlin’s theme and structure on stage started to escalate. More angry and determined in his appearance, he started to tackle more gruelling subjects head on. On his 1988 HBO Special (What Am I Doing In New Jersey?) there was a fresh vigour about him, his opening line being ”Doesn’t it strike you as mildly ironic that most of the people who are against abortion are people you wouldn’t want to fuck in the first place?” This theme continued throughout the rest of his life, undertaking subjects as taboo as rape, death, religion, suicide and natural disasters, moulding them into intricate comedy routines, shocking the audience, making them laugh and making them think. What could be misconstrued as bitterness or cynicism, I believe there are fundamental meanings behind these dark routines, an initial optimism for humanity. George said on more than one occasion that he had lost hope for the human race, his comedy is his way of expressing this.
Carlin was the author of three best selling hilarious books, one of which (When Will Jesus Bring The Pork Chops?) managed to piss off three major religions with its title alone. He had numerous acting roles in his life (he loved acting, his first ambition). Working on a few films with his friend Kevin Smith (including the brilliant ‘Dogma’, appropriately playing a Catholic priest) Carlin also had a role in the ‘Bill and Ted’ films and the western series ‘Streets Of Laredo’. He was a relentless hard worker, perfecting his stand-up and writing to the extreme, still performing on stage hundreds of times every year even into his seventies. Perhaps his biggest achievement was writing and performing fourteen HBO Specials (his last, It’s Bad For Ya’, at the age of seventy, recorded less than four months before he died), all consistent with his no holes barred image.
George Carlin died of heart failure on June 22nd, 2008 aged 71. He had had heart problems throughout his life, suffering the first of three heart attacks as early as the mid-70s. In the aftermath of his death, tributes from fellow comedians came flooding in – Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Lewis Black, Louis CK – comics who Carlin massively influenced, changing their comedic perspective and in some cases personally helping with their careers. Carlin was posthumously awarded the ‘Mark Twain Prize for American Humour’, an accolade he had been selected for just four days before his death. Joan Rivers, Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Margaret Cho and Lily Tomlin among those honouring Carlin at the ceremony held at the John F. Kennedy Centre for the Performing Arts in Washington D.C. George Carlin was a true comic legend, a persevering opposition to the establishment until the very end.
”I think it is the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately.” – George Carlin.
This article was first posted on December 15, 2012