"For fifty years," writes James Sullivan in the first full-length biography of George Carlin, "he may well have produced more laughs than any other human being." From his appearances on TV shows like Ed Sullivan to his final HBO specials, Carlin was America's comic conscience. His mentor, Lenny Bruce, came first; Bill Cosby was more popular, Richard Pryor at times edgier. But no one kept raising the bar on issues of language and its application to comedy like Carlin.
In 7 Dirty Words, Sullivan, a former San Francisco Chronicle pop culture writer, satisfies anyone who has ever laughed at a Carlin routine, and that's a lot of us. George Denis Patrick Carlin — about as Irish a set of names as one could have — was born in the Bronx in 1937. His influences were the Marx Brothers, Jackie Gleason and the great radio comic Fred Allen. Avoiding a career as a juvenile delinquent, he did a stint in the Air Force and began a career in radio. In his 20s he began a legendary stretch on the standup comic circuit.
Sullivan nails Carlin's popularity — "He was an independent thinker who could mock liberals as deftly as conservatives" — and why he evolved from Al Sleet, the Hippy Dippy Weatherman, to the "Grand Old Man of the Counterculture." He created "what has to be the single most impressive body of solo material ever assembled by an American comedian," influencing nearly every comic who has followed him, including Bill Maher, Jerry Seinfeld and Jon Stewart.
When the "7 Words" went before the Supreme Court, Carlin was tickled: "That these men had summoned me into their presence to question my conduct absolutely thrilled the perverse and rebellious side of my nature." Carlin proved to be the living link to the great American tradition established by Mark Twain, who reminded us, "Nature knows no indecencies. Man invents them."
Allen Barra's latest book is "Yogi Berra, Eternal Yankee."