Make us your home page
Instagram

Today’s top headlines delivered to you daily.

(View our Privacy Policy)

George Carlin

An appreciation

Counterculture comic George Carlin dies at 71

Comedian George Carlin hosted the debut of Saturday Night Live in 1975.

Associated Press

Comedian George Carlin hosted the debut of Saturday Night Live in 1975.

Two personae always seemed to be in uneasy coexistence during George Carlin's preposterously long and fertile comic career. Both George Carlins could amuse and both could be trenchant, but they came at their targets from wildly different angles.

Angry George was the bearded iconoclast of the 1970s who shot to heroic counterculture status by picking up Lenny Bruce's mantle as a scathing social critic. During the Vietnam War, Angry George left no hypocrisy unturned. He sprayed comic acid on whatever moved across the front page: religion, politics, feminism, sex, manners, environmentalism, drugs, death.

Gentle George trafficked in small things. He was the absurdist, the semanticist, the wordplay artist. Gentle George's most memorable works are tributes to Carlin's keen powers of observation and Swiftian ear for the English language. This side of Carlin produced "The Seven Words You Can Never Say on TV," "Baseball and Football" (his ingenious dissection of the differences between our national pastimes) and the more recent "Modern Man," Carlin's verbally acrobatic piece of spoken-word art.

"Seven Words," which remains accurate to this day (if you don't count cable), is one of the most famous "blue" comedy routines ever performed. Shocking though its subject matter was when it debuted in 1972, Carlin's treatment of the material is so relentlessly cheerful that it now seems almost impossible to be offended. Compare Carlin's riffs on profanity with any blunt-force "shock jock" or less-talented standup of the past few decades.

Carlin, who died Sunday night (June 22, 2008) in Los Angeles at 71, was at his least funny when he let his anger and natural anti-authority streak lapse into nihilism. Once, on a tour that came through Washington in the early 1990s, Carlin proposed that "anything could be funny," even rape. He then launched into a cringe-inducing monologue about female victimization. It could essentially be read as an attack on political correctness — a common theme for Carlin — but whatever it was, it wasn't funny in the least.

Then there was his genuine anger at other pastimes. Golf courses, he once suggested, should be turned over to homeless people (Carlin had a lifelong hatred of golf, having been fired once in Las Vegas after an audience of golfers complained about his cursing).

His subject matter ran the gamut of the sometimes socially verboten. In one of his HBO specials, Carlin's topics included yeast infections, autoerotic asphyxia, an all-suicide TV channel and revolting involuntary bodily functions.

It was fascinating to watch the nearly-70ish Carlin — wizened and weakened by years of heart trouble and a cocaine habit — pushing miles beyond the interplanetary boundaries of good taste. But so much of the material invited not laughter but a thunderstruck "wow" at the aggressiveness with which he pushed into darkness.

It was easier to love the Carlin who delighted in pointing out the absurdity of the trivial, and the simply absurd — the kind of humor that clearly inspired the likes of Jerry Seinfeld and Steven Wright.

There were Carlin's ever-growing list of oxymorons — "closed fist," "plastic glass," "holy war," "military intelligence" — and redundancies, such as "raw sewage" ("Do some people cook the stuff?").

As much as George Orwell, Carlin saw in language the power not just to obscure, but also to twist and pervert. "I can remember when I was young that poor people lived in slums," he once riffed. "Not anymore. These days, the economically disadvantaged occupy substandard housing in the inner cities. It's so much nicer for them."

And he once asserted: "If honesty were introduced into American life, everything would collapse."

By the numbers

23 comedy albums

4 Grammy Awards for best spoken comedy album

3 best-selling books

14 specials for HBO

130 appearances on The Tonight Show

Seven words

When George Carlin uttered the infamous seven words you can't say on TV at a show in Milwaukee in 1972, he was arrested on charges of disturbing the peace and exonerated when a Wisconsin judge dismissed the case, citing free speech.

A New York radio station later played the words, resulting in a 1978 Supreme Court ruling upholding the government's authority to sanction stations for broadcasting offensive language during hours when children might be listening.

"So my name is a footnote in American legal history, which I'm perversely kind of proud of," Carlin told the Associated Press this year.

Counterculture comic George Carlin dies at 71 06/23/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, June 24, 2008 12:44pm]
Photo reprints | Article reprints

    

Join the discussion: Click to view comments, add yours

Loading...
  1. Rays send down Chase Whitley, Andrew Kittredge; add Chih-Wei Hu, acitvate Alex Cobb

    Blogs

    After having to cover more than five innings following a short start by Austin Pruitt, the Rays shuffled their bullpen following Wednesday's game, sending down RHPs Chase Whitley and Andrew Kittredge,

    The Kittredge move was expected, as he was summoned to add depth to the pen Wednesday in advance of RHP Alex …

  2. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred moves closer to wanting a decision on Rays stadium

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred called Wednesday for urgency from Tampa Bay area government leaders to prioritize and move quicker on plans for a new Rays stadium.

    MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred talks with reporters at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2017.
  3. Six home runs doom Rays in loss to Blue Jays (w/video)

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — A curve that didn't bounce was the difference Wednesday as the Rays lost 7-6 to the Blue Jays in front of 8,264, the smallest Tropicana field crowd since Sept. 5, 2006.

    Tampa Bay Rays shortstop Adeiny Hechavarria (11) greets center fielder Kevin Kiermaier (39) at the plate after his two run home run in the third inning of the game between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Tampa Bay Rays at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Fla. on Wednesday, Aug. 23, 2017.
  4. Jones: Stop talking and start building a new Rays stadium

    The Heater

    ST. PETERSBURG — It was good to see Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred at Tropicana Field on Wednesday, talking Rays baseball and the hope for a new stadium somewhere in Tampa Bay.

    Commissioner Rob Manfred is popular with the media on a visit to Tropicana Field.
  5. Ousted to political Siberia by Corcoran, Kathleen Peters sets sights on Pinellas Commission

    State Roundup

    TALLAHASSEE — The perks of power in Tallahassee are a coveted chairmanship, a Capitol office in a prime location and a prominent seat on the House floor. Now Rep. Kathleen Peters has lost all three, but here's the twist: Her trip to "Siberia" might actually help her reach the next step on the Tampa Bay political …

    Rep. Kathleen Peters, R-South Pasadena, has been relegated to the back row in the State House chamber, moved to a fouth floor office and stripped of her job as chairwoman of a House subcommittee after a series of disagreements with House Speaker Richard Corcoran. [SCOTT KEELER | Tampa Bay Times]