We've lost another great one. Comedian George Carlin died last week of heart failure at the age of 71.
If you were a teenager in the '70s, you probably either owned or knew somebody who owned at least one of his classic albums. It's not overstating the case, I think, to say that albums like "Class Clown" and "Occupation: Foole," with their absurdist humor and irreverence, along with shows like "Saturday Night Live" (which featured Carlin as the host of its very first episode) and magazines like "The National Lampoon," were major influences on the worldview of my generation.
Carlin was born in New York in a neighborhood he later claimed was called "White Harlem," because it sounded cooler than its actual name: "Morningside Heights." After an unsuccessful hitch in the Air Force, he became a disc jockey in Texas, where he eventually teamed up with comedian Jack Burns (later of Burns and Schreiber and "The Andy Griffith Show"). The two went to California, where they lasted two years before breaking up.
Carlin began regular appearances on shows like Ed Sullivan and Johnny Carson's "Tonight" show, where he did characters such as "Al Sleet, The Hippy Dippy Weatherman." ("Forecast for tonight: Dark! Continued dark until morning, when scattered sunlight will prevail.")
In the long career that followed, George Carlin produced 23 albums, 14 HBO specials and three books. He made thousands of live appearances and appeared on "Tonight" a whopping 130 times.
But he was probably most famous for a bit he developed during this period about "The Seven Words You Can't Say On Television." An angry parent who heard the routine on the radio filed a complaint with the FCC, which resulted in a famous case that went all the way to the Supreme Court. The court, in a narrow 5-4 decision, affirmed that the FCC could regulate material deemed to be "obscene" on the public airwaves.
Ironically, the seven words that couldn't be said on television (or on the radio) were set out in their entirety in the court's opinion.
But it wasn't just allegedly dirty words that provided fuel for George Carlin's best humor, it was the English language in general. Carlin delighted in finding the oddities and absurdities in the things we say and the words we use to say them. Even the "Seven Words" routine largely consisted of puzzling over how strange some of the words and their common usages sounded.
For instance, he mused, why do we say "fuck you!" as an insult? Wouldn't "UN-fuck you!" make more sense?
Once Carlin started deconstructing the "seven words," they were suddenly a lot less shocking or offensive. He took the sting out of them by mocking them. Which was the whole point -- they were just words, harmless in and of themselves.
Carlin also liked to lampoon the silly and meaningless catch phrases people use in everyday life, like his classic routine about the things people say when someone dies:
"Bill's dead? I just saw him yesterday!"
"Well obviously, it didn't help, he died anyway."
"I wish there was something I could do."
"You could come over and mow the lawn."
In later years, Carlin's humor lost a lot of its sometimes childlike goofiness and turned darker, to the point where some of his comedy specials turned into angry rants. But you know what I always say: If you're not angry these days, you haven't been paying attention. Carlin just got there sooner than a lot of us.
But when he wasn't ranting, and sometimes even when he was, Carlin's use of language approached poetry. Check out this short excerpt from "Modern Man," an almost five-minute soliloquy on everyday clichés that he delivered at a blistering pace:
"I'm behind the eight ball, ahead of the curve, ridin' the wave, dodgin' the bullet and pushin' the envelope. I'm on-point, on-task, on-message and off drugs. I've got no need for coke and speed. I've got no urge to binge and purge. I'm in-the-moment, on-the-edge, over-the-top and under-the-radar. A high-concept, low-profile, medium-range ballistic missionary. A street-wise smart bomb. A top-gun bottom feeder. I wear power ties, I tell power lies, I take power naps and run victory laps. I'm a totally ongoing big-foot, slam-dunk, rainmaker with a proactive outreach. A raging workaholic. A working rageaholic. Out of rehab and in denial!"
George Carlin loved language. He loved playing with it, taking it apart, holding the pieces up to the light and examining them.
For those of us who love language as well, he was an icon and an inspiration.
Most importantly, he made us laugh. He will be missed.