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Words of Wisdom: George Carlin (1937 - 2008)

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Monday, Jun 23, 2008

For our generation, George Carlin and his comedy album Class Clown were like God (or maybe Moses) and his Bible (or at the very least, the Ten Commandments). Surrounded by prophets and other daring disciples like Cheech and Chong, the members of Monty Python, Richard Pryor, and other masters of the LP format, his irreverent observational takes on everything from baseball to language defined an entire legion of adolescent humor. He was the drawstring back to the ‘60s, the decade which saw him switch from standard, partnered comedian to the Hippie Dippie Weatherman. Long haired and bearded, he was the counterculture wrapped up in an Establishment acceptable package. It would prove to be the perfect juxtaposition to fuel his five decade long career.


And now he’s gone - dead from a heart attack at age 71. As usual, he was preparing another HBO special, his 15th, and weighing in on the upcoming Presidential election (though he rarely if ever voted). Carlin was as political as he was prosaic, a stern proponent of the First Amendment who saw his classic routine “The Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television” creating a legal stir that found its issues dragged all the way to the US Supreme Court (Carlin won a moral, if not complete, victory). At the peak of his powers, he was likened to Lenny Bruce and his ‘70s co-conspirator Pryor. By the ‘90s, he was viewed as a creaky old school curmudgeon, no longer really relevant in an arena overrun with self-imposed irony, ethnic specific slams, and the last remnants of Steve Martin inspired absurdism.


Yet Carlin stands for much more than just wit and wisdom for the Woodstock crowd. He represented one of the first stand-ups to stay totally in touch with his life and times. As the world went from Eisenhower conservatism to proto-peace and love, he left his friend and performing colleague Jack Burns (himself a future humor Hall of Famer) to pursue his individual muse. Frequent appearances on the nation’s top two variety shows - Ed Sullivan and the Johnny Carson helmed Tonight Show - brought him more and more mainstream success. 1967 saw the release of his first album, Take Offs and Put Downs, and as his act developed and grew, he substituted more acceptable stints at colleges and ‘happenings’ for the radioactive glow of the boob tube.


As his material (and appearance) became more controversial, broadcast television was definitely less of an option. This is where his records came in. Like many comedians in the ‘60s and ‘70s, Carlin defined himself by those 33&1/3 long players. It was the only way that audiences outside the major nightclub circuit could ‘see’ contemporary stand up. Alone or in groups, turntable tracking the various bits and themes, these forefathers of the post-modern funny man turned rec rooms and bed rooms into shadowy, laugh-filled forums. By the time of his peak in 1975, he was the symbol of subversive humor, so much so that the then fledgling Saturday Night Live had Carlin on as its first ever guest host.


And just like that, two of his brethren ended his reign. Richard Pryor made swearing special, weaving the words Carlin had championed into pointed deconstructions of urban and racial blight. As he was mining that material, the aforementioned Wild and Crazy Guy turned stand-up into rock and roll, relying on visual gags and over-intellectualized non-sequitors to redefine the artforms approach. By the end of the Me Decade, Carlin was seen as a hold over, a famous face from a bygone era given time by those entities - cable, concerts - that could still accommodate his firebrand ballsy takes. It didn’t help matter that in 1976 he went into a five year self imposed exile, rarely seen outside the burgeoning vistas of HBO.


Oddly enough, Carlin couldn’t translate what he did best into any other medium aside from albums and TV variety. Film often saw him floundering, minor rolls in Car Wash and Americathon trading more on his grizzled groovy looks than anything remotely resembling character. In the ‘80s, his turn as Rufus, the time traveling guru to Valley dorks Bill and Ted brought the comedian back into the limelight, yet he never could capitalize on the fame those two films offered. Kevin Smith, a longtime fan, found room for him in Dogma, Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back, and Jersey Girl, but by the new millennium, Carlin had given up on the movies, only managing a few prime cartoon voice-over gigs (Cars, Happily N’Ever After) before turning in his cinematic credentials.


He also couldn’t make a go of tradition television humor. His one and only stab at a sitcom, 1994’s self-named series, lasted 27 episodes. Set in a bar and featuring Carlin as a taxi driver, it tried to incorporate the comic’s wicked observations within a classic storyline setting. It didn’t work. Oddly enough, he did find fortune in children’s domain. From 1991 to 1998, he was the American narrator of the popular Thomas the Tank Engine series from Britain. He parlayed that stint into a similar bit as Mr. Conductor, overseer of the Shining Time Station (he took over for another ‘60s icon, The Beatles’ Ringo Starr). Between regular cable specials and a few literary collections (Carlin published five books of his material overall), he was never completely out of the picture. 


His personal life, however, was a well guarded reality. He married Brenda Hosbrook in 1961, and the couple had a daughter together, Kelly. In 1997, his wife succumbed to cancer. After nearly 36 years of marriage, Carlin was again single. While he loved to maintain a rock and roll persona onstage, few knew that the comedian was secretly battling several addictions. By 2004, he could no longer control his problems, and quietly checked into rehab. Last week, complaining of chest pains, he entered St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, California. A victim of several previous heart attacks, Carlin died a short time later.


For many of us tuned into his marauding mindset thirty plus years ago, the loss of George Carlin physically means very little. It’s devastating, but when you can recite, verbatim, the entire riff regarding ‘Special Dispensation: Heaven, Hell, Purgatory, and Limbo’ (“Purgatory is for un-baptized babies because…it wasn’t their fault”) or the scientific facts regarding the artificial fart under the arm (otherwise known as the “bilabial fricative”), it’s clear where Carlin’s legacy lies. He questioned religion in ways that few in the era would even approach (it sailed smack dab in the middle of the Jesus Christ Superstar sentiment) and brought profanity to the fore in a mannerism that future stand-ups took for granted.


Now he’s gone, though clearly not forgotten - and there are some fans who followed him all throughout his rollercoaster career. They never gave up on his confrontational cynicism, embraced his attacks on authority, and held onto the belief that, in a world filled with frivolous, superficial humorists, Carlin was smart, articulate, and continually cutting edge. He will be missed, but more importantly, he will be remembered, especially by an age group that discovered the truth about the world (and how it worked) through his caustic, creative views. He was a man obsessed with words, and it will be words that best manage his lasting myth.

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