With the death of George Carlin, cerebral comedy just took a big hit

Roger Moore
The Orlando Sentinel (MCT)

Wonder if he got "the two-minute warning"?

George Carlin's fans know what I'm talking about. It's part of a routine he did in the '70s, about the possibility of getting notice that you're about to die ... a voice inside your head that goes, "TWO MINUTES. Get your (Bleep) together."

His spirit's probably lurking beneath my car, chewing off the timing belt for censoring him like that, but hey, this ain't HBO.

There have been a few showbiz folks I've had chats with over the years who seem to have cheated death, so much so that it was worth making that the whole subject of the interview. Jerry Lewis was one. And he's still going. George Carlin was another. Here's a piece I wrote about him, before an Orlando appearance, after several health scares that ate up the late 1990s.

"Put these words on George Carlin's tombstone.

'Too hip for the room.'

Second choice?

'Gee, he was just here a minute ago.'"

Carlin, one of the funniest men in stand-up comedy history, from his "hippy dippy weather man" antics of the '60s to his eminence grise appearances in recent comedy documentaries such as "The Aristocrats," died of heart failure Sunday night. He was 71.

Yo, NBC-MSNBC, Fox et al. If Tim Russert was worth a weekend's orgy of obits and tributes, what do you do with a guy like Carlin, a true innovator, a force in popular culture like no other in stand-up comedy history? A month's coverage? He'll probably come back and haunt your airwaves if you do, but still, a little perspective here.

The stand-up's stand-up, a funny man in person, on stage or on the phone (Carlin reacted hilariously to an Orlando Sentinel fire alarm that went off, mid-chat, in our last interview. "Jesus, is that you? Is it time?") he evolved from a comic who did "bits" to a free-form ranter, with a lot of "Didya ever notice" in between.

Carlin said the "seven words you can never say" and created an FCC radio scandal, pretty much perfected scatology as a source of stage humor (and then moved on), spent a lot of time blasting religion, politics, anorexia and all manner of political correctness and American sensititivites. Amusingly, he lived long enough to see those seven words turn up on TV, and not just on cable, and enter American mainstream discourse.

He all but invented the stand-up comedy TV special for HBO, helped launch "Saturday Night Live," graced more than a few movies ("Cars," "Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey," "Prince of Tides," "Outrageous Fortune") often playing a hippie. In fact, when we think of "hippies," the whole "Hey man, cool man, how's your old lady, man?" shtick, their benign place in American culture, comes straight from Carlin. He owned up to that in movies (he was the hippie microbus in "Cars," on TV (running a health-food commune in "The Simpsons").

I remember the older kids at Boy Scout camp in the '70s all had portions of his stand-up bits memorized, my first exposure to the dude ... the "seven dirty words," the nuances in meaning in the way one says one of those seven dirty words (starts with an "s"), his classic ode to (long) hair.

"My wife bought some hair at a fair, to use as a spare. Did I despair? Au contraire. Spare hair is fair."

His comparison of baseball to football? Classic, as well. Go read it.

I sensed a bitterness in the work the last time I talked with him in 2000. His outrage at the world seemed to have hardened him a bit. But his ability to find that outrage funny never wavered.

The dirtiest word in his dirty-word-happy Web site

"Religion," he said from his Los Angeles home. "Because it's one of the worst things that ever happened to the human heart and the human mind. ... To surrender all the reason and potential of the human mind to a man in the sky who exists just to punish you seems very primitive to me."

A lot of Carlin's views on religion - he was raised a Catholic - fit neatly into his role as a cynical cardinal in the recent religious satire "Dogma."

"I always like taking a good, clean shot at the Catholic Church, and that movie certainly was that," he said with a chuckle.

Cool dude. Just cool. We'll miss you, man.





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