When he shucked the coat and tie for black T-shirts and jeans, grew his hair long and began to riff about those “Seven Words You Can Never Say on TV,” George Carlin became more than just the countercultural comedian.
Carlin, who died Sunday of heart failure at 71, took comedy itself in a whole new direction.
No longer were nightclubs the territory of guys in suits telling harmless mother-in-law jokes.
“He was more than just a comic. His routines became part of the American lexicon,” fellow comedian Paul Rodriguez told The Associated Press on Monday. “They came to say a lot about America and its times.”
Indeed, when Muhammad Ali was stripped of his world heavyweight boxing championship for refusing induction into the U.S. military, Carlin noted that Ali, who made his living beating people up, had refused service because he opposed the Vietnam War.
“He said, ’No, that’s where I draw the line. I’ll beat ’em up. But I don’t want to kill ’em.’ And the government said, ’Well, if you won’t kill people, we won’t let you beat ’em up.”’
Arguably his most famous routine, though, was simply called “Seven Words.”
More than just an outpouring of obscenities, it was — as almost all Carlin routines were — a clever play on the sound and meaning of almost every word Carlin used.
“Some people think the routines were all about saying dirty words, but it wasn’t about that at all,” says Jamie Masada, who as owner of the Laugh Factory comedy clubs knew Carlin for more than 20 years.
“He had a different motivation,” Masada continued, “and the motivation was free speech. George believed when he was on stage that was like being in his church and he could say anything he wanted there.”
A free-speech footnote
It’s only appropriate, then, that Carlin’s name is attached to a key U.S. Supreme Court free-speech ruling, albeit one limiting the right.
“So my name is a footnote in American legal history, which I’m perversely kind of proud of,” Carlin told the AP earlier this year.
Other than that, he said at the time, he had very little interest in public affairs. He claimed to have not voted in a presidential election in decades.
“I was always out of step,” he said. “I left school in ninth grade, I got kicked out of the Air Force, I got kicked out of the choir and the altar boys and summer camp and three schools and I was a pot smoker when I was 13 in the early ’50s. I was always a lawbreaker and a kind of outlaw rebel.”
One thing he was good at, though, was doing funny voices and making funny faces like his boyhood idol, Danny Kaye.
“When I was 10, 11, I was watching MGM movies with Danny Kaye,” he said. “I kind of looked at that and thought, ‘Gee, I can do that.”’
After a brief pairing with comedian Jack Burns, with whom he would remain friends the rest of his life, Carlin went out on his own in 1962, inspired, Burns said Monday, by a Lenny Bruce show the two saw in Chicago in 1961.
By the end of the 1960s, Carlin had grown his hair long, added a beard that he joked covered his acne and began to embrace the countercultural ethos of the time.
“I finally did the right thing, which was to get in touch with my own real voice, and that made me happy for the first time,” he once said.
From there, he would go on to record 23 comedy albums, win four Grammys, do 14 TV specials for HBO, write three best-selling books and appear in several movies. Just last week it was announced that Carlin was being awarded the 11th annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.
“None of that would have happened if I had remained imprisoned in a suit,” Carlin said.
As his humor became more observational, nothing was off-limits, from politics to sports to religion, with war and other atrocities frequent targets.
“The very existence of flame-throwers,” he once joked, “proves that some time, somewhere, someone said to themselves, ‘You know, I want to set those people over there on fire, I’m just not close enough to get the job done.”’
At the same time, his humor could be gentle when the moment called for it.
He appeared as Mr. Conductor on the children’s show “Shining Time Station” in the 1990s and was the voice of Fillmore, the hippie van, in the popular 2006 children’s movie “Cars.”
From a nightclub stage, however, his humor could always be expected to be scatological. And although his penchant for funny voices and faces might soften it some, it could still be in your face as he ridiculed God, joked about televising suicides and did things like simply ending a routine with a recitation of every synonym for penis.
“He made us look at things, look at ourselves. You won’t find too many comics with the kind of chops to do that,” said fellow comedian Tommy Chong. “You’re only allowed to do that when you’ve paid your dues.”
And indeed Carlin had. Early in their careers, Burns recalled, the two were so broke they shared a one-room apartment with a pullout bed.
“Two guys lying next to each other for three months. You can bet we made jokes about that,” he laughed.
Carlin went on to develop a serious cocaine addiction, and as recently as 2004 he entered rehab to break what he called a dependency on vicodan and wine.
Despite those struggles, Carlin, who suffered the first of several heart attacks when he was only 41, said the coronary artery disease that finally killed him was the result not of drugs but of genetics.
“My father gave me this disease,” he told the AP in 2007. “But he also gave me my gift of gab, my sense of humor. So what the ... . It was a good trade-off.”