When George Carlin passed away on June 22 from heart failure at the age of 71, standup comedy did not die with him. He left a legacy of splitting sides while smashing taboos, and his love for his craft together with an intolerance for stupidity at the highest levels of government and society influenced generations of new funnymen.
Yet there is a sense that there will never be another one like Carlin. So does that necessarily mean that today’s comics aren’t worthy of spouting his infamous seven dirty words, or that the state of standup comedy today is as unstable as our economy?
In one sense, Carlin can be compared to the Beatles. The Fab Four came along in the early 1960s, when the business model for the music business was simpler. A band would cut a single, it would get radio airplay, fans would buy it, and the lads would become stars. Now, no matter how talented, a group discovers that the musical landscape is much more crowded, there are hundreds of indie labels, and success in the biz is quantified by hits on MySpace and YouTube and downloads from iTunes.
If the Beatles had come along today, they’d still be deliriously talented, but whether they’d be able to break out from the teeming masses of musicians and songwriters fighting for attention is another story.
Starting out in the late ’50s and early ’60s, Carlin followed the traditional path of the times. He did radio shows while in the service, came to Hollywood to hone his craft in coffeehouses and nightclubs, eventually landed on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “The Tonight Show,” hosted the first “Saturday Night Live” episode and continued on to icon status.
Today, the routes to stardom are myriad and less predictable, but they’re still clogged with comedians, many of whom are Carlinesque in their provocative approaches and observational wit.
“There are lots of comics who do political and edgy material,” said Jamie Masada, owner of the famous Laugh Factory in Hollywood. “For George, when he started, his comedy had such shock value, and nobody was doing that. Now you don’t get as much mileage. There are 20, 30, 40 comics doing the same thing now.
“The shock value is gone. Howard Stern became a famous DJ because he was talking about porn and sexual topics, and people would say to each other, ‘Did you hear what Howard said?’ Word got around. Now if Howard came into the business today, everybody is doing that kind of thing.”
When Carlin and his peers were coming up, there were nightclubs but few television outlets. Ed Sullivan and later Johnny Carson were comedic kingmakers. Now there is Comedy Central and “Last Comic Standing” and many other showcases.
HBO feeds hunger for comedy
At the top of the heap — at least for comedians with a name and a following — is HBO. The premium cable channel has been staging standup specials since 1977, almost as long as the network has been in existence. Carlin did a record 14 of them, and Nancy Geller, senior vice president of HBO Entertainment and a close friend of his, was on duty for most.
“There is such a hunger for comedy,” she said. “(That's) one of the things I’ve learned over the years watching Chris Rock perform internationally. He went to South Africa, England, and sold out in those places. Audiences laugh at the same stuff. That was a real education for me, that if you’re an American comic selling out in England, that means people just want to hear good comedy and don’t care where it comes from.”
Masada has seen countless comics come through The Laugh Factory's doors, and mentioned envelope-pushers such as Dave Chappelle, Katt Williams and Tiffany Haddish as among his current favorites. Yet the performer he cites first as an example of the excellent health of standup comedy in a post-Carlin world is Dane Cook, a popular but polarizing presence on the standup scene.
“Why does Dane Cook have 2.5 million, 3 million fans on MySpace? Why does he sell out two shows at Madison Square Garden, and tickets go for $7,500 on eBay?” Masada asked.
“(Cook has) found a wonderful way to communicate with young people,” Masada said. “He talks about subjects that young people want to talk about. He’s one of a kind. Dane was ahead of his time. He worked hard and he got it going.
“Madison Square Garden? George Carlin couldn’t sell that out.”
But Carlin’s popularity was unique. He was loved by the masses, but he was especially appreciated by the comedy cognoscenti. He offered insight and social commentary that was delightfully clever while also being scathingly profound.
Wayne Federman is a longtime comic, actor and author who has appeared on “The Tonight Show” several times as well as “The Larry Sanders Show,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm” and many others. He marveled at how Carlin was able to gain attention for the “Seven Words You Can’t Say On Television” routine and at the same time tickle audiences with squeaky clean observational bits.
Federman said Carlin’s influence lives in the work of people like Maher, Rock, Black, Dennis Miller, Greg Proops, David Cross and others. And he believes the comedic soil left in the wake of Carlin’s passing is more fertile than ever.
“Comedic social commentary has never been more popular,” he said. “In fact, it’s mainstream — delivered by ‘The Daily Show,’ ‘Saturday Night Live,’ ‘South Park,’ ‘Real Time With Bill Maher’ and ‘The Colbert Report.’
“People are paying attention. In fact, a whole new generation gets its news from ‘The Daily Show.’ Also, Penn and Teller’s ‘Bull----’ and all of Michael Moore’s movies use no-holds-barred humor to both satirize and inform.”
If there is one common thread that connects Carlin with the cream of today’s comedy crop, it’s a love for the job.
“George was on the road all the time,” said HBO's Geller, who added that just prior to his death she had been in discussions with Carlin to host a show for comedians. “That’s a true comic. He really worked at his craft. He loved the process of getting the routine together. His work ethic and drive and honesty were absolutely the biggest parts of his legacy.
“He set the bar. He loved being the king. Because so many comedians feel he did set the bar, they keep trying to do better and better.”
Michael Ventre is a frequent contributor to msnbc.com. He lives in Los Angeles.