Monday, June 23, 2008

George Carlin 1937-2008

I spotted a decent obit for the one and only George Carlin. Just wanted to share some of my feelings about the man. I discovered the comedy of Carlin when I was coming-of-age, probably around 10, 11 years old. My father and I would go to the video store to rent his HBO specials. One of the first things you recognize about George Carlin when you see his stand-up comedy is his profound logic and insight into the world. His love for language - non-sequitirs, colloquialisms, cliches, in how he deconstructs them for their absurdities. Carlin was well-known for his nonconformist attitude towards societal norms and trends. He was an extremely intelligent and funny guy. I spoke to a friend about his impact earlier tonight who is around the same age George was and he said that the times he saw him perform live, he always left the venue with his sides hurting from all the laughter. When I learned the news today of his death, I was shocked and very saddened. He was someone who impacted and shaped a part of my life and for many others too. Thanks for your contributions, George - the fifty years of comedy, Brain Droppings, and all the prolific material you shared with us.

George Carlin attacked religion, authority figures, bureaucracy and even something as ridiculously oxymoronic as "jumbo shrimp" — and became one of the country's most influential and controversial humorists.

The iconoclast, who died Sunday from heart failure at 71, was practically a one-man history of American comedy — from the rise of '60s counterculture through the war on terrorism. For more than 40 years, this harsh critic of our shared foibles was determined to set us straight every step of the way. In nightclubs and eventually cable television, he did so in a pointed, profane style that challenged our standards for what could be said on the public airwaves.

It seems quaint in the more coarse pop culture of today, but Carlin's "Seven Dirty Words You Can Never Say on Television" routine led to a 1978 Supreme Court ruling that established the U.S. government's authority to regulate "indecent" language in broadcast shows — but made him an enduring symbol of First Amendment speech rights.

"Prior to George, all comedians wore ties and wanted to play Vegas," Jay Leno, host of The Tonight Show, said in an interview Monday. Carlin made 130 appearances on the show, beginning in 1961. His appearances reflected his shift from his clean-cut, suit-and-coat days to his grungy beard-and-ponytail era.

"I loved that he hated golf," Leno adds. "He'd say that these hundreds of acres were wasted just so that two guys could hit a ball. I think he was as riled up on the day he died as he was in the '60s when I first saw him."

Along with such contemporaries as Richard Pryor and Robert Klein, Carlin evolved as the USA changed in the 1960s and '70s. The idea of a stand-up routine went from being a series of star impersonations and mother-in-law gags to more of a stream-of-consciousness series of observations on life's vagaries and cultural ills.

Carlin was at the forefront of that movement, which continues today in some of the nation's most popular comedic acts. Today, his influence is seen in the observational humor of Jerry Seinfeld and Jon Stewart, as well as saltier routines of Chris Rock, Lewis Black and Sarah Silverman.

Changing stand-up

Carlin "was the guy who really made stand-up comedy relevant to a new generation," says Richard Zoglin, author of Comedy at the Edge: How Stand-Up in the 1970s Changed America.

"He showed that a stand-up comedian could be a social commentator and not just a guy getting laughs. Here was a guy on a stage talking about all the things young people were talking about: sex, drugs, the hypocrisy of middle-class America. He would call into question conventional wisdom of any kind."

The blue-collar Irish Catholic evolved into an atheist whose religion was the power of speech.

His "Seven Dirty Words" routine first showed up on his 1972 album Class Clown, and he would be arrested on obscenity charges shortly afterward after performing it in Wisconsin. He did a reprise on his next album, which was aired in the middle of the afternoon on New York radio station WBAI.

When a driver listening with his young son complained to the Federal Communications Commission, it ignited a legal dispute that led the Supreme Court to decide that Carlin's act was legally indecent, but not obscene. The decision gave the FCC the authority to ban such words from radio and TV broadcasts when children were most likely to be listening.

That's why Carlin wound up directing most of his profanity-riddled insights toward pay TV, in a series of specials on HBO.

Not that he didn't appreciate having made such an impact on broadcast law.

As he told the Associated Press this year, "My name is a footnote in American legal history, which I'm perversely kind of proud of."

Irreverent to the end

Before anyone piles on too much praise, be aware that one of the many things Carlin did not like was false idol worship.

The Bronx-born funnyman launched his 14th HBO special this year, It's Bad for Ya! (which will air on the cable channel along with his other specials this week and repeat throughout July), by daring to verbally give the bird to such revered national heroes as Lance Armstrong and Tiger Woods.

As he told his audience to cheers, "I'm tired of being told who to admire in this country."

It wouldn't be surprising if the curmudgeonly funny man — who had a history of substance abuse, suffered the first of three heart attacks in 1978 and survived two open-heart surgeries — might have chosen this inconvenient moment to take his final bow on the planet.

After all, a crowd of fawning sycophants at the Kennedy Center is scheduled to honor him in Washington, D.C., this fall. The honor? The Mark Twain Prize, a lifetime achievement award presented to outstanding comedians.

His unimpressed response to the recent announcement: "Thank you, Mr. Twain. Have your people call my people."

Admiration for Carlin came organically, sort of like the marijuana he acknowledged using since he was a teen.

"He was the first stand-up act I learned as a kid," says Bill Hader, 30, a current member of the Saturday Night Live cast who saw Carlin three times when he was in high school in Tulsa.

"He was always sharp and insanely truthful, and every time he had a stand-up special, it was something new that you hadn't seen before. He could have stopped doing comedy in the mid-'80s and everyone would still be like, 'George Carlin is the man.' But he didn't. That was his job."

Conventional beginnings

The caustic commentator was fairly straitlaced when he began appearing on CBS' The Ed Sullivan Show in the early '60s.

However, popular routines such as "Al Sleet the hippy-dippy weatherman" ("Tonight's forecast: Dark") often hinted at a less buttoned-down maverick beneath the tie.

Carlin was emboldened to take on the mantle of cultural critic and change his image to a shaggy hipster after seeing a performance of the original shock comic, Lenny Bruce, whose way with words often got him in trouble with the law.

"It was an epiphany for George," says his onetime standup partner, Jack Burns.

"The comedy we were doing wasn't exactly groundbreaking," Burns says. "George knew then he wanted to go in a different direction."

Carlin summed up his new approach this way: "I think it is the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately."

He briefly fell out of favor during the late '70s, when the more escapist and surreal humor of Andy Kaufman and Steve Martin became the norm, and he stopped performing for a time.

It later came out that he was wrestling with drug addiction and had suffered a heart attack.

But he rallied and made a triumphant return to the stage and HBO with the 1982 special Carlin at Carnegie. As a treat, he ended the show by rattling off a seemingly endless list of 200 more dirty words.

During his fifth decade, he comfortably grew into the role of Comedian Emeritus to a new generation of entertainers, and won teen fans in two Bill & Ted films.

A softer and more childlike side was exposed by his stint in the '90s as the voice of the train conductor on Shining Time Station and the narrator on Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends.

Once in a while, Carlin kept it clean.

Even 9/11 wasn't off limits

At the end of his life, though, Carlin's worldview grew darker and angrier. There was no topic that was taboo. Cancer, natural disasters, suicide bombings, rape, genocide, cannibalism, abortion, beheadings. All were ripe for the riffing. Not even post-9/11 security issues were off limits.

Especially galling, he thought: You couldn't joke about bombs at the airport.

"Why is it just jokes?" he mused onstage. "What about a riddle? How about a limerick? How about a bomb anecdote? You know, no punch line. Just a really cute story."

Save for a couple of breaks between heart attacks, he never stopped writing and refining material.

Carlin's pace would have challenged a healthier, younger man. He toured constantly, did 14 HBO specials, 23 albums, five best sellers, five audio books, 16 movies and was the voice of flower-power-era VW van in 2006's animated Cars (both of which endeared him to an even younger demographic of fans), winning four Grammys and five Emmys.

He hosted the first Saturday Night show (later Saturday Night Live) in 1975 after what he acknowledged was a cocaine bender.

As recently as last weekend, he was performing at the Orleans Casino and Hotel in Las Vegas.

In his last HBO special, Carlin kidded about his advancing age and how he worried about when it was proper to erase (or digitally delete) the increasing number of deceased people from his address list. His suggestion: six months.

"George always maintained he was going to live to 90-something," says filmmaker Kevin Smith, who cast the elder comic in such films as Dogma and Jersey Girl. "He had done the math, based on how long his father lived, and he was convinced."

Contributing: Anthony Breznican, Marco R. della Cava, Donna Freydkin, Bill Keveney, Gary Strauss

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At 12:19 AM, Blogger Jay Smooth said...

nice.. i also really liked Louis CK's post:

At 9:46 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

carlin was the man is the man was the man


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