George Carlin made jokes that made history. The razor-witted comedian with little patience for the daily annoyances of life or people who take themselves too seriously died of heart failure in Santa Monica, California, on Sunday at the age of 71, according to The Associated Press.
The iconic American comedian was best known for his “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” routine, a list of profanities that got him arrested in 1971 and later led to a Supreme Court case that helped set the regulations for what obscene language is appropriate to broadcast on the nation’s TV and radio stations. But his edgy style has influenced generations of filmmakers, writers and comedians.
“Nobody was funnier than George Carlin,” Judd Apatow said in a statement on Monday (June 23). “I spent half my childhood in my room listening to his records, experiencing pure joy. And he was as kind as he was funny.”
In addition to starring in a record-setting 14 HBO specials, multiple Grammy winner Carlin was a best-selling author (“When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?”), the voice of alternative-fuel-loving hippie microbus Fillmore in Pixar’s “Cars” movie and this year’s recipient of the prestigious Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, which he was scheduled to receive in November.
George Dennis Carlin was born on May 12, 1937, in New York City and raised, along with his older brother, by their single mother. He started his career as a traditional stand-up comedian in the late 1950s, when his act was full of wordplay and stories about his Irish working-class upbringing, according to The New York Times. But by the early 1970s, Carlin’s act radically changed, morphing into a poignant, often irreverent dissection of social hang-ups and commentary on “straight” society, pushing the boundaries of what was then considered good taste.
Gone were the suits and ties and in came T-shirts and flared jeans, accented by his shoulder-length hair, bushy beard and a rebel spirit that appealed to the hippie-fied children of the nightclub and “Tonight Show” audiences, who had been coming to see him for a decade. After years of playing bit parts on the biggest TV shows and filling the swankiest clubs, Carlin was blackballed from some of his former stomping grounds in Las Vegas and across the country, according to the Times. He gave up on those venues for a time and started doing his act in coffee houses, college campuses and folk clubs, where the audiences looked like him and appreciated his edgier jokes about drugs, the Vietnam War and the oppressive hand of polite society.
The infamous “Seven Words” routine appeared on his 1972 album “Class Clown.” He was arrested in July of that year for performing the routine at Milwaukee’s Summerfest and was unapologetic about it after being released with no charge. But the litany of offensive terms, some of which seem tame by today’s standards, others which we still can’t print continued to shock and led to a landmark 1978 Supreme Court decision. In that year, the court took up the case of a 1973 Federal Communications Commission fine on New York radio station WBAI for playing the routine, which had drawn a complaint from a father who said his son had heard it on the station.
The court upheld the FCC’s decision and ruled that the routine was “indecent, but not obscene,” which allowed the commission to determine what constituted indecent material and to ban the broadcast of such material during hours when children might reasonably be expected hear it.
That was exactly the kind of action that enraged Carlin, who continued to perform the bit — and get arrested for it — throughout the decade. With his signature all-black outfit and jokes about every formerly taboo subject from religion to sex, Carlin, along with Richard Pryor, became the wisecracking voice of a generation and one of the most popular comedians in the country.
He was the host of the very first episode of “Saturday Night Live” in 1975 and was a favorite of directors looking to put a bit of bite into movies ranging from “Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure” to Kevin Smith’s “Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back” and religion-skewering comedy “Dogma,” in which he played the irreverent Cardinal Ignatius Glick.
And, for the man who loved wordplay and frequently riffed on such simple absurdities as the oxymoronic phrase “jumbo shrimp,” he too was a bit of a contradiction in life, struggling with serious drug addiction at several points in his career while also finding time to play the kindly conductor on such kid-friendly programs as “Shining Time Station” and “Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends.”
A stand-up at heart — he performed live onstage just days before his death — Carlin never stopped looking for new ways to describe, demystify and deprecate the world around him.
“Stand-up is the centerpiece of my life, my business, my art, my survival and my way of being,” Carlin once said, according to the Times. “This is my art, to interpret the world.”