George Carlin: Rebel Without a Pause

As you've probably heard by now, George Carlin died Sunday night from heart failure. The path-finding, door-busting, head-turning, comedy-changing, rules-snapping, reality-focusing comic was 71. M****r f****r.

The obituaries -- above-the-fold coverage at news sources such as the AP, The New York Times, CNN, and Time, as well as testimonials from friends and colleagues -- are deservingly laudatory. His counterculture take on the world filled 23 comedy albums, 14 HBO specials and three books. Carlin won four Grammy Awards for best spoken comedy album, and it was announced Tuesday that he would be awarded the 11th annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

If his forty years' worth of on-the-edge comedy could be distilled down to a single two-word moral, it would be "Pay attention." Few comedians before or since have been as keen-eyed and observant, or as necessarily fearless in his irreverence, or did more good for comedy and for our awareness of the absurdities we impart to our language, our religions, our culture, and our uptight selves. Although he would sneer bitingly at the suggestion, I like to imagine him now in an afterlife kicking back with Richard Pryor, Lenny Bruce, Kurt Vonnegut, and Mr. Twain himself -- trading quips and one-liner wisdom while God holds His celestial sides from laughing as He nods and says between guffaws, "It's funny because it's true."

Because it too often takes a death to remind us how much we loved and needed a person during life, this week I predict that George Carlin's preserved appearances on DVD will be represented by new gaps on the rental shelves. But I encourage you to seek him out anyway. You have more options than there are Forbidden Words, and as I sit here thinking about which one I'm going to watch first, I raise a glass toward the ceiling and mutter a heartfelt thanks to the comic that many times, especially during some crucial formative years, helped me see this whole FCC'd-up world with sharper vision, a more critical mind, and a more expressive vocabulary.

Here's a small sample culled from the selections at Amazon and GeorgeCarlin.com:

George Carlin - Personal Favorites (1996)

Tom Keogh at Amazon.com says: "After starring in a dozen or so HBO Special Presentations, comedian George Carlin has amassed a substantial body of work in the cable channel's vaults. Personal Favorites is a greatest-hits package, a selection of some of Carlin's best moments on HBO from 1977 to 1998 and, not coincidentally, some of his most enduring comic routines from any medium. Among the highlights is the satirist's classic 'A Place for My Stuff' ('Your house is a pile of stuff with a cover on it'), stupid rules for kids ('The first sign of a dumb rule is 'Because I said so''), and updating sports rules for fun and profit ('Let the Red Cross pick up the injured'). If some of the bits aren't quite up to par ('Earrings'), others border on folk wisdom (Carlin's brilliant 'Baseball vs. Football' monologue) and political rage ('This country was founded by slave owners who wanted to be free'). All in all, this is a very fine anthology of Carlin's two decades of life on cable."

(FILE PHOTO) Comedian George Carlin appears on George Carlin: On Campus

In his New York City grammar school, George Carlin was known as a "disruptive influence in the classroom." Taped at UCLA in April, 1984, On Campus brings this ultimate class clown to a new generation with "The Prayer," "Consumer Hints," "Cars and Driving #1," "A Place for My Stuff," "Newscast #4," "Embarrassments," and some winning animated segments.

Carlin at Carnegie Hall

Taped in 1982 before a sold-out house in New York City's Carnegie Hall, the performance represents a creative resurgence from a heart attack earlier that year. He ignites the stage with his outrageous comedy and mimicry, including routines "Rice Krispies," "Newscast #3," "Have a Nice Day," "Ice Box Man," "Fussy Eater," "Dogs & Cats #2," and over 200 Filthy Words and Phrases. Says Carlin at one point here, "I lead Richard Pryor in heart attacks two to one, and he leads me in setting oneself on fire."

Playin' With Your Head

Recorded live at the Beverly Theater in Los Angeles. Some of the routines included are:

"Losing Things," "Charities," "Sports," "Hello and Goodbye," "Battered Plants," "Earrings," "A Moment of Silence," and a short film called “The Envelope” co-starring Vic Tayback. Says Amazon's Jeff Shannon: 'Observational humor had been George Carlin's specialty for over 20 years when Playing with Your Head -- the comedian's fifth special for HBO -- was recorded in 1986. Carlin's not resting on his laurels here, presenting an abundance of new, politically incorrect material while expanding a few older routines.... 'A Moment of Silence' pays mock-mournful tribute to an ill-fated (and presumably fictional) group of '43 elderly, mentally retarded Bolivian senior citizen volleyball fans.' If that kind of irreverence puts you off (and if so, why are you reading this?), you'll fare better with the universal humor of 'Losing Things' (we all do it, right?), and a characteristic survey of language in 'Hello and Goodbye.' In any case, Carlin's best enjoyed when seen and heard, and the film noir spoof 'The Envelope' provides a clever introduction to the funnyman's entrance onstage."