Comedian, actor, and author George Carlin, a Venice resident for many years, died this week at Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica after a long struggle with heart problems. He was 71 years old.
To simply refer to the New York City born and raised George Carlin as a comedian is to give short shrift to an artist who broke through the boundaries of creative expression in his field, and indeed helped redefine what stand-up comedy is all about. His comedy albums from the 70’s: (Class Clown, Toledo Window Box, Occupation: Foole, FM & AM, etc.) helped pace him into a holy pantheon that, along with Richard Pryor, Monty Python, the original Saturday Night Live crew, Woody Allen, and Mel Brooks, covered all the comedic bases, from loving parody to vicious satire, from the absurd to the wonderfully ridiculous. And Carlin eventually became the flamethrower of the bunch.
Carlin had all the natural gifts of a great comic: a lithe, expressive body, a face seemingly made out of rubber, a knack for goofy vocal characterizations, razor-sharp timing, and the ability to set up and pay off a joke seemingly at will. But Carlin, like his contemporary Richard Pryor, saw in comedy an opportunity to use his facile, penetrating intellect to challenge the smug complacency of, well, everyone.
Pryor’s fearless, racially charged material made him a natural lightening rod for controversy. Carlin, whose role model was the late, great hipster Lenny Bruce, found controversy not through the polemics of racial politics, but rather in things Americans have a common experience of: religion, sex, drugs, the haves vs. the have-nots, and, most gloriously, language. One of Carlin’s most famous routines is The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television, wherein he deconstructs not only the words themselves, but an entire society’s laughable fear of them. Carlin loved words and wordplay, but on a deeper level, he understood that words, especially those emanating from the powerful, are often used to obfuscate the truth and dupe the listener into believing the assurances of his “betters.” (We’re not at war in Iraq, we’re on a peace-keeping mission…) And it frustrated and delighted him, that people could be so gullible.
Like Lenny Bruce, George saw comedy as an incendiary weapon in the fight against hypocrisy, be it corporate, political, religious, or home-grown. And like Lenny, Carlin took his lumps and was on several occasions carted off the stage and forced to stand, in all his hippie splendor, in front of some white-bread judge to face charges of obscenity. The strain of such ordeals killed Bruce, but they seemed to only make Carlin stronger and more determined to deepen and express his singular comedic voice. (And they never convicted him!)
In the late 60s Carlin traded in a suit, tie, and a successful career as a mainstream comic for jeans, long hair, and a connection to the counterculture that, looking back, he largely helped create. And he spared no one his intense scrutiny and unerring radar for duplicity. As he grew older, he seemed to grow angrier and more dyspeptic; his edge grew ever sharper, to the point where his concerts were a veritable tour through a comedic slash-and-burn, Dante’s Inferno of a mind that saw the world for what it often is: a venal, tragic, unhappy place. “Scratch any cynic,” he once said, “and you’ll find a disappointed idealist.” But like all great art, one left a George Carlin show feeling better at having had, to paraphrase Shakespeare, the mirror held up to nature. And like all great artists, George Carlin forever changed how it’s done. And, oh yeah: you also felt good because you laughed your ass off for two hours solid.
Before his death, Carlin was named the recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, which he was to receive in November at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C. The Kennedy Center announced Monday that the award would be given posthumously and the ceremony would be a tribute to Carlin’s work.
Carlin is survived by his wife, Sally Wade, a daughter, Kelly Carlin McCall, and his brother, Patrick.