By Jacqueline Trescott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 18, 2008
A comic quiz:
Who was the first host ever of "Saturday Night Live"?
Who appeared with Doris Day in "With Six You Get Eggroll"?
And who has appeared on "The Tonight Show" more than 130 times?
If you answered George Carlin, you perhaps have spent too much time listening to his 22 albums or watching his 14 specials on HBO, or are a true, true fan.
In the comic spotlight for more than 50 years, Carlin was tapped yesterday by the Kennedy Center to receive this year's Mark Twain Prize, a lifetime achievement award presented to an outstanding comedian.
Carlin, 71, reinvented social commentary, discussing everything from religion and politics to airport security. He excelled at stand-up, whether at the Roostertail in Detroit, the old Cellar Door in Washington or Carnegie Hall. His three books have been bestsellers. He has won four Grammy Awards, spanning 1973 to 2002. His TV shows have been nominated for five Emmys.
The Kennedy Center said his material and style made him a perfect Twain recipient.
"In his lengthy career as a comedian, writer and actor, George Carlin has not only made us laugh, but he makes us think. His influence on the next generation of comics has been far-reaching," said Stephen A. Schwarzman, the center's chairman.
Carlin issued a statement saying, "Thank you Mr. Twain. Have your people call my people."
He once summed up his approach: "I think it is the duty of the comedian to find out where the line is drawn and cross it deliberately."
One milestone in his career was the "Seven Dirty Words" controversy that became part of a U.S. Supreme Court case in 1978. Carlin listed seven words that couldn't be used on television in a 1972 album called "Class Clown" and he was arrested for obscenity when he performed the routine in Wisconsin. Then Carlin resurrected the list on his next album, which was played on radio station WBAI in New York. A listener complained to the Federal Communications Commission and eventually the Supreme Court said the routine was indecent but not obscene and the words could be banned from radio and television broadcasts when children are most likely to be in the audience. Thus, the 6 a.m.-10 p.m. rule against airing indecent material.
"It was a very big event in his life and his career," said Bob Kaminsky, an executive producer of the Twain evening. "It is a long way from the stage at the Cafe Au Go Go on Bleecker Street to the chambers of the Supreme Court."
Carlin, a native of New York City, started his career in 1956 at a radio station in Shreveport, La., when he was in the Air Force. In the early '60s, he began his solo act and his performances and albums were instant hits.
He struggled with personal issues. In the 1970s he developed a cocaine habit and heart problems, according to his Web site.
With the advent of cable television, his audience expanded and he did a series of specials for HBO. But his fans grew younger when he did the voice for the American version of "Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends" as well as appearances as Mr. Conductor on "Shining Time Station."
Carlin has been embraced by the Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor generation, as well as the followers of Chris Rock and Stephen Colbert.
"He is observational. He observes human nature and that is part of the parallel between him and Twain. They both love language, and George would say a lot of his humor comes from language," Kaminsky said.
Cited in Carlin's case are his questioning of unnecessary words, such as seating area, free-of-charge and emergency situations.
In 2004, he was voted No. 2 on Comedy Central's 100 greatest stand-ups, trailing only Pryor.
The tribute will be held Nov. 10 at the Kennedy Center, taped by WETA-Channel 26 and broadcast in February by PBS stations. Tickets go on sale Aug. 11.