George Carlin, 71; Prolific Comedian

A publicist for George Carlin says the legendary comedian has died of heart failure at a hospital in Santa Monica, Calif. Carlin is perhaps best known for his 'Seven Words You Can Never Say On TV' routine. Video by AP
By Joe Holley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 24, 2008

George Carlin, the iconoclastic and inventive comedian who died June 22 in Santa Monica, Calif., experienced several incarnations in a career spanning half a century. He was the rapid-fire radio DJ and clean-cut stand-up comic in the Ed Sullivan era who morphed into the whacked-out hippie dude of the 1970s. He found his authentic voice when he became the curmudgeon keenly attuned to the absurdities of human existence.

Mr. Carlin, 71, who performed as recently as the weekend before last in Las Vegas, had a history of heart trouble. According to his publicist, Jeff Abraham, he had checked into St. John's Health Center on Sunday afternoon experiencing chest pain.

The man in black jeans and a T-shirt, his thinning gray hair in a scraggly ponytail, was the ageless kid who jeered at the emperor's nakedness, punctured social pomposities and happily stampeded society's sacred cows. His targets were cant and cliche, phoniness and hypocrisy -- in religion and politics, language and everyday life. His "seven dirty words" became a touchstone worthy of U.S. Supreme Court attention.

Mr. Carlin was the first-ever host of "Saturday Night Live" and a "Tonight Show" guest more than 130 times. He made 22 comic albums, won four Grammy Awards for best spoken comedy album and was nominated for five Emmys. He also made 14 HBO specials and wrote three books, including, most recently, "When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?" (2004).

The Kennedy Center announced last week that he was being awarded the 11th annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. It will be presented posthumously Nov. 10.

"It's a great loss, not only to the world of humor but to America's conscience," said Bob Kaminsky, Peter Kaminsky, Mark Krantz and Cappy McGarr, executive producers of the Mark Twain Prize, in a collective statement. "George kept us honest. Of this sad day he might have said that the only truly 'dirty word' is death. George Carlin is as deserving as ever of our nation's highest honor."

Mr. Carlin introduced his "seven dirty words" on a 1972 album called "Class Clown" as words that couldn't be uttered on television. Milwaukee police decided later that year they couldn't be uttered anywhere in public. When he performed the routine at an event called Summerfest, they hauled him off to jail.

A judge dismissed the charge of public profanity, and Mr. Carlin told reporters that he welcomed the incident because it might draw attention to the protections of the First Amendment.

He resurrected the bit on his next album, with the track "Filthy Words." When it was played on WBAI-AM in New York, a listener complained to the FCC. In a 5 to 4 decision, the Supreme Court ruled in 1978 that the routine was indecent but not obscene and said the words could be banned from public airwaves when children were most likely to be listening.

Euphemistic language drove him crazy. World War I's "shell shock," he railed, was more honest, direct and simple than "post-traumatic stress disorder."

The gravelly-voiced foe of the fatuous wasn't to everyone's taste, particularly as he got older and angrier. When he performed at the Warner Theatre in Washington in 2002, a Washington Post reviewer complained that the Carlin comic persona had devolved into "the cranky and often perverse misanthrope."

George Denis Patrick Carlin was born in the Bronx, N.Y., on May 12, 1937, and grew up in Manhattan's Morningside Heights neighborhood. His father died when he was 8, and his mother went to work as a secretary, leaving George and his older brother alone much of the time. "I think that makes one introspective and, oddly enough, it also makes one a critic of the world around him," he said in a 1970 interview.

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