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.
A natural mimic, Mr. Carlin was the class clown until he dropped out of high school at the end of his sophomore year. He had a childhood dream, he told The Post in 1988. He wanted to be a movie star; specifically, he wanted to be like the comic actor Danny Kaye.
Hollywood had to wait, however. At 17, he joined the Air Force and was shipped to Shreveport, La., where he was court-martialed twice, first for cursing an officer, then for sleeping on guard duty. He also hooked up with the owner of a local Top 40 radio station, who invited him to moonlight as a newscaster and DJ.
After his discharge, he worked in radio at Boston's WEZE-AM -- briefly. He was fired when he drove the station's only mobile news van to New York City to get marijuana the same weekend that a riot erupted at the Massachusetts State Prison.
He managed to catch on as a DJ with KXOL-AM in Fort Worth, where he teamed with newscaster Jack Burns in an after-hours comedy act. He also worked part time as a carnival organist and as marketing director for a peanut brittle company.
In 1960, he and Burns headed to Hollywood with $300 between them to make it in nightclubs as the comedy team Burns and Carlin. They got their big break when they appeared on Jack Paar's "Tonight Show."
Burns told the Associated Press that he and Mr. Carlin caught a performance of the comedian and social satirist Lenny Bruce in Chicago, and that was the beginning of the end of their partnership. "It was an epiphany for George," Burns said. "The comedy we were doing at the time wasn't exactly groundbreaking, and George knew then that he wanted to go in a different direction."
In 1965, Mr. Carlin made the first of dozens of appearances on Merv Griffin's popular daytime TV show and two years later began making regular appearances on "The Tonight Show," where he introduced "Biff Barf," a spaced-out sportscaster, and "Al Sleet, your hippy-dippy weatherman." ("Hey, baby, what's happening? . . . Tonight's forecast is . . . dark.")
In 1970, he was writing for TV's "The Flip Wilson Show" but still wasn't happy with his career. "I was tired of the comedians who made jokes about their mothers-in-law and crab grass and avoided the serious issues," he said. "I was just sick to my stomach of wearing the dumb tuxedo and entertaining middle-class morons."
Resolving that it was time to be himself, he grew his hair long and, while hospitalized for a hernia operation, grew a beard. He retooled his act, evicting his inner Shecky Greene and cultivating an edgier persona. That summer, the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas canceled his three-year contract because he used "vulgar language." Later that year, a routine involving jokes about Richard Nixon, Spiro Agnew, the Vietnam War, press censorship and American materialism so enraged a late-night crowd at the Playboy Club in Lake Geneva, Wis., that the management cut his gig short out of fear for his safety.
Mr. Carlin had at last found himself as a comic, and he also had found a new audience on college campuses and in coffee houses. Some who had known the old George Carlin weren't sure what to make of the new one. Around "The Tonight Show" and elsewhere, he said, "the talk was something like, 'He's flipped out! The guy was making twelve five a week in Vegas. And he starts cursing, and he grows his hair! He's flipping out! The guy must be on that acid.' "
He was indeed -- acid, mescaline and eventually cocaine (not to mention 20 beers a day). He nearly destroyed his career and his health.
He got himself back on track in the late 1970s, and his audience continued to grow, expanding even more with the advent of cable TV.
He won his first of four Grammy Awards for "FM & AM," recorded in 1971 at Washington's old Cellar Door club. He also appeared in a number of movies, including "With Six You Get Eggroll" (1968), "Car Wash" (1976), "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" (1989), "The Prince of Tides" (1991) and "Dogma" (1999).
His first wife, Brenda Hosbrook Carlin, died in 1997.
Survivors include his wife of eight years, Sally Wade of Venice, Calif.; a daughter from his first marriage, Kelly Carlin McCall; and a brother.
Mr. Carlin claimed to be a skeptic, not a cynic, though he did tell Progressive magazine in 2001 that he had given up on the human species. "Let the insects have a go. You know, I don't think they'll come up with sneakers with lights in them, or Dust Busters, or Salad Shooters, or snot candy."
Still, he admitted, life was not totally dark. "If you'll scratch a cynic, you'll find a disappointed idealist," he said. "And the fire never goes out completely. And that part of me that made my mother say, 'You have a lovely nature,' is very true."