George Carlin: RIP, dead at 71

George Carlin died last night of heart failure, 30 years after his first of several heart attacks. He was 71.

Carlin’s first HBO special aired in 1977. His last HBO special, "It’s Bad For Ya," his 14th, aired in March. In
recent years, Carlin had talked onstage about death and suicide. In an
increasingly online world, you can find that Facebook groups pop up
within hours for you to mourn together over his death. Carlin, you’d
suspect, would mock you for that somehow, going on a computer to share
emotions with other humans. Here someone already has gone on YouTube posting clips of Carlin talking about death…

Born May 12, 1937, George Carlin grew up at 519 W. 121st St., in New York City. He joined the Air Force, but by 19, he had begun an entertainment career as a radio DJ. With radio partner Jack Burns, Burns and Carlin headed to Hollywood in 1960, quit radio and hit the nightclub circuit. By October of that year, they had made their TV debut on The Tonight Show (with Jack Paar). Carlin married first wife Brenda Wesbrook in 1961 (she preced him in death in 1997) and launched his solo comedy career in 1962. The couple moved back to New York in 1964, where Carlin worked hootenannies in Greenwich Village and had a steady gig at Cafe Au Go Go on Bleecker Street. He’d make his TV debuts with Merv Griffin and Mike Douglas the following year, and in 1966, moved back to Los Angeles. His first album, "Take Offs and Put Ons," came out in 1967.

And the evolution/revolution would begin. In 1969, just saying the word "ass" got Carlin fired from the Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas. He’d win his first Grammy, though, for 1972’s "AM & FM" and began pumping out new comedy albums — later that year, "Class Clown" contained his "Seven Words You Can Never Say On TV" bit, and a year later, his fans had "Occupation: Foole" and its "Filthy Words" to consider. When a radio station played that track on the air, a listener complaint made its way to the FCC and the courts and eventually the Supreme Court, where a 5-4 decision ruled that seven words really could not be said on TV, at least not when the kids were awake.

As Carlin readily acknowledged, this period also saw him hooked on cocaine, up through his first appearance at Carnegie Hall and his slot as the first-ever host of Saturday Night Live.

But that didn’t stop him getting us all to recognize our obsession with "stuff" and his own feelings on baseball, football, golf and things that are definitely not sports.

A new generation of fans discovered Carlin in entirely different guises, whether he appeared in a time-traveling phone booth in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure or on PBS as a conductor in Shining Time Station. He’d utter no inherently dirty words there. Carlin also became a best-selling author with the publication of "Braindroppings" in 1997. Throughout the 1990s and this current decade, he had regular 12-week contracts in Las Vegas and spent a majority of the year on the road working theaters, always developing new material for another HBO special.

HBO and the comedy industry honored Carlin in Aspen for his 40th anniversary in comedy, then again in 2002 gave him a "Free Speech" award in Aspen. I saw him then, and also last year at the final Aspen comedy festival, where had he had just written down on paper the earliest version of what he would workshop into his 14th and final HBO special. Read about my encounter with Carlin here. Or my review of his final HBO special.

Comedy Central, when it compiled its crazy list of the 100 greatest stand-ups of all time, placed Carlin at #2. The list may have inspired crazy debate for many on that list, but everyone agreed Carlin deserved a spot near the top. Just a week ago, The Kennedy Center announced it was honoring Carlin with the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

Richard Zoglin, who just wrote a book on the comedy of the 1970s, had this to say today on how Carlin changed comedy. This from Entertainment Weekly. And this from the New York Times. Harry Shearer posted his admiration this morning, too.

UPDATE: Louis CK also wrote about how much he owes to Carlin: "His courage inspires me forever. It was from him that I learned to just
say what is on my mind on stage and to stop worrying about who might
not like it. As long as it’s true and it comes from a real place, you
have to say it and not mince words. I got that from him." Carlin also inspired CK in many other ways. Just click and read it already.

Sean L. McCarthy

Editor and publisher since 2007, when he was named New York's Funniest Reporter. Former newspaper reporter at the New York Daily News, Boston Herald and smaller dailies and community papers across America. Loves comedy so much he founded this site.

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