George Carlin has died
. I feel pretty safe in saying he was the most important comedian of his generation. His only competition was Richard Pryor, I guess.
Not that so many people copied in his style, especially all his material about the ins and outs of the English language. But he was the leader in going from the old, square, joke-telling stand-up to a more contemporary, let-it-all-hang-out style. (Not that he fully let it all hang out. He completely overturned a successful, conventional career in the late 60s and started talking about things that mattered to him, political and personal, but he was an anal retentive comedian who would take his notes onstage and repeat his material over and over till it was word perfect--he did not improvise. Rick Moranis satirized him rather mercilessly on SCTV
. Allegedly, Carlin was not amused.)
He was raised in New York, working-class Irish (he later did imitations of the neighborhood types he remembered from his childhood). In the late 50s he started doing comedy, and for a time teamed up with Jack Burns. By the late 60s was regularly appearing on TV, including Vaudeville's last stand, Ed Sullivan
. He also appeared in a movie, With Six You Get Eggroll
(1968) and hoped to become a movie star, like Bob Hope.
But with the rise of the counterculture, he changed, and no longer felt comfortable wearing a suit and tie and telling jokes to middle class, middle-aged audiences. He started wearing jeans and let his hair grow long (he even wrote a poem
about it). His new material wasn't just more personal, it was dirtier, and though he lost he old audience, he quickly acquired a new and bigger one. It was a brave move, but TV accepted him once again, and he kept appearing on Ed Sullivan
, as well as The Smothers Brothers
and Flip Wilson
. (My favorite bits with Flip were his fake newscasts: "A freak accident happened today--four freaks in a bus hit two freaks in a van." "It will be mostly dark tonight turning to widely scattered light in the morning.")
More important, in 1972 Carlin's albums spread his comedy across the country, and around the world. First came FM & AM
, which cleverly showed both his new and old side. On its heels came Class Clown
, which was greeted with even more acclaim. Both went gold. He continued making top-selling albums, including Occupation: Foole
and Toledo Window Box
, though nothing he ever did had quite the cultural impact of the first two albums, which busted this new type of comedy wide open.Class Clown
closed with his famous "Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television" routine. When a radio station played it, they were taken to court, which led to FCC v. Pacfica,
where the Supreme Court decided by 5-4 that though his material was not obscene, the FCC has the power to regulate indecency.
He was a natural to host the first Saturday Night Live
, and not long after started making regular HBO stand-up specials. He also appeared in several movies (if not quite achieving Bob Hope-level stardom) and wrote the comic bestsellers Brain Droppings
, Napalm And Silly Putty
and When Will Jesus Bring The Pork Chops?.
By his later years, he'd achieved iconic status. He was the elder statesman of hip comedy. But he kept working like he hadn't made it yet. He came up with about an hour of new material every couple years, and managed to stay irreverent, almost anarchistic, in his political take on things.
I saw him a few years ago in Vegas. I have to admit he wasn't as revolutionary--or as funny--as he may have been in the 70s, but it was still fun to catch his act. Here was a guy who had done so much for comedy, and managed to make it to the top by actually doing it his way.
I'd recommend his 70s albums for the purest Carlin experience, but I hope HBO will start repeating his specials (they show them occasionally as it is) which he kept making till the end, just to show here was a guy who never stopped experimenting, and never stopped trying.