Carlin's legacy of laughter, commentary

The Baltimore Sun

He was cool. He was smart. He was dirty. And he was relentlessly funny.

Speaking of dead people - the very words the man used in a recent routine on death - George Carlin died Sunday in California. That doesn't sound right or is the least bit funny, but if anyone could riff on death, it was Carlin. No subject was taboo - particularly taboo subjects, such as religion, drugs, sex and death, and sometimes in that order. His trail-brazing social commentary spanned more than four decades, forced a Supreme Court decision on broadcast indecency, and influenced top-shelf comedians such as Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld and Jon Stewart.

Carlin was 71 when his heart finally gave out. His age doesn't seem possible - he either seemed much older or forever young and hip.

Yes, hip.

To appreciate this pony-tailed lion of comedy, think back to the 1960s and the set-up, punch-line routines from Bob Hope, Milton Berle, George Burns and others who dominated TV specials and late-night talk shows. Then came this Irish-Catholic from New York - a former DJ and, yes, marketing director for peanut brittle - appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show in his conservative suit and tie that belied an emerging outlaw comedy. Then came the recurring guest and host spots on The Tonight Show, with Carlin earning an adoring and career-building convert in Johnny Carson. Gone now was the business suit and in its place, Carlin's trademark jeans, pony tail, tie-dyed shirts and earrings.

A counterculture hero was born.

Carlin introduced a TV generation to Al Sleet, the hippie-dippie weatherman. "Tonight's forecast: Dark. Continued dark throughout most of the evening, with some widely scattered light toward morning." Carlin fans know that line by heart.

Carlin the DJ for "Wonderful WINO" and this pearl: "The Beatles' latest record, when played backward at slow speed, says Dummy! You're playing it backward at slow speed!"

Who among a certain generation didn't own Carlin's top-selling comedy albums, FM & AM and Class Clown? In the early 1970s, few bought comedy albums before Carlin broke from the gate. He didn't have punch lines - just this novel brand of comedy called observational humor. Carlin, who was a disciple of Lenny Bruce, built on that comic's biting deconstruction of human behavior in all its silliness, contradictions, beauty and ugliness. All of a sudden, comedy wasn't routine anymore thanks to Bruce, Carlin and his inspiration, Richard Pryor.

For Carlin, his stuff hit the fan in 1972. He was arrested in Milwaukee for "disturbing the peace" after performing his "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" routine, which was recorded on his Class Clown record. The seven words - and no was more mentally adroit with word play than Carlin - were judged "indecent but not obscene," and the case against Carlin was dismissed. After the routine was played on a New York radio station in 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court would later uphold the government's authority to sanction stations for broadcasting offensive language. (Sirius radio's main headliner, Howard Stern, was the unwelcome beneficiary of such FCC fines. Along with comedian Richard Belzer, Stern paid tribute to Carlin during his Monday show.)

Today, Carlin's "seven dirty words" are still taboo on broadcast TV. But the routine made him famous and rich. In 1975, he was the first host of a new late-night live variety show called Saturday Night Live. Over the decades - which were marked by career fits and starts, a sturdy drug addiction and three heart attacks - Carlin produced 23 comedy albums, appeared in 16 films, 14 HBO specials, wrote five books and had more television appearances than Wikipedia can count. He performed as recently as last weekend in Las Vegas, and in November, he planned to receive the 2008 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

George Carlin was a cross-genre comedian - from political satire to word play to black comedy. But don't call it topical humor.

"I don't like it, it's dumb, it's too easy," he told The Sun in 2004 before his concert at Pier Six.

Carlin, as explained by Carlin, was never easy on us humans. "What I have that's often mistaken for anger is a disappointment and disillusionment, a severe disillusionment with my species and my culture."

There is, thanks to the Internet, a memorable and recent Carlin riff on death.

"Speaking of dead people, there are things we always say," the comedian says. Someone, back at the house, always back at the house, and after a few drinks, will inevitable say, "I think he's up there now smiling down at us. Now, first of all, there is no 'up there,' " Carlin says. "And why doesn't anyone ever say, I think he's down there now smiling up at us?"

All right, Carlin. That's another funny smart point. You are neither smiling down nor up at us. Although you joked about this, too, you are in our thoughts this week. Sorry, but as you knew as well as anyone, we humans can't help ourselves sometimes.

Carlin on TV

At 8 p.m. tomorrow and Thursday, HBO2 will present 11 of George Carlin's specials. And at 9 p.m. Friday, HBO's main channel will replay George Carlin: It's Bad for Ya, his last special for HBO that debuted in March.

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