I’m not entirely sure who first introduced me to George Carlin because I have found so many people quote him or praise his honesty, his intelligence and his exceptionally funny way of stating the obvious. He is the last of the 3 godfather’s of stand-up comedy to pass away. And he will be sorely missed. My favourite routines include the 10 commandments and religion is bullshit.
George Carlin, whose astringent stand-up comedy made him an heir of Lenny Bruce, died this week in Santa Monica, California, aged 71. Carlin gave voice to an indignant counterculture and assaulted the barricades of censorship on behalf of a generation of comics that followed him.
“By and large, language is a tool for concealing the truth,” read a message on Carlin’s website, georgecarlin.com, and he spent much of his life in a fervent effort to counteract the forces that would have it so.
In his always irreverent, often furious social commentary, in his observations of the absurdities of everyday life and language, and in ground-breaking routines like the profane Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television, he took aim at what he thought of as the palliating and obfuscating agents of US life: politicians, advertisements, religion, the media and conventional thinking of all stripes.
“If crime fighters fight crime and firefighters fight fire, what do freedom fighters fight?” he asked in an ’ 80s routine, taking a jab at the Reagan administration’s defence of the Nicaraguan Contras. During a career that spanned five decades, Carlin emerged as one of the most popular, durable, productive and versatile comedians of his era. He evolved from Jerry Seinfeld-like whimsy and a buttoned-down decorum in the ’60s to an iconic counterculture figure in the ’70s. By the ’80s, he was known as a scathing social critic, wringing laughs from the verbal tics of contemporary language like the oxymoron “jumbo shrimp” (and finding another oxymoron in the term ‘military intelligence’), and poking fun at pervasive national attitudes.
Through the ’90s and into the 21st century, Carlin, balding but still ponytailed, prowled the stage — eyes ablaze with intensity — as the comedy circuit’s most splenetic curmudgeon, raging over the shallowness of a “me first” culture; mocking the infatuation with camcorders, hyphenated names and sneakers with lights on them; lambasting white guys over 10 years old who wear their baseball hats backwards, baby boomers “who went from ‘do your thing’ to ‘just say no’” and “from cocaine to Rogaine”; and abortion-rights foes. “How come when it’s us it’s an abortion,” he asked, “and when it’s a chicken it’s an omelette?”
Carlin was born in New York City on May 12 1937.
“I grew up in New York wanting to be like those funny men in the movies and on the radio,” Carlin said. “My grandfather, mother and father were gifted verbally, and my mother passed that along to me. She always made sure I was conscious of language and words.”
He dropped out of high school and joined the air force, and worked as a radio disc jockey. He made his first television solo guest appearance on The Tonight Show in 1962. At that time, he was primarily known for his clever wordplay and reminiscences of his Irish working-class upbringing in New York. But there were intimations of an anti-establishment edge.
Carlin released his first comedy album, Take-Offs and Put-Ons, to rave reviews in 1967. He was one of the US’s most popular comedians, but as the convulsive decade of the ’60s ended, he’d had enough of what he considered hollow success.
“I was entertaining the fathers and the mothers of the people I sympathised with, and in some cases associated with, and whose point of view I shared,” he recalled later, as quoted in the book Going Too Far by Tony Hendra. “I was a traitor, in so many words. I was living a lie.”
In 1970, Carlin staged a remarkable reversal, discarding his suit and tie, as well as the relatively conventional and clean-cut material that had catapulted him to the top. He reinvented himself, emerging with a beard, long hair, jeans and a routine steeped in drugs and insolence.
A backlash followed; in one famous incident, he was advised to leave town when an angry audience threatened him for joking about the Vietnam War. Afterwards, he temporarily abandoned nightclubs for coffee houses and colleges, where he found a younger, hipper audience that was more attuned to his new material.
By 1972, his star was again on the rise.
His Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television routine, with its rhythmic recitation of obscenities, was broadcast on the New York radio station WBAI. Acting on a complaint about the broadcast, the Federal Communications Commission issued an order prohibiting the words as “indecent”. In 1978, the US Supreme Court upheld the order, establishing a decency standard that remains in effect in the US.
Carlin was arrested several times after reciting the routine on stage. By the mid-’70s, like his comic predecessor Lenny Bruce and the fast-rising Richard Pryor, Carlin had emerged as a cultural renegade. In 1975, he was chosen to host the first episode of the late-night comedy show Saturday Night Live.
Carlin won four Grammy awards. He was recently named the recipient of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humour. Carlin’s most recent work was especially contentious, even bitter, full of ranting against the stupid, the fat, the docile. But he defended the material, insisting that his comedy had always been driven by an intolerance for the shortcomings of humanity and society.
“Scratch any cynic,” he said, “and you’ll find a disappointed idealist.” In addition to his brother, Patrick, he is survived by his wife, Sally Wade, and a daughter, Kelly Carlin McCall.
Anyway here’s a his famous Religion is Bullshit routine as quoted in beginning of the movie Zeitgeist: