George Carlin - Biography
By Tony Goldmark
Hardly a single comedian or comedy fan of the last thirty or forty years could deny George Carlin’s truly incredible influence and importance in the development and evolution of comedy in the twentieth century. Over the course of over a dozen HBO specials and dozens of albums, Carlin practically re-invented the art form of stand-up comedy, treating it less as a delivery system for crowd-pleasing jokes than as a medium in which to voice well-worded outrage, flavored with equally heavy dollops of absurdism and nihilism. Carlin doesn’t mince words, he strengthens them, punctuating their meaning to the greatest extreme possible, reminding us all that comedy isn’t worth doing unless you’re pushing some boundary or another – his constant goal is to “find out where the line is drawn, cross it, take the audience with me, and make them glad that I did.” Until his untimely death in 2008, Carlin’s act evolved as much as the world around him did – he grew from a long-haired coke-addled conversational observational comic of the hippie counterculture era, to a cranky bald malcontent who uses pinpoint, precise language and diction to eviscerate people he can’t stand, and sum up some of the issues of the world into abrasive, controversial statements that, when you think about it, are REALLY hard to argue with (abortion: “Everyone who’s against abortion is someone you wouldn’t want to fuck in the first place”; anorexia: “Rich cunts don’t want to eat? Fuck ‘em!”; widespread belief in angels: “What are you, fucking STUPID?!”) Off stage, Carlin was an exceptionally warm and gentle human being who saw the world around him circling the drain, couldn’t tolerate the omnipresent hypocrisy, and saved his vitriol for the stage.
Carlin was born on May 12, 1937 in New York City to a pair of second-generation Irish Americans. He grew up on West 121st street, in an area he affectionately called “White Harlem,” with his brother and mother, who left George’s alcoholic father when he was two months old. He attended The Church Of Corpus Christi, a progressive Catholic school that encouraged the students to think freely but still believe in God, something George always considered incongruous. He became a great fan of radio comedian Danny Kaye, and taught himself how to be funny as a means of social acceptance, so the tough guys at school could either say “hey, this guy’s alright” or “don’t hit him, it’s bad luck to hit guys like that.”
Carlin dropped out of school at age sixteen and joined the U.S. Air Force as a radar technician on B-47 bombers, but his commitment to the country soon took second place to his job as a disc jockey on KJOE radio in nearby Shreveport, Louisiana. He was discharged in 1957 and got a DJ job in Boston, but got fired after he drove their mobile news unit to New York City to buy marijuana. He then moved to Fort Worth, Texas, where he DJ’d on KXOL and started performing stand-up at a coffee house called The Cellar, where he met comedy partner Jack Burns. Burns and Carlin moved to California in 1960, and became a popular act for a couple of years, even releasing an LP together recorded live at the Playboy club, but after a couple of years creative differences tore them apart – in particular, Carlin became enamored with the fearless provocative performance poetry of Lenny Bruce, and was in the audience when Bruce was notoriously arrested for indecency in San Francisco in 1961. When the police began detaining witnesses for questioning, Carlin told them he didn’t believe in government-issued identification cards and got shoved into the same police van as Bruce. Burns broke off with him shortly thereafter and went on to write for The Muppet Show.
Carlin’s star began to seriously rise during the mid-sixties, when he appeared on variety shows like The Merv Griffin Show and The Ed Sullivan Show, performing such bits as “Wonderful WINO” (inspired by his days as a DJ) and “The Hippy-Dippy Weatherman” (which he also released on his first album, Take-Offs and Put-Ons, in 1967) and also guest-hosted The Tonight Show in Johnny Carson’s absence several times. At the time, his dream was to someday become a big enough comedian to have a Hollywood movie career similar to Danny Kaye or Jerry Lewis. But as the counterculture movement mounted and the Vietnam War divided the generations, Carlin started to feel jaded about performing like a monkey for his friends’ warmongering parents. So, he started taking chances. He got booed off stage and banned from a Vegas nightclub for criticizing the war and saying the word “shit.” He started cussing out audiences when they didn’t laugh, and insulting hecklers when they insulted him. He released his second album (but in a way, his first), FM & AM, in 1972. The title represented the album’s two literal sides – the “AM” side 2 was devoted to his cleaner “Vegas-style” absurdist material that mocked radio, game shows and the evening news (including a tutorial on how to talk like Ed Sullivan), and the “FM” side 1 was devoted to more conversational bits about sex, drugs, long hair, birth control pills and the word “shit” that he’d more recently developed in small clubs and coffee shops. He bridged these two sides of his persona with “The Hair Piece,” a whimsical poem about public aversion to long hair that he performed on Ed Sullivan, effectively reintroducing and reinventing himself to America. FM & AM went Gold, got him a gig at Carnegie Hall, and won the Grammy award for Best Comedy Album.
Later that year, he released his third album, Class Clown, and that summer he got arrested at Summerfest in Milwaukee for performing Class Clown’s, and indeed Carlin’s, most notorious track, “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television,” a probing analysis on the “bad words” of the English language – shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker and tits – and what those particular collections of the twenty-six letters might have done to hurt us so much. The case against Carlin was dismissed that December on the grounds of free speech and lack of disturbance, but Carlin got into even more trouble when his follow-up routine, “Filthy Words” (from his fourth album, Occupation: Foole) was played on the New York FM radio station WBAI, owned by the Pacifica Foundation. This airplay was supposedly heard by the son of a member of the “Morality In Media” watchdog group that has made it their business to govern what we, as free Americans, can and can’t hear. He sent a letter of complaint to the FCC, and over the course of five years it rose to the Supreme Court, in the landmark 1978 case of “Federal Communications Commission v. Pacifica Foundation” (438 U.S. 726). The Supreme Court ruled Carlin’s bit to be “indecent but not obscene,” but still ruled, in a 5-4 decision, in favor of the FCC, affirming their authority to prohibit “indecent” recordings from reaching the airwaves during hours when children might listen.
The case only increased Carlin’s fame. In 1975, he was the guest host on the first-ever episode of Saturday Night Live, where in his own words he was “full of cocaine” during the performance. Indeed, the cocaine addiction, along with the alcohol addiction that began to afflict his wife Brenda, caused Carlin to retire from performing live in 1976. In 1977, however, he was contacted by the struggling new pay-cable network Home Box Office, and coaxed out of retirement to do a ninety-minute stand-up special. The special went so well that in 1978 they did another one, but shortly thereafter, Carlin suffered his first heart attack. In an effort to retain as much of his health as possible, he retired again for a few years.
He returned to stand-up in 1981, with the release of his eighth album A Place For My Stuff. Throughout the 1980s, Carlin settled into a simultaneously rewarding and (eventually) somewhat dispiriting rhythm with his comedy – he was still as funny as he always was, but he didn’t really seem to be progressing much in terms of his point of view. He still uttered the occasional piece of true satire (though the Reagen ‘80s were such an easy target that it hardly felt like it) but for the most part he preferred observational pieces about leftovers, driving, house pets and sports, as well as the occasional “list” piece (“Join The Book Club,” “Things To Watch Out For”) in which the number of things he was listing off was as just as absurd as the names of the things themselves (fake book titles like “Why Hawaii And Norway Are Not Near Each Other”). The stand-up comedy boom of the late 1980s brought Carlin a new level of attention, and though the desire to be a movie star had long since passed, Carlin still took supporting roles or bit parts in movies like The Prince Of Tides, Outrageous Fortune and both Bill And Ted movies. But in his own mind, Carlin’s act was still missing something.
The turning point for him came in 1992, and his album/special Jammin’ In New York. With Clinton in office and liberal America finally starting to convince itself that everything was okay, Carlin was there to remind us otherwise, particularly in a bit called “The Planet Is Fine” in which he explained that environmentalism is based in bullshit self-interest; we just want to protect our species, and the planet will be fine without us. In Carlin’s mind, this was the moment when he grew from a performer who wrote his own material, to a writer who performed his own material. He upped the ante on his next album/special, 1996’s Back In Town, which opened with an epic evisceration of pro-lifers and their supposed “sanctity of life,” then segued into the death penalty and imaginative ways to spice up, then precipitated the reality show boom by suggesting they turn Midwestern states into prison farms, tape the prisoners’ daily lives, broadcast them around the clock and use the billions in ad revenue to “balance the stupid fuckin’ budget!”
The reason these albums came four years apart was because Carlin spent 1993 and 1994 developing one of the very few ambitious creative misfires of his career: The George Carlin Show, a primetime FOX sitcom co-created by The Simpsons producer Sam Simon. Though FOX would have seemed an ideal match for Carlin’s abrasive attitude, dealing with the network became a harrowing ordeal for him, and by the end of the run he “couldn’t wait to get the fuck outta there.” Seeking another outlet for his muse, hopefully one that would grant him creative autonomy, in 1997 Carlin released his first book Brain Droppings, a loose assemblage of thoughts, short stories and observations of varying length, some of it merely hilarious, some of it borderline-radical thought-provoking analyses of how humans, especially Americans, have perverted history and logic with our language and customs. The book exceeded everyone’s expectations, hitting #1 on the New York Times best-seller list. Two more books followed, featuring more of the same – Napalm And Silly Putty in 2000 (named for the duality of human invention) and When Will Jesus Bring The Pork Chops? in 2004, the title of which was controversial enough to get it banned from Wal-Mart, which Carlin, naturally, considered a tremendous honor.
Ever distrustful of the government, Carlin almost never paid taxes in the early seventies. Compound interest and severe penalties prevented him from chopping down his debt quickly, and by 1998, after twenty years of IRS trouble, he had reduced his debt to about $350,000. Desperate to rid himself of the problem once and for all, Carlin risked damaging his integrity and pissing off his fans by accepting an offer to do MCI commercials. His fans did indeed cry the atheist equivalent of blasphemy, but it was especially hard to argue that he had “sold out” when he released his 1999 album Complaints And Grievances, featuring a bit where he depicted every businessman as an anal rapist. He even acknowledged that hearing an MCI pitchman complain about big business was something the audience would just have to figure out for themselves.
With his star rising again, in the late nineties and early ‘00s, Carlin got many offers from Hollywood as a character actor, especially from longtime fan Kevin Smith – Carlin played an unscrupulous cardinal in Dogma (“I’ll take any opportunity to mock the Catholic Church,” he said in an interview), a bisexual homeless drifter in Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back, and a surprisingly touching turn as a blue-collar grandfather in Jersey Girl. He also made memorable appearances in 2003’s Scary Movie 3, the acclaimed 2005 documentary The Aristocrats, and the 2006 Pixar animated feature Cars as an aging hippie Volkswagen bus. Mainstream success, and the respect that grants a true legend, was finally ready for Carlin, but Carlin was by no means ready to rest on his laurels. Indeed, more than thirty years after getting kicked out of a Vegas club for saying “shit” he got banned as a headliner at the MGM-Grand for calling his audiences “moronic” for traveling hundreds of miles to essentially give their money to large corporations.
Carlin played over a hundred shows a year for decades, but towards the end of his life some of his personal problems got in the way of his muse and work ethic. Less than a month after the Vegas altercation, Carlin voluntarily entered rehab in an attempt to curb his addiction to wine and vicodin. By late 2005, Carlin was back on stage and released Life Is Worth Losing, his twelfth HBO special and eighteenth album. Shortly thereafter, Carlin was admitted to the hospital for several weeks after a near-fatal heart attack and a rather severe bout of pneumonia, but by February 2006 he was back on stage again. But it was not to last forever: on June 22 of that year, he died of heart failure. In Carlin’s final HBO special, It’s Bad For Ya!, Carlin goes off on a diatribe about death, and how people relate to it with foolish faith-based statements like “I bet he’s smiling down on us,” and it would indeed be a severe disservice to the lifelong atheist to make any such statements about him.
Ironically, Carlin’s own (however temporary) tenacity in the face of death stood in stark contrast to his stage persona’s attitude of viewing the world’s tragedies as an entertaining show – Carlin has twice been foiled in his attempts to name an album/special I Like It When A Lot Of People Die (once by 9/11, again by Katrina), and his closing bit on Life Is Worth Losing is an incredible story of a natural disaster that eventually destroys the entire universe, then replaces said universe with a paradise where everyone gets what they want all the time. Such intriguing contradictions in philosophy were par for the course in Carlin’s fertile, one-of-a-kind “goofy shit”-producing mind.