Tuesday, 24 June 2008
George Carlin - The End of an Era
For comedy fans the world over, the death of George Carlin on Sunday, at the age of 71, in Santa Monica, California, severed the last link with a generation of comics who changed the face of comedy forever.
Carlin was one of the greats. There is no doubt about that. His influence on those who followed, from Robin Williams to Jerry Seinfeld to Bill Hicks, is undeniable. What is equally undeniable is that he was unique, one of a kind, and one of the few comedians who remained a vital and original force in comedy right up until his dying day.
Born in New York on May 12th 1937, Carlin was the son of middle-class Roman Catholic parents, of Irish descent. He was raised by his mother after his parents split up, and left school at the age of 14. Joining the US Air Force, he served as a radar technician, but by his own account was seldom out of trouble. While serving, he began to work as a disk jockey on the side, and after his discharge in 1957 he continued in this line of work, taking a job at a radio station in Fort Worth, Texas.
While working for the station he met Jack Burns, and the two became close friends, and later formed a comedy double-act. The comedy was of the traditional style of the time, straightforward gags performed wearing suits for a mostly middle-class or business type audience. They were successful and, quitting the radio station, took the act on the road. Then in 1962, while the pair were performing in Chicago, they went to see another comedian performing locally. This was Lenny Bruce, and as soon as Carlin witnessed Bruce's revolutionary anti-establishment comedy, he knew that the mainstream was no longer for him. Shortly afterwards he and Burns went their separate ways, and Carlin began to develop his act in a less straightforward style. Burns would go on to enjoy a moderately successful career of his own, including becoming the head writer for The Muppet Show.
Through the sixties Carlin developed a style of character comedy, inspired by Bruce and which would later itself prove an inspiration to the young Richard Pryor, both of which men he struck up friendships with. He began to appear regularly on television, most notably on The Ed Sullivan Show and The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson, which he also guest hosted. He was present during Bruce's infamous arrest for obscenity, allegedly being arrested himself for refusing to show the police his ID.
In 1970 he changed his act again, and it would lead to his own arrest and obscenity charge two years later. Growing his hair long and in a pony tail, with a matching beard, and dressing all in black, Carlin began to perform political anti-establishment material, including routines in which he openly admitted drug use. But it was his "seven words you can never say on television" routine which resulted in his brief incarceration. He was arrested in Milwaukee on July 21st 1972, but the charge was dropped later that year after a judge ruled that the words had been indecent but not obscene.
The seven words later led to a change in the US law, an fact that Carlin declared himself proud of. When a New York radio station broadcast a recording of the routine in 1973, a complaint by a listener that his son had heard the words led to a five year court battle which ended up in the Supreme Court, and resulted in the creation of a 10pm watershed for the American media, before which no material unsuitable for children was to be broadcast.
In 1975, Carlin was the guest host for the first ever episode of the legendary US late night comedy show Saturday Night Live, and in 1977 he recorded the first of his 14 HBO comedy special shows which would elevate his status in the US to that of a household name. It was around this time, unknown to the public, that he also suffered his first heart attack.
Carlin continued to perform edgy and daring comedy, his constant themes being criticism of the US government and puncturing the pomposity of the establishment, as well as mocking established religion and forming one of his own, frisbeetarianism, the belief of which was that when a person died, his soul got slung on the roof and had to stay there. In the late '80s he found a new young audience through his performances as Rufus, the time travelling mentor of the titular characters in Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure and it's sequel. He also, rather more bizarrely, provided the narration for the American releases of the Thomas the Tank Engine television series.
In 2003 he was at the centre of controversy again, after being fired by the MGM Grand Hotel in Las Vegas for telling his audience that everyone who visited Las Vegas were "fucking morons" and of "limited intellect" and on being challenged by the audience told them to "blow me."
In early 2006 he suffered his second heart attack, and later that year increased his popularity again when he appeared as the voice of Fillmore, the hippie Volkswagon minibus in the Disney/Pixar movie Cars. He carried on performing right up to his death, his last performance being in Las Vegas, the city he hated so much, on June 15th. Three days later it was announced that he would be the recipient of this year's Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, a prestigious award whose previous honourees include Richard Pryor, Bob Newhart and Steve Martin. The award ceremony in November is set to go ahead, when he will become the first ever posthumous recipient.
On Sunday afternoon he was admitted to hospital complaining of chest pains. It was his third and final heart attack, and he died at 5.55pm local time.
Carlin will be remembered not just for his own long and frequently brilliant career, but for the generations of comedians worldwide who have drawn inspiration from him. In a tribute this week, Jerry Seinfeld spoke of how, no matter what idea you might come up with, someone would always tell you "Carlin did it first." I will leave the final words to his daughter, Kelly Carlin:
"Most people know George Carlin as an icon of comedy and an advocate of free speech. I just know him as Dad … and what a dad he was. He taught me the value of speaking the truth in a world that doesn't always want to hear it and gave me the gift of laughter. He was loved and revered by so many and will be missed beyond words — but never forgotten."