RIP: George Carlin, an honest comedian

George Carlin - Class Clown LP

As I got home late Sunday night / early Monday morning, I checked my email and got the word that George Carlin had died at the age of 71 years old.

I can think of seven words to describe what I’m feeling about George’s death, and they’re definitely not suitable for broadcast.

Nine years after the Kingsmen‘s recording of LOUIE LOUIE, George Carlin got arrested in Milwaukee on obscenity charges for reciting those “seven special words you can’t say on television.” Originally heard on the “Class Clown” LP, this routine was a pretty radical achievement in 1972, taking stand-up comedy to realms suggested by Lenny Bruce, who passed away in 1966.

Unlike the Kingsmen’s recording of LOUIE LOUIE, there was no question about the words used by George Carlin. There was no ambiguity about George Carlin, who deliberately chose words that would specifically alienate those offended by the use of strong language. That was his schtick, and in two separate incidents, two courts determined in Carlin was considered indecent, yet not disruptive, therefore entitled to his rights of free speech. A 1978 decision by the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a previous ruling in favor of Carlin’s performance, ruling that the routine was “indecent but not obscene”, and the FCC had authority to prohibit such broadcasts during hours when children were likely to be among the audience.

Ironically, as pointed out in the George Carlin Wikipedia entry, the court documents contain a complete transcript of the routine, perhaps validating what previous United States Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. (1841-1935) said: “You cannot define obscenity without being obscene“.

I’ve always considered George Carlin one of the most honest comedians in America. Even when not demonstrating his insightful comedic genius, he had a sharp mind about current affairs that would put practically every political pundit to shame.

On June 18, 2008, four days before his death, the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC announced that Carlin would be the 2008 honoree of the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor.

I’m gonna miss that guy.

1 comment to RIP: George Carlin, an honest comedian

  • Drake

    Eric,

    This is a great piece on George Carlin. His rapier wit and scathing humor will be sorely missed. I remember a comedy routine he did on HBO about the arrogance and hubris of the human race in thinking it can destroy the environment — a very non-PC attitude to have then and now. Of course, he didn’t mean that we couldn’t totally f**k up the environment for ourselves and for the rest of animal-kind. Just that in the long view, no matter what we did the earth would shake us off like so many fleas on a dog. It might take 100 years, a 1000, or even several millennia. But long after the human race is dead and gone, life and the earth will flourish. What a conceited species we are to think otherwise!