There are a lot of comedians throughout history whose routines are dated and whose routines hold up, but George Carlin is one of the few comedians whose routines feel like they were ahead of his time. The jokes he made hit home more today than at any other point in time. Carlin was a progressive who refused to punch down and only criticized powerful people. He often joked about and railed against corporations, government, religion, politics and America in general, and how the little guy was often at the mercy of these forces. Something liberals (like me) still complain about to this day. Back when he was alive, people called this material dark and subversive, and nowadays people call him a prophet, but really he was just a sharp cat who understood the way the world works. Recently his material about abortion has made the rounds on Twitter thanks to recent news about the Supreme Court possibly overturning the 1973 law that made the procedure legal, but he made so many jokes that you can use almost anything he said to respond to any political news story today.
Born in the Manhattan borough of New York City in 1937, George Carlin was a guy whose life was seemingly going nowhere since he got expelled from high school as a teenager and got discharged from the U.S. Air Force as a young man for being labelled “unproductive,” but when it came to entertaining others, Carlin excelled. He regularly won the drama award at Camp Notre Dame in New Hampshire, and when he served at the Air Force he was a disc jockey at KJOE near Shreveport. The decade he served was the same decade he met fellow DJ Jack Burns who worked at KXOL in Fort Worth, Texas. Burns and Carlin decided to form a comedy team and they performed successfully together at local beat coffeehouse The Cellar, before they moved to California in 1960. The duo performed together for two years before pursuing separate career paths, but they remained friends.
In the sixties, Carlin performed stand-up comedy and began appearing on television in variety shows and talk shows like The Tonight Show, which he would frequently guest host in place of Jack Paar and later Johnny Carson. Carlin started out looking like a typical suit-and-tie comedian but over time he went for a more hippie style, growing his hair out and wearing T-shirts and jeans, which lost him some bookings but gained him a whole new young audience, especially after he gained mainstream attention performing on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Carlin’s transition from mainstream comedy to counterculture comedy was further cemented by his 1972 comedy album FM & AM, which actually played with Carlin’s comedic shift by having the AM side of the record incorporating Carlin’s early zany and clean-cut comedy style and having the FM side of the record incorporating Carlin’s new style where he jokes about things like sex and drugs. The album won the Grammy Award for Best Comedy Album that year.
His following album Class Clown, also released in 1972, contained Carlin’s most famous routine “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” which marked Carlin’s first use of hard profanity and made him a target of the FCC and several arrests when he performed the routine in public.
The seven words you can’t say? I’ll let Carlin tell you what they are:
The controversy led to action from the government and the Supreme Court, which had a lasting impact on defining the extent to which government can regulate what people can say in broadcast, but it also made Carlin even more famous. Carlin would continue to record comedy albums for years to come, many with similarly critical barbs about what he called the “bullshit” of everyday life. Audiences and listeners in the counterculture era often found anti-establishment attitudes like this refreshing and Carlin had a lot of respect from that crowd.
Later in 1975, George Carlin made history as the host of the very first episode of Saturday Night Live on NBC alongside musical guests Billy Preston and Janis Ian. He did not perform in any sketches with the cast members like hosts normally do on that show today, but he did perform monologues and introduce the musical guests over the course of the episode (Carlin was supposedly too stoned to perform in sketches that night). Carlin later got the chance to perform in the sketches when he came back to host in 1984.
In the eighties, Carlin would perform several stand-up comedy specials for HBO, including one at Carnegie Hall, and he would continue to make stand-up specials every decade until he died, while occasionally appearing in popular movies and TV shows. Movies Carlin appeared in include Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey (1991), Barbra Streisand’s The Prince of Tides (1991), Kevin Smith’s Dogma (1999) and Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back (2001), and Scary Movie 3 (2005), and he also voiced animated characters in Disney’s Tarzan II (2005), Pixar’s Cars (2006) and the fairy tale comedy Happily N’ever After (2006). On television, in addition to The Tonight Show, Ed Sullivan and SNL, Carlin appeared on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, The Carol Burnett Show, The Flip Wilson Show (for which he was also a writer), The Daily Show and Mad TV, and he also guest starred on sitcoms like That Girl, Welcome Back Kotter and The Simpsons.
Carlin’s own sitcom The George Carlin Show, which Carlin co-created with Simpsons developer Sam Simon and had aired on FOX for two seasons from 1994 to 1995, was well-received by critics even if it is largely forgotten today, but Carlin had a bigger role as Mr. Conductor on the 1991 PBS series Shining Time Station, narrating the Thomas the Tank Engine segments which originated from the British series Thomas & Friends, which Carlin would also narrate until 1996.
Overall Carlin would focus more on writing than a potential film or television career, which he found more distracting than fulfilling, but stand-up comedy was when Carlin was at his creative peak. Carlin was a wordsmith who conveyed his jokes, points and opinions clearly and with sharp comedic timing. I think he was one of the best writers in stand-up comedy history, not only because he took stances against those in power that many other celebrities would be too afraid to take, but because he never lost his sense of humor. People like Lenny Bruce, who was an influence on Carlin, got more political at the expense of their humor, but Carlin was always funny even as he spoke truth to power. And a lot of his material really does stand the test of time. He might even be my favorite comedian.
Throughout his career, Carlin often had drug-dependency problems and a series of heart attacks every decade since the seventies, but heart failure finally took him out in 2008 at the age of 71. Many popular comedians were influenced by his style, including Jerry Seinfeld, Chris Rock, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, Lewis Black and Bill Burr.