June 24, 2008
George Carlin died of heart-related problems at the age of 71, which seems much too young, or maybe I'm just getting too old. Almost everyone who talks about the comedian brings up his famous "seven words" that were supposedly banned from television. Carlin first gained national fame in the late 1960s as the "hippie-dippie weatherman," and during the 1970s he ranked with Richard Pryor and Steve Martin as the most popular comedians. He was the very first guest host of "Saturday Night Live" in October 1975. (See CNN.com.) His particular shtick was mixing a variety of amusing characters, from the foul-mouthed cynic to the dope fiend lost in the ozone. Profanity was his stock in trade. But I always think back to the first time I ever saw him on TV [in the mid-1960s], as a pitch man for Ozark Airlines, which [was bought out by TWA in 1986]. You would never recognize him, with short hair and a business suit: "Go-getters go Ozark!" Morphing into a counter-culture icon of sorts was a smart career move, paralleling Willie Nelson.
Carlin's brand of dark, foreboding, cynical humor was not for everyone, of course. He was no Will Rogers, but was nonetheless part of a long and (more or less) honorable tradition, from Don Rickles to Matt Groening ("Simpson's," "Life in Hell") to Lewis Black. Much of his comedy consisted of social satire, mocking establishment values and usually identifying himself with leftist politics. To say that he was irreverent would be a huge understatement; offending people was his daily goal, basically. Even though he did get carried away at times, he was at heart a humane, decent person, not a nihilist or misanthrope. By saying outrageous things that no one else dared to say in public, he had a cathartic effect that relieved stress, lifted spirits, and made life a lot more bearable for grouches all across the fruited plain. He helped expose the veneer of hypocrisy and got millions of us to open our minds. For that, he deserves our admiration and respectful memory. %#*&@!!!
One of my favorite George Carlin routines was "Baseball and Football," which you can watch on YouTube.