How George Carlin Changed Comedy

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The comedian in a 1975 promotional photo for NBC's Saturday Night Live

When the culture began to change in the late 1960s — when the old one-liner comics on The Ed Sullivan Show were looking pretty tired and irrelevant to a younger generation experimenting with drugs and protesting the war in Vietnam — George Carlin was the most important stand-up comedian in America. By the time he died Sunday night (of heart failure at age 71), the transformation he helped bring about in stand-up had become so ingrained that it's hard to think of Carlin as one of America's most radical and courageous popular artists. But he was.

Carlin started doing stand-up comedy in the early '60s and had fashioned a successful career by the middle of the decade: a short-haired performer with skinny ties, well known to TV audiences for his sharp parodies of commercials and fast-talking DJs and a "hippy dippy weatherman." But as he watched the protest marches of the late '60s and absorbed the new spirit of the counterculture, Carlin decided that he was talking to the wrong audience, that he needed to change his act and his whole attitude.

So he grew long hair and a beard and began doing different kinds of material — about drugs and Vietnam and America's uptight attitude toward language and sex. Fans of the old George Carlin weren't ready for it. Carlin got thrown out of Las Vegas twice for material that today would seem tame (one offending routine was about his own "skinny ass"). At the Playboy Club in Lake Geneva, Wis., he so riled up a conservative crowd with his jokes about Vietnam that he nearly caused an audience riot. Even Johnny Carson banned him as a Tonight Show guest for a time because of his reputation as a drug abuser.

But by the early '70s Carlin had completed a remarkable change, opened up a new audience for stand-up comedy and helped redefine an art form. Like Lenny Bruce — whom he idolized and who helped him get his first agent — Carlin saw the stand-up comic as a social commentator, rebel and truth teller. He challenged conventional wisdom and tweaked the hypocrisies of middle-class America. He made fun of society's outrage over drugs, for example, pointing out that the "drug problem" extended to middle-class America as well, from coffee freaks at the office to housewives hooked on diet pills. He talked about the injustice of Muhammad Ali's banishment from boxing for avoiding the draft — a man whose job was beating people up losing his livelihood because he wouldn't kill people: "He said, 'No, that's where I draw the line. I'll beat 'em up, but I don't want to kill 'em.' And the government said, 'Well, if you won't kill people, we won't let you beat 'em up.' "

Most famously, Carlin talked about the "seven words you can never say on television," foisting the verboten few into his audience's face with the glee of a classroom cutup and the scrupulousness of a social linguist. While his brazen repeating of the "dirty" words caused a sensation (and prompted a lawsuit that eventually made it to the Supreme Court, resulting in the creation of the "family hour" on network television), his intention was not just to shock; it was to question our irrational fear of language. "There are no bad words," said Carlin. "Bad thoughts. Bad intentions. And woooords."

Fuzzy language and fuzzy thinking were always among Carlin's favorite topics. He marveled at oxymorons like "jumbo shrimp" and "military intelligence," and pointed out the social uses of euphemism: "When did toilet paper become 'bathroom tissue'? When did house trailers become 'mobile homes'?" He reminisced about his class-clown antics and Catholic upbringing in the rough Morningside Heights section of New York City. He took on all taboos, even the biggest one, God. How could the Almighty be all-powerful, mused Carlin, since "everything he ever makes ... dies"?

In the 1970s Carlin was selling out college concerts, releasing best-selling records (his breakthrough 1972 album, FM & AM, spent 35 weeks on the Billboard pop charts, revitalizing a comedy-record business that had fallen on hard times). When NBC introduced a new late-night comedy show in 1975 called Saturday Night Live, Carlin was the comedian they turned to as the first guest host. And when HBO began rolling out its influential series of "On Location" comedy concerts, Carlin was among its most popular stars, headlining a record 14 one-man shows for the network, the last just a few months ago.

Carlin was a product of the counterculture era in lifestyle as well as comedy. His drug use became so heavy in the mid-'70s that it began to affect his health (he had a heart attack in 1978, the start of heart problems that would eventually kill him) and his career as well. "I really wasn't being as creative," Carlin admitted years later. "I lost years. I could have been a pole vaulter in those years, and instead I was kind of like doing hurdles."

But in the early '80s, after kicking his drug habit, he revived his career, becoming a kind of curmudgeonly uncle, with small-bore "observational" humor and an aphoristic style. Then, in the '90s, he tacked back to harder-edged political material, railing against everything from the environmental movement to the middle-class obsession with golf. Even in his late 60s, Carlin could be as perceptive on the cliches and buzzwords of the era as ever: "I've been uplinked and downloaded. I've been inputted and outsourced, I know the upside of downsizing, I know the downside of upgrading. I'm a high-tech lowlife. A cutting-edge, state-of-the-art, bicoastal multitasker, and I can give you a gigabyte in a nanosecond."

Carlin's material grew increasingly dark in later years, to the point where he was cheerleading (with only a trace of irony) for mass suicide and ecological disaster. "I sort of gave up on this whole human adventure a long time ago," he said a couple of years ago. "Divorced myself from it emotionally. I think the human race has squandered its gift, and I think this country has squandered its promise. I think people in America sold out very cheaply, for sneakers and cheeseburgers. And I don't think it's fixable."

But Carlin's career, and his comedy, was anything but a downer. He was unique among stand-ups of his era in remaining a top-drawing comedian for more than 40 years, with virtually no help from movies or TV sitcoms. His influence can be seen everywhere from the political rants of Lewis Black to the observational comedy of Jerry Seinfeld. He showed that nothing — not the most sensitive social issues or the most trivial annoyances of everyday life — was off-limits for smart comedy. And he helped bring stand-up comedy to the very center of American culture. It has never left.

Richard Zoglin's book Comedy on the Edge: How Stand-Up in the 1970s Changed America was published earlier this year by Bloomsbury.