Despite a lull in his career, George Carlin (born 1937) has secured his reputation as one of America's greatest comedians. He has performed regularly on television with the likes of Ed Sullivan, Tom Jones, Steve Allen, Jackie Gleason, and Carol Burnett, worked the major nightclub circuit, and starred in a Fox television sitcom, The George Carlin Show.
In the late-1960s, Carlin drifted into his thirties, dissatisfied and uninspired with comedy. Even Carlin's promotional literature admits: "[B]ecause of the influence television was having on his career, Carlin's material grew bland and safe. The rebellious, anti-establishment tone of some of his earlier routines had disappeared."
Anyone who has seen a Carlin performance knows his comedy turns on biting brilliance. As Richard Zoglin of Time noted about the funnyman's early days, "Carlin's unctuous radio deejays, TV newscasters and commercial pitchmen were not simple parodies: he used them to satirize a whole society that had its priorities out of whack." Fortunately, for Carlin and his fans, his early-thirty something career crisis was short-lived. By the age of 35, he had released a Grammy-winning album, FM & AM, appeared countless times on Johnny Carson's Tonight Show, hosted the first Saturday Night Live, and captured a corner of the cable market with his taped performances on HBO. Carlin has pushed his career at full-tilt ever since, and the payoff, as the comedian himself might say, has been "tangible recognition": a star on Hollywood's Walk of Fame, two Grammy awards, a popular book of his comedy, and movie roles. "He's at the top of his game now and the only comedian with his degree of fame who's doing standup exclusively 150 nights a year," the New York Daily News observed as Carlin approached 60. "He tapes an hour-long HBO special every two years and wishes he could do two hours every year. 'I've got a lot of things to say,' he insists."
Carlin realized the pleasures of humor as a kid growing up in New York City. "I remember being pretty young and just saying something funny to my mother, and I remember I got a genuine laugh from her, you know how you can tell the difference?" he told the New Jersey Herald. "That's when I knew I could be funny." Armed with that homebred confidence, Carlin took his talent public, performing standup on his neighborhood streets, at high school, and in the Air Force. At the age of 19, while still in the Armed Services, he landed his first professional entertainment job working as a radio station disc jockey. Several years and radio stations later, Carlin joined up with newsman Jack Burns and developed a successful nightclub act that toured top stages around the country and earned a spot on The Tonight Show with Jack Paar. Two years later, Carlin struck out on his own.
For two years, Carlin honed his humor at a Greenwich Village cafe in New York City before breaking into television. Carlin's standup acts were a hit on shows hosted by the biggest names in the business: Merv Griffen, Mike Douglas, and Johnny Carson. Indeed, the performers Carlin joined on the stage reads like a "Who's Who of Post World War II Comics," including Steve Allen, Jackie Gleason, and Carol Burnett.
Yet, despite his comic success on television, Carlin yearned for an acting career on the big screen, much like the comedians-turned-actors Bob Hope and Danny Kaye. Although he landed a role in the Doris Day film With Six You Get Egg-Roll, and a guest part on That Girl, Carlin was discouraged by his lack of success. Years later, he dabbled in the profession again—appearing in such flicks as Car Wash, Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure, and Prince of Tides, with Barbra Streisand and Nick Nolte—but the experiences, coupled with a failed Fox network sitcom, only deepened his conviction that comedy was his calling. "I care a lot about my ideas," Carlin told the Toldeo Blade in 1995. "My mind is active, and I think hard and think a lot. I don't think a lot of stand-up people stay with it long enough to discover themselves. They see it as a stepping stone. Circumstances forced me to stay with it longer, and I discovered that I had something more to offer, and something else to do with myself. All of these guys that came out of Saturday Night Live and Second City on television—those two shows were always considered subversive, you know? They were the enemies of The Establishment. But the first thing they do when they come out here to Hollywood is start doing these crappy formula studio movies."
Though the material for Carlin's humor has changed during his long career, his fierce criticism of mainstream culture has not. He possesses a sensibility that has been described by writers as "caustic," "acerbic," "angry," and "irreverent." Carlin, during an interview with the Denver Post, admitted: "Anyone who's intelligent who isn't somewhat angry is probably missing the point somewhere along the way. The way I put it is this: This species is a failure that has organized itself incorrectly, and it's stuck and will never get out of it because the forces that keep it this way are much too powerful to change. So I gave up on this species, and I kind of try to look at it from a distance, but I can't completely give up because I'm a part of it. So there's this tension, and that creates a kind of anger that is easy to theatricalize." Such razor-sharp pessimism prompted at least one reporter from the Bellingham Herald to ask Carlin: "Is this all meant tongue-in-cheek?" To which the humorist replied, "No, it's not. I'm only being partly facetious. If you scratch any cynic, you'll find a disappointed idealist."
Carlin sharpened his comic focus in the early '70s. He emerged from his brief period of professional unrest with a new appetite for scathing commentary, for "testing the limits," as Zoglin of Time wrote, "challenging his audience, shouting from the depths of his social-activist soul." Carlin's most direct challenge appeared on the album Class Clown with a performance titled "The Seven Words You Can't Say on Television." After its release, community leaders tried to ban Carlin's concerts in their cities. "He was arrested several times for obscenity (all of which were dismissed), and fought the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] in a protracted legal battle," noted the St. Petersburg Times. Carlin's fight with the FCC ultimately was settled in a landmark Supreme Court ruling, which, according to Time, "upheld an FCC ban on 'offensive' material during hours when children are in the audience." Carlin, however, scored with his fans—Class Clown sold more than 100,000 copies. Moreover, Carlin continued to "keep a foot in the mainstream as well as the counterculture," as Zoglin of Time put it, by hosting the first edition of Saturday Night Live and subbing for Johnny Carson on the Tonight Show.
Thanks to cable television, Carlin also kept himself firmly entrenched in mass media. His first HBO show, a taped performance of On Location: George Carlin at USC, was so popular the cable company ran seven more Carlin shows, including a 1982 performance at Carnegie Hall and 1993 broadcast from the Paramount Theater at New York's Madison Square Garden called Jammin' in New York. Of that last performance, Zoglin of Time wrote, it "may not be his best, but it is almost certainly his angriest. Carlin's attack on America's war culture (complete with phallic interpretation of the gulf war) is too strident; his ridicule of golf ('an arrogant, elitist game that takes up entirely too much room in this country') too meanspirited. But he is, as usual, a whiz on the subject of language, this time our tendency to add unnecessary words to connote importance— 'shower activity' or 'emergency situation.' ('We know it's a situation. Everything is a situation.')"
Carlin is proud of his ability to offend—in fact, he considers it central to his success. "I don't care what happens to this planet, this race, the country," he told Jeff Rusnak of the Florida Sun Sentinel. "And being emotionally detached … gives the artist complete freedom to attack, to observe from a distance and not have this sort of echo in the background that 'this could be a lot better, folks."' That "distance," he explained, has always existed in his life. "What really freed me was I began to realize that I don't identify with the human experience, with the national experience, and in fact, most of my life, didn't identify with the local group, no matter what it was, my school, the Air Force, my family, religion, commerce. Therefore I have no stake in the outcome."
Carlin's career has always been a high-wire act. He's a master of balancing his outrageous observations with enough humor to keep his fans laughing, and coming back for more. That his distinctive brand of comedy has weathered more than three decades, as well as his own personal struggles with "heavy drug use," according to Time, suggests Carlin delivers far more than a good joke. "I never understand why people ask whether I get tired of what I do. No, I don't get tired, I chose to do this," he once told the New Jersey Herald. "This is my art, to interpret the world."
Bellingham Herald, November 30, 1995, p. C1.
Denver Post, January 24, 1996.
New Jersey Herald, August, 11, 1995, p. 13.
New York Daily News, March 28, 1996, p. 61.
New York Post, March 28, 1996, p. 12.
St. Petersburg Times, January 18, 1996.
Sun Sentinel, TK, 1996.
Time, May 18, 1992, p. 73.
Toledo Blade, September 22, 1995, p. 23.