Comedian Carlin Leaves Rich Legacy

George Carlin leaves behind memorable routines as well as a legal legacy. His riff on seven dirty words that are taboo on TV led to a Supreme Court decision on broadcasting offensive language. Carlin died of heart failure Sunday at 71.

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Mr. GEORGE CARLIN (Comedian): 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.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARLIN: I'm new wave but I'm old school. And my inner child is outward bound. I'm a hotwired, heat-seeking warmhearted cool customer, voice-activated and biodegradable. I interface on my database, and my database is in cyberspace, so I'm interactive, I'm hyperactive and from time to time, I'm radioactive.

(Soundbite of laughter)

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

George Carlin. The comedian died yesterday. His most famous bit involved seven words you can't use on television - you can't use them on radio either according to the FCC, but we needn't use them to remember Carlin's genius.

Mr. CARLIN: A Philadelphia man was arrested today while attempting to make an unauthorized deposit in a sperm bank.

(Soundbite of laughter)

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

George Carlin was a cut-up in parochial school. He trained his biting wit on friends, teachers and neighbors in the Morningside Heights section of Manhattan. He said he and his friends used to call it White Harlem to make it sound tougher than it really was.

He started as a disc jockey and found fame as a standup. He was emboldened by Lenny Bruce, the raunchy comic who blazed a new obscenity-laced trail onstage.

NORRIS: By the early '70s, risque comedy was the rage and George Carlin was its star. Carlin told NPR's Scott Simon in 1984 that he never worried about going over the line when it came to taste.

(Soundbite of archived NPR show)

Mr. CARLIN: Well, I take some liberties with my audience, and I use the personal pronoun there because one can think of the audience as his own if you're the attraction.

SCOTT SIMON: Yeah.

Mr. CARLIN: So, the people that come to see me are generally in my corner already and they know what they're in for, as it were. They know the kinds of things I do, so I can step over the line more often without risking too much with them.

I used to be Irish Catholic, now I'm an American. You know, you grow.

(Soundbite of laughter and applause)

Mr. CARLIN: Yeah, I was from one of those Irish neighborhoods in New York, one of those kind of parish schools. It wasn't typical. It was Corpus Christi, was the name of it, it could've been any Catholic church, right? Our Lady of Great Agony.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SIEGEL: Religion, politics, these were staples for Carlin. He heard what people avoided saying. And he could be serious about that, as he was in this 1990 conversation with Terry Gross on FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of NPR show FRESH AIR)

Mr. CARLIN: When people can't handle any more combat - in the First World War, that was called shell shock, which is very simple, honest and direct language. Shell shock, it describes exactly what it is. It almost sounds like guns. In the Second World War, a generation later, they decided to call that battle fatigue. It's twice as long now, four syllables, takes longer to say, doesn't seem to hurt. Fatigue is a nicer word than shock - shell shock, battle fatigue.

Then we had Korea in 1950. They called the same thing operational exhaustion. Now that humanity is completely missing from it and it sounds like something that might happen to your jeep. And in Vietnam, of course, the same condition was called post-traumatic stress disorder. And my point is, if we had still been calling it shell shock, maybe Vietnam veterans might have gotten some attention at the time.

NORRIS: In the end, George Carlin questioned everything, often with hilarious results. Credit the priests and the nuns of his Catholic education.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARLIN: Because they made questioners out of us, and they really didn't have any answers, you know? They'd fall back on, well, it's a mystery.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. CARLIN: Oh, thank you, Father. Mystery, I don't know, what's he talking about?

SIEGEL: Comedian George Carlin, who performed last weekend in Las Vegas. He died of heart failure at age 71.

NORRIS: You're listening to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News.

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Iconoclastic Comic George Carlin Dies at 71

George Carlin i i

Comedian George Carlin, who died Sunday of heart failure, was due to accept the Mark Twain Prize in a November ceremony. Courtesy The John F. Kennedy Center hide caption

itoggle caption Courtesy The John F. Kennedy Center
George Carlin

Comedian George Carlin, who died Sunday of heart failure, was due to accept the Mark Twain Prize in a November ceremony.

Courtesy The John F. Kennedy Center
George Carlin in 1967 i i

Before his counterculture awakening, a fresh-faced, clean-cut Carlin performed on the CBS sketch-comedy program Away We Go in the late '60s. Hulton Archive/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Hulton Archive/Getty Images
George Carlin in 1967

Before his counterculture awakening, a fresh-faced, clean-cut Carlin performed on the CBS sketch-comedy program Away We Go in the late '60s.

Hulton Archive/Getty Images
George Carlin in 1981 i i

Carlin in a 1981 TV performance. The comic told NPR in 1997 that touring can be tiring, but the drudgery of working the road is "part of the package" — and "I don't let something that can be seen as negative ... rob me of the joy I get." Ken Howard/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Ken Howard/Getty Images
George Carlin in 1981

Carlin in a 1981 TV performance. The comic told NPR in 1997 that touring can be tiring, but the drudgery of working the road is "part of the package" — and "I don't let something that can be seen as negative ... rob me of the joy I get."

Ken Howard/Getty Images

Comedian George Carlin, who died Sunday of heart failure at 71, was known for an act featuring "seven dirty words" that became the focus of a Supreme Court case. But he wasn't always a controversial figure.

His early act was marked by clever wordplay and spoofs of popular culture. He showed up on Ed Sullivan or The Tonight Show in his suit and tie throughout the 1960s. America loved the clean-cut New Yorker.

"I went through about eight or nine years of what essentially were the extended 1950s, sort of a button-down period. But that was when the country was changing," he said.

And Carlin changed with it. Carlin told NPR in 2004 that he felt alienated from his fan base of fortysomethings. Their kids were defining the era. He changed his look, grew out his hair and the beard that would become his trademark, and he steered his sharp, observational humor toward subjects that other comics of his generation and stature didn't dare touch: Vietnam, the counterculture, drugs and, of course, obscenity.

Seven Words

"There are 400,000 words in the English language, and there are seven of them you can't say on television," Carlin would say in a routine in the '70s. "What a ratio that is: 399,993 to seven. They must really be bad."

And he famously proceeded to say them.

Police in Milwaukee arrested him for disturbing the peace after a performance in 1972. He was arrested several more times after that, but he refused to drop the bit from his act.

"It had a wonderfully rhythmic — the reading of those seven words, the way they were placed together — had a magnificent kind of a jazz feeling," Carlin said about the routine on WHYY's Fresh Air. "And so I knew I had done something that was making an important point about the hypocrisy of all of this."

In 1978, the "seven dirty words" riff was the focal point of a Supreme Court ruling: The New York radio station WBAI had played a recording of it — without bleeps — and caught the ire of the Federal Communications Commission. A 5-4 decision reaffirmed the government's right to regulate speech that the FCC deems offensive.

Crossing the Line

Meanwhile, Carlin's iconoclasm had become part of the mainstream. He won Grammy Awards; he was the host for the first episode of Saturday Night Live. And his envelope-pushing and pointed politics helped pave the way for comedians from Richard Pryor to Cheech and Chong to Eddie Murphy to Chris Rock to Bill Maher.

"I like to find out where the line might be drawn and then deliberately cross it," he said during an NPR interview in 2000. "There are an awful lot of taboos. ... I just enjoy squashing them and stepping on them and peeling them apart and trying to expose them to people. For some reason, it makes me happy."

In the decades since Carlin first cast his lot with the counterculture, he has come to be nearly universally regarded as one of America's greatest comedians. Just a few days ago, The Kennedy Center announced that Carlin would be awarded this year's Mark Twain Prize, the nation's highest honor for humorists.

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