RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Comedian George Carlin wasn't always a controversial figure. His early act was marked by clever wordplay and spoofs of popular culture. As time went on, Carlin's act became more irreverent, and his routine became the focus of a Supreme Court ruling on obscenity.
George Carlin died yesterday of heart failure here in Los Angeles. He was 71 years old. NPR's Nate DiMeo has this remembrance.
NATE DiMEO: Throughout the '60s, you could catch George Carlin on TV all the time. He'd show up Ed Sullivan or "The Tonight Show" in a suit and tie. America loved the clean-cut New Yorker.
Mr. GEORGE CARLIN (Comedian): 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.
DiMEO: And Carlin changed with it. He told NPR in 2004 that he felt alienated from his fan base of 40-somethings. It was their kids who were defining the era. He changed his look. He grew out his hair and the beard that would become a 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.
Mr. CARLIN: There are 400,000 words in the English language, and there are seven of them you can't say on television.
DiMEO: This is Carlin in the early '70s.
Mr. CARLIN: What a ratio that is: 399,993 to seven.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. CARLIN: They must really be bad.
DiMEO: And he famously proceeded to say them.
Mr. CARLIN: You know the seven, don't you, that you can't say on television? (censored), (censored), (censored), (censored), (censored), (censored), (censored)? Huh?
(Soundbite of applause)
DiMEO: Police in Milwaukee arrested him for disturbing the peace after a performance in 1972. He was arrested several more times after that. He refused to drop the bit from his act.
Carlin spoke about the routine on WHYY's FRESH AIR.
Mr. CARLIN: 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, a rhythm that was just very natural and satisfying, the way those syllables were placed together. And so I knew I had done something that was making an important point about the hypocrisy of all of this.
DiMEO: In 1978, his seven-dirty-words riff was the focal point of a Supreme Court case. The New York radio station WBAI had played a recording of it -without the 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.
Meanwhile, Carlin's iconoclasm had become part of the mainstream. He won Grammys. 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.
Carlin reflected on his career in an NPR interview in 2000.
Mr. CARLIN: I like to find out where the line might be drawn and then deliberately cross it. There are an awful lot of taboos, and 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. There's no altruism in it. You know, I don't think they're going to be better for it, or I am. But it seems as though it gives me pleasure to show them that the haunted house is really probably fairly safe in there.
DiMEO: 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. Nate DiMeo, NPR News.