For a comic who spent much of his career railing against America's war culture, George Carlin had some pretty good war stories of his own from his tour of duty on the 1960s cultural battlefield. Once a popular, short-haired comedian who did parodies of commercials and fast-talking DJs, Carlin saw the counterculture revolution and decided he was talking to the wrong audience. So he grew long hair and a beard and began doing routines about drugs and Vietnam and uptight middle-class values.
His old fans weren't ready for it. Carlin got thrown out of Las Vegas clubs twice for material that today would seem tame (one offending routine was about his "skinny ass"). At the Playboy Club in Lake Geneva, Wis., his jokes about Vietnam nearly caused an audience riot. "One big blond guy, who would have made a casting director's dream for one of those Nazi officers, said, 'How would you know? You've never been shot at!'" Carlin recalled years later. "Then it became an uproar. Some were standing and leaving; some were shaking their fists at me." Carlin, who died of heart failure on June 22 at age 71, told these stories with typical brio when I interviewed him for my book Comedy at the Edge--recalling nearly every detail and filling in the ones he didn't by consulting the journal he kept throughout his long career (a record that grew spotty only in the years he was wasted on cocaine).
Like his idol Lenny Bruce, Carlin saw the comedian as a social commentator, rebel and truth teller, exposing hypocrisy and challenging conventional wisdom. He pointed out that America's "drug problem," for example, extended to middle-class suburbia, from office coffee freaks to housewives hooked on diet pills. He talked about the irony and injustice of Muhammad Ali's banishment from boxing as punishment for evading the draft: "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 on his audience with the glee of a classroom cutup and the scrupulousness of a social linguist. While his brazen routine caused a sensation (and prompted a lawsuit that eventually made it to the Supreme Court), his intention was not just to shock; it was also to question our irrational fear of language. "There are no bad words," said Carlin. "Bad thoughts. Bad intentions. And woooords."
Carlin took stand-up comedy to a new audience and helped redefine it as an art form. In the '70s he sold out concerts, released best-selling albums, starred in HBO specials. Then, after rebounding from drug problems, he reinvented himself a couple more times. In the '80s he re-emerged as a kind of curmudgeonly uncle, with small-bore observational humor and an aphoristic style. In the '90s he tacked back to harder-edged political material, complaining about everything from the environmental movement to the middle-class obsession with golf. Even in his late 60s, Carlin was as sharp a satirist of language 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 liked to say, his cynicism at odds with a sweetly unpretentious demeanor that made him almost universally beloved in the comedy world. "Divorced myself from it emotionally. I think the human race has squandered its gift and 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 were anything but a downer. He was unique among his contemporaries in remaining a top-drawing stand-up comic for more than 40 years, with virtually no help from movies or TV sitcoms. His influence can be seen everywhere, from the observational comedy of Jerry Seinfeld to the political rants of Lewis Black. He helped take stand-up comedy to the very center of American culture. It has never left.