George Denis Patrick Carlin (May 12, 1937 – June 22, 2008) was an American stand-up comedian, actor, author, and social critic.
Carlin was noted for his black comedy and reflections on politics, the English language, psychology, religion, and various taboo subjects. He and his "seven dirty words" comedy routine were central to the 1978 U.S. Supreme Court case F.C.C. v. Pacifica Foundation, in which a 5–4 decision affirmed the government's power to regulate indecent material on the public airwaves. He is widely regarded as one of the most important and influential stand-up comics; one newspaper called Carlin "the dean of counterculture comedians". In April 2004, he placed second on the Comedy Central list of "Top 10 Comedians of US Audiences".
The first of Carlin's 14 stand-up comedy specials for HBO was filmed in 1977. From the late 1980s, Carlin's routines focused on sociocultural criticism of American society. He often commented on contemporary political issues in the United States and satirized the excesses of American culture. He was a frequent performer and guest host on The Tonight Show during the three-decade Johnny Carson era, and hosted the first episode of Saturday Night Live in 1975. His final HBO special, It's Bad for Ya, was filmed less than four months before his death. In 2008, he was posthumously awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. In 2017, Rolling Stone magazine ranked him second (behind Richard Pryor) on its list of the 50 best stand-up comics of all time.
George Denis Patrick Carlin was born on May 12, 1937 in Manhattan, New York, the younger son of secretary Mary Carlin (née Bearey) and The Sun's advertising manager Patrick John Carlin. His father was an Irish immigrant from County Donegal, while his mother was an Irish-American. His maternal grandfather, Dennis Bearey, was an Irish immigrant who worked as an NYPD officer. Carlin recalled that his grandmother's maiden name was O'Grady, but it was changed to Grady before she reached the U.S. He later joked that they "dropped the O in the ocean on the way here". He would later name his character on The George Carlin Show as O'Grady as an act of homage to her. Although born to a Catholic family, Carlin rejected religion. His parents separated when he was two months old because of his father's alcoholism. Mary subsequently raised Carlin and his older brother, Patrick Jr., on her own.
Carlin said that he picked up an appreciation for the effective use of the English language from his mother, though they had a difficult relationship, and he often ran away from home. He grew up on West 121st Street, in a neighborhood of Manhattan he said he and his friends called "White Harlem" because that "sounded a lot tougher than its real name" of Morningside Heights. He attended Corpus Christi School, a Roman Catholic parish school of the Corpus Christi Church in Morningside Heights. He went to the Bronx for high school but, after three semesters, Carlin was thrown out of Cardinal Hayes High School at age 15. He briefly attended Bishop Dubois High School in Harlem and the Salesian High School in Goshen, New York. He spent many summers at Camp Notre Dame on Spofford Lake in Spofford, New Hampshire. He regularly won the camp's drama award. Much later in life, he requested that after his death, a portion of his ashes be spread at the lake.
Carlin joined the United States Air Force when he was old enough, and trained as a radar technician. He was stationed at Barksdale Air Force Base in Bossier City, Louisiana. He also began working as a disc jockey at radio station KJOE, in nearby Shreveport. Labeled an "unproductive airman" by his superiors, Carlin received a general discharge on July 29, 1957. During his time in the Air Force, he had been court-martialed three times, and also received many nonjudicial punishments.
In 1959, Carlin met Jack Burns, a fellow DJ at radio station KXOL in Fort Worth, Texas. They formed a comedy team and after successful performances at Fort Worth's beat coffeehouse called The Cellar, Burns and Carlin headed for California in February 1960.
Within weeks of arriving in California, Burns and Carlin put together an audition tape and created The Wright Brothers, a morning show on KDAY in Hollywood. During their tenure at KDAY, they honed their material in beatnik coffeehouses at night. Years later when he was honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Carlin requested that it be placed in front of the KDAY studios near the corner of Sunset Boulevard and Vine Street. Burns and Carlin recorded their only album, Burns and Carlin at the Playboy Club Tonight, in May 1960 at Cosmo Alley in Hollywood. After two years together as a team, they parted to pursue individual careers, but "remain[ed] the best of friends."
In the 1960s, Carlin began appearing on television variety shows, where he played various characters:
During this period, Carlin became a frequent performer and guest host on The Tonight Show, initially with Jack Paar as host, then with Johnny Carson. Carlin became one of Carson's most frequent substitutes during the host's three-decade reign. Carlin was also cast in Away We Go, a 1967 comedy show that aired on CBS. His material during his early career and his appearance, which consisted of suits and short-cropped hair, had been seen as "conventional", particularly when contrasted with his later anti-establishment material.
Carlin was present at Lenny Bruce's arrest for obscenity. As the police began attempting to detain members of the audience for questioning, they asked Carlin for his identification. Telling the police he did not believe in government-issued IDs, he was arrested and taken to jail with Bruce in the same vehicle.
In the late 1960s, Carlin was making about $250,000 annually. As a tax shelter he bought a private jet —a twin-engine Aero Commander 1121 Jet Commander. Carlin hired pilots to fly him to various tour dates.
Eventually, Carlin changed his routines and his appearance. Carlin hired talent managers — Jeff Wald and Ron De Blasio — to help him reinvent his image, making him look more hip for a younger audience. Wald put Carlin into much smaller clubs such as The Troubadour in West Hollywood and The Bitter End in New York City. Wald says that Carlin's income was thus reduced by 90%, but his later career arc was greatly improved. In 1970, record producer Monte Kay formed the Little David Records subsidiary of Atlantic Records, with comedian Flip Wilson as co-owner. Kay and Wilson signed Carlin away from RCA Records, and recorded a Carlin performance at Washington, D.C.'s The Cellar Door in May 1971—this was released as FM & AM in January 1972. De Blasio was busy managing the fast-paced career of Freddie Prinze, and was about to sign Richard Pryor, so he released Carlin to Little David general manager Jack Lewis, who, like Carlin, was somewhat wild and rebellious. Carlin lost some TV bookings by dressing strangely for a comedian of the time, wearing faded jeans and sporting long hair, a beard, and earrings at a time when clean-cut, well-dressed comedians were the norm. Using his own persona as a springboard for his new comedy, he was presented by Ed Sullivan in a performance of "The Hair Piece" and quickly regained his popularity as the public caught on to his sense of style.
Starting in 1972, singer-songwriter Kenny Rankin was Carlin's label mate on Little David Records, and Rankin served many times as Carlin's musical guest or opening act during the early 1970s. The two flew together in Carlin's private jet; Carlin says that Rankin relapsed into using cocaine while on tour since Carlin had so much of the drug available.
The album FM & AM proved very popular. It marked Carlin's change from mainstream to counterculture comedy. The "AM" side was an extension of Carlin's previous style, with zany but relatively clean routines parodying aspects of American life. The "FM" side introduced Carlin's new style, with references to marijuana and birth control pills, and a playful examination of the word "shit." In this manner, Carlin renewed a style of radical social commentary comedy that Lenny Bruce had pioneered in the late 1950s.
In this period Carlin perfected his well-known routine, "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television", recorded on Class Clown. On July 21, 1972, Carlin was arrested after performing this routine at Milwaukee's Summerfest and charged with violating obscenity laws. The case, which prompted Carlin to refer to the words for a time as "the Milwaukee Seven", was dismissed in December of that year; the judge declared that the language was indecent but Carlin had the freedom to say it as long as he caused no disturbance. In 1973, a man complained to the Federal Communications Commission after listening with his son to a similar routine, "Filthy Words", from Occupation: Foole, broadcast one afternoon over WBAI, a Pacifica Foundation FM radio station in New York City. Pacifica received a citation from the FCC for violating regulations that prohibit broadcasting "obscene" material. The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the FCC action by a vote of 5 to 4, ruling that the routine was "indecent but not obscene" and that the FCC had authority to prohibit such broadcasts during hours when children were likely to be among the audience (F.C.C. v. Pacifica Foundation, 438 U.S. 726 (1978); the court documents contain a complete transcript of the routine).
|“||Shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, and tits. Those are the heavy seven. Those are the ones that'll infect your soul, curve your spine and keep the country from winning the war.||”|
|— George Carlin, Class Clown, "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television"|
The controversy increased Carlin's fame. He eventually expanded the dirty-words theme with a seemingly interminable end to a performance (ending with his voice fading out in one HBO version, and accompanying the credits in the Carlin at Carnegie special for the 1982–83 season) and a set of 49 web pages organized by subject and embracing his "Incomplete List of Impolite Words."
On stage, during a rendition of his "Dirty Words" routine, Carlin learned that his previous comedy album FM & AM had won the Grammy. Midway through the performance on the album Occupation: Foole, he can be heard thanking someone for handing him a piece of paper. He then exclaimed "Shit!" and proudly announced his win to the audience.
Carlin hosted the premiere broadcast of NBC's Saturday Night Live, on October 11, 1975, the only episode to date in which the host did not appear (at his request) in sketches. The following season, 1976–77, he appeared regularly on CBS Television's Tony Orlando & Dawn variety series.
Carlin unexpectedly stopped performing regularly in 1976, when his career appeared to be at its height. For the next five years he rarely performed stand-up, although it was at this time that he began doing specials for HBO as part of its On Location series; doing 14 specials, including 2008's It's Bad For Ya! He later revealed that he had suffered the first of three heart attacks during this layoff period. His first two HBO specials aired in 1977 and 1978.
In 1981, Carlin returned to the stage, releasing A Place for My Stuff and returning to HBO and New York City with the Carlin at Carnegie TV special, videotaped at Carnegie Hall and airing during the 1982–83 season. Carlin continued doing HBO specials every year or every other year over the following decade and a half. All of Carlin's albums from this time forward are from the HBO specials.
He hosted SNL for the second time on November 10, 1984, this time appearing in several sketches.
Carlin began to achieve prominence as a film actor with a major supporting role in the 1987 comedy hit Outrageous Fortune, starring Bette Midler and Shelley Long; it was his first notable screen role after a handful of previous guest roles on television series. Playing drifter Frank Madras, the role poked fun at the lingering effect of the 1960s counterculture. In 1989, he gained popularity with a new generation of teens when he was cast as Rufus, the time-traveling mentor of the title characters in Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure, and reprised his role in the film sequel Bill and Ted's Bogus Journey as well as the first season of the cartoon series. He also played the role of "Mr Conductor" on the PBS show Shining Time Station and narrated the show's sequences of the American version of Thomas the Tank Engine & Friends from 1991 to 1995, replacing Ringo Starr. On the first day of the assignment, Carlin was cross about recording his narration without an audience, so the producers put a stuffed teddy bear in the booth.
Also in 1991, Carlin had a major supporting role in the movie The Prince of Tides, which starred Nick Nolte and Barbra Streisand, portraying the gay neighbor of the main character's suicidal sister.
In 1993, Carlin began a weekly Fox sitcom, The George Carlin Show, playing New York City taxicab driver George O'Grady. The show, created and written by The Simpsons co-creator Sam Simon, ran 27 episodes through December 1995. In his final book, the posthumously published Last Words, Carlin said about The George Carlin Show, "I had a great time. I never laughed so much, so often, so hard as I did with cast members Alex Rocco, Chris Rich, Tony Starke. There was a very strange, very good sense of humor on that stage ... [but] I was incredibly happy when the show was canceled. I was frustrated that it had taken me away from my true work."
Carlin later explained that there were other, more pragmatic reasons for abandoning his acting career in favor of standup. In an interview for Esquire magazine in 2001, he said, "Because of my abuse of drugs, I neglected my business affairs and had large arrears with the IRS, and that took me eighteen to twenty years to dig out of. I did it honorably, and I don't begrudge them. I don't hate paying taxes, and I'm not angry at anyone, because I was complicit in it. But I'll tell you what it did for me: it made me a way better comedian. Because I had to stay out on the road and I couldn't pursue that movie career, which would have gone nowhere, and I became a really good comic and a really good writer."
Carlin was honored at the 1997 Aspen Comedy Festival with a retrospective, George Carlin: 40 Years of Comedy, hosted by Jon Stewart. His first hardcover book, Brain Droppings (1997), sold nearly 900,000 copies and spent 40 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list.
In 2001, Carlin was given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 15th Annual American Comedy Awards. In December 2003 Representative Doug Ose (R-California) introduced a bill (H.R. 3687) to outlaw the broadcast of Carlin's "seven dirty words", including "compound use (including hyphenated compounds) of such words and phrases with each other or with other words or phrases, and other grammatical forms of such words and phrases (including verb, adjective, gerund, participle, and infinitive forms)." The bill omitted "tits", but included "asshole", which was not one of Carlin's original seven words. The bill was referred to the House Judiciary Subcommittee on the Constitution in January 2004, where it was tabled.
Carlin performed regularly as a headliner in Las Vegas, but in 2004 his run at the MGM Grand Las Vegas was terminated after an altercation with his audience. After a poorly received set, filled with dark references to suicide bombings and beheadings, Carlin complained that he could not wait to get out of "this fucking hotel" and Las Vegas; he wanted to go back east, he said, "where the real people are." He continued:
People who go to Las Vegas, you've got to question their fucking intellect to start with. Traveling hundreds and thousands of miles to essentially give your money to a large corporation is kind of fucking moronic. That's what I'm always getting here is these kind of fucking people with very limited intellects.
When an audience member shouted "Stop degrading us!" Carlin responded "Thank you very much, whatever that was. I hope it was positive; if not, well, blow me." He was immediately fired, and soon thereafter his representative announced that he would begin treatment for alcohol and prescription painkiller addiction on his own initiative.
Following his thirteenth HBO Special on November 5, 2005, titled Life Is Worth Losing and aired live from the Beacon Theatre in New York City — during which he mentioned, "I've got 341 days of sobriety" —Carlin toured his new material through the first half of 2006. Topics included suicide, natural disasters, cannibalism, genocide, human sacrifice, threats to civil liberties in the U.S., and the case for his theory that humans are inferior to other animals. At the first tour stop at the Tachi Palace Casino in Lemoore, California in February, Carlin mentioned that the appearance was his "first show back" after a six-week hospitalization for heart failure and pneumonia.
Carlin voiced a character in the 2006 Disney/Pixar animated feature Cars. The character, Fillmore, is an anti-establishment hippie VW Microbus with a psychedelic paint job and the license plate "51237" — Carlin's birthday. In 2007, Carlin voiced the wizard in Happily N'Ever After, his last film.
Carlin's last HBO stand-up special, It's Bad for Ya, aired live on March 1, 2008, from the Wells Fargo Center for the Arts in Santa Rosa, California. Themes included "American bullshit", rights, death, old age, and child rearing. He repeated the theme to his audience several times throughout the show: "It's all bullshit, and it's bad for ya."
When asked on Inside the Actors Studio what turned him on, he responded, "Reading about language." When asked what made him proudest of his career, he said the number of his books that have been sold, close to a million copies.
Carlin met Brenda Hosbrook in August 1960 while touring with Burns and Carlin in Dayton, Ohio. They were married at her parents' home in Dayton on June 3, 1961. The couple's only child, Kelly, was born on June 15, 1963. In 1971, they renewed their wedding vows in Las Vegas. Hosbrook died of liver cancer on May 11, 1997, the day before Carlin's 60th birthday.
In November 1997, Carlin met Sally Wade, a comedy writer based in Hollywood; Carlin described it as "love at first sight", but was hesitant to act on his feelings so soon after his wife's death. They eventually married on June 24, 1998, in a private, unregistered ceremony. The marriage lasted until Carlin's death in 2008, two days before their tenth anniversary.
Carlin also criticized religion and mocked traditional oath affirmations on the Bible as "bullshit", "make believe", and "kid stuff". However, he warned, "Be happy, don't be proud, there's too much pride as it is. 'Pride goeth before the fall'—never forget Proverbs." Carlin repeatedly joked that he worshipped the sun because he could see it, and prayed to Joe Pesci because he "seems like a guy who could get things done".
Carlin had a history of cardiac problems spanning three decades. These included three heart attacks (in 1978, 1982, and 1991), an arrhythmia requiring an ablation procedure in 2003, and a significant episode of heart failure in late 2005. He twice underwent angioplasty to reopen narrowed arteries. In late 2004, he entered a drug rehabilitation facility for treatment of addictions to alcohol and Vicodin.
Carlin died on June 22, 2008 at Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California, of heart failure at age 71. His death occurred one week after his last performance at The Orleans Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas. In accordance with his wishes his body was cremated, and the ashes were scattered in front of various nightclubs he played in New York City and over Spofford Lake, in Chesterfield, New Hampshire, where he attended summer camp as an adolescent.
Upon his death HBO broadcast 11 of his 14 HBO specials from June 25 to 28, including a 12-hour marathon block on their HBO Comedy channel. NBC scheduled a rerun of the premiere episode of Saturday Night Live, which Carlin hosted. Both Sirius Satellite Radio's "Raw Dog Comedy" and XM Satellite Radio's "XM Comedy" channels ran a memorial marathon of George Carlin recordings the day following his death. Larry King devoted his entire show of June 23 to a tribute to Carlin, featuring interviews with Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Maher, Roseanne Barr and Lewis Black, as well as Carlin's daughter Kelly and his brother, Patrick Jr. On June 24, The New York Times printed an op-ed piece on Carlin by Jerry Seinfeld. Cartoonist Garry Trudeau paid tribute in his Doonesbury comic strip on July 27.
Four days before Carlin's death, the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts had named him its 2008 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor honoree. He became its first posthumous recipient on November 10 in Washington, D.C. Comedians honoring him at the ceremony included Jon Stewart, Bill Maher, Lily Tomlin (a past Twain Humor Prize winner), Lewis Black, Denis Leary, Joan Rivers, and Margaret Cho. Louis C.K. dedicated his stand-up special Chewed Up to Carlin, and Lewis Black dedicated the second season of Root of All Evil to him.
For a number of years, Carlin had been compiling and writing his autobiography, to be released in conjunction with a one-man Broadway show tentatively titled New York City Boy. After Carlin's death, Tony Hendra, his collaborator on both projects, edited the autobiography for release as Last Words. The book, chronicling most of Carlin's life and future plans, including the one-man show, was published in 2009. The audio edition is narrated by Carlin's brother, Patrick Jr.
The George Carlin Letters: The Permanent Courtship of Sally Wade, by Carlin's widow, a collection of previously unpublished writings and artwork by Carlin interwoven with Wade's chronicle of their 10 years together, was published in March 2011. The subtitle is a phrase on a handwritten note that Wade found next to her computer upon returning home from the hospital after her husband's death. In 2008 Carlin's daughter Kelly announced plans to publish an "oral history", a collection of stories from Carlin's friends and family. She later indicated that the project had been shelved in favor of completion of her own project, an autobiographical one-woman show, A Carlin Home Companion: Growing Up with George.
On October 22, 2014, a portion of West 121st Street, in the Morningside Heights area of Manhattan where Carlin spent his childhood, was renamed "George Carlin Way".
Carlin's influences included Danny Kaye, Jonathan Winters, Lenny Bruce, Richard Pryor, Jerry Lewis, the Marx Brothers, Mort Sahl, Spike Jones, Ernie Kovacs, and the Ritz Brothers.
Comedians who have claimed Carlin as an influence include Dave Attell, Bill Burr, Chris Rock, Jerry Seinfeld, Louis C.K., Lewis Black, Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, Bill Maher, Patrice O'Neal, Adam Carolla, Colin Quinn, Steven Wright, Mitch Hedberg, Russell Peters, Jay Leno, Ben Stiller, Kevin Smith, Chris Rush, Rob McElhenney, and Jim Jefferies.
|1968||With Six You Get Eggroll||Herbie Fleck|
|1976||Car Wash||Taxi driver|
|1987||Outrageous Fortune||Frank Madras|
|1989||Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure||Rufus|
|1990||Working Tra$h||Ralph Sawatzky|
|1991||Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey||Rufus|
|The Prince of Tides||Eddie Detreville|
|1995||Streets of Laredo||Billy Williams|
|1999||Dogma||Cardinal Ignatius Glick|
|2001||Jay and Silent Bob Strike Back||Hitchhiker|
|2003||Scary Movie 3||Architect|
|2004||Jersey Girl||Bart Trinké|
|Tarzan II||Zugor||Voice role|
|2007||Happily N'Ever After||Wizard|
|On Location: George Carlin at USC||1977|
|George Carlin: Again!||1978|
|Carlin at Carnegie||1982|
|Carlin on Campus||1984|
|Playin' with Your Head||1986|
|What Am I Doing in New Jersey?||1988|
|Doin' It Again||1990|
|Jammin' in New York||1992|
|Back in Town||1996|
|George Carlin: 40 Years of Comedy||1997|
|You Are All Diseased||1999|
|Complaints and Grievances||2001|
|Life Is Worth Losing||2005|
|All My Stuff||2007||A box set of Carlin's first 12 stand-up specials
(excluding George Carlin: 40 Years of Comedy).
|It's Bad for Ya||2008|
|Sometimes a Little Brain Damage Can Help||1984||ISBN 0-89471-271-3|
|Brain Droppings||1997||ISBN 0-7868-8321-9|
|Napalm and Silly Putty||2001||ISBN 0-7868-8758-3|
|When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?||2004||ISBN 1-4013-0134-7|
|Three Times Carlin: An Orgy of George||2006||ISBN 978-1-4013-0243-6 A collection of the three previous titles.|
|Last Words||2009||ISBN 1-4391-7295-1 Posthumous release.|
Many writings found on the internet have been falsely attributed to Carlin, including various joke lists, rants, and other pieces. The web site Snopes, an online resource that debunks urban legends and myths, has addressed these hoaxes. Many of them contain material that runs counter to Carlin's viewpoints; some are especially volatile toward racial groups, gays, women, the homeless, and other targets. Carlin was aware of these bogus emails and debunked them on his own web site, saying, "Here's a rule of thumb, folks: Nothing you see on the Internet is mine unless it comes from one of my albums, books, HBO specials, or appeared on my web site", and "It bothers me that some people might believe that I would be capable of writing some of this stuff." Weird Al Yankovic referenced these hoaxes in a line of his song "Stop Forwarding That Crap to Me" by saying "And by the way, those quotes from George Carlin aren't really George Carlin".
Lying there in New York Hospital, my first definitive act on this planet was to vomit.
He bridged these two sides of his persona with 'The Hair Piece,' a whimsical poem about public aversion to long hair that he performed on Ed Sullivan, effectively reintroducing and reinventing himself to America. FM & AM went Gold, got him a gig at Carnegie Hall, and won the Grammy award for Best Comedy Album.