June 24, 2008

George Carlin Dies at 71

George Carlin, my favorite comedian of all time, died late last Sunday night of a heart attack. He was 71 years old.

This is not news at this point, by any means, but George Carlin had such a profound impact on my life I can't let his passing go by without acknowledging the brilliance of this man's life, and the role he played in shaping the every day life of every single person living in the United States of America.

The New York Times published the best obituary about George Carlin, and it should have. Not only was George Carlin (for some reason I feel the need to write, and say, his entire name every time it comes up rather than abbreviating it as George or Carlin) a native New Yorker -- Brooklyn born and raised -- but the New York Times writes obituaries of famous people years in advance of their death, so when the news breaks they have the article ready to go. In the case of George Carlin's death the Times had his obit posted within a couple of hours of his death.

This wasn't the first heart attack George Carlin had, although you wouldn't know it from the way the media discussed his passing. George Carlin had two prior heart attacks -- one in 1978 and one in 1982. He references the experience during his HBO Stand-Up Special "George Carlin: At Carnegie Hall," which in my opinion is the single best stand-up comedy performance of all time. Just about every segment is now a classic comedy bit, and anyone who is my age (37 years old this August) remembers staying up late to watch Carlin at Carnegie Hall late night on HBO after his or her parents went to sleep. Or, if you had parents who were cool about performing artists, like mine, they actually let you watch it, foul language and all.

Speaking of foul language, you really can't remember the life and times of George Carlin without mentioning cussing, and his infamous routine "The Seven Dirty Words," or whatever its official title came to be. Do you remember what they are? Easy:

Shit. Piss. Fuck. Cunt. Cock-Sucker. Mother Fucker. Tits.

And as George Carlin said, "Tits doesn't even belong on the list, man."

There was a lot more to George Carlin's "Seven Dirty Words" than simply being filthy. George Carlin's routine ended up changing the face of entertainment in the United States (I can't say with any degree of certainty how, or if at all, the routine influenced popular culture in Europe or other countries across The Pond).

Because of George Carlin's routine, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission decried a list of words considered obscene enough that they would never again be uttered on prime-time, and drive-time, television or radio, respectively. And the U.S. Supreme Court established a decency standard for public airwaves that remains in effect today -- the same rule that precipitated Howard Stern's move to satellite radio.

Shit, Piss, Fuck, Cunt, Cock-Sucker, Mother Fucker & Tits were considered to be the foulest words of them all, but as George Carlin said, there are more about 400,000 words in the English language and seven of them are to dirty to use on TV or radio. Pretty amazing if you think about it. Really, there are no bad words. They're just words, man. There are bad thoughts. Bad intentions. But no bad words.

George Carlin opened up the idea of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution -- you know, the one that guarantees Americans freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, freedom of expression, the right to peaceably assemble and the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances -- to public discussion during a period in history when it was important to do so, not for the sake of being crass, or for being able to appear on stage with a raunchy act, but for the sake of being able to speak your mind and say whatever it is you want to say without anyone telling you otherwise.

Because of "The Seven Dirty Words," I am willing to bet that history will remember George Carlin as one of the most important figures of the 20th Century, just as it should. He was a brilliant comedian, yes, but he was even better as a social satirist and commentator, and observer of mundane events in everyday life that, when brought to your attention, were funnier than just about anything you'd ever heard.

Rest in peace, George. You called yourself an atheist. I guess you now know if you were right or not.

As it now says on his website, the true seven famous words are:

. . . . . We Love You and We Miss You . . . . .

even though he would hate that as a send off. I can hear him now saying it sounds cheesy . . .

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