Two personae always seemed to be in uneasy coexistence during George Carlin's comic career. Both George Carlins could amuse and both could be trenchant, but they came at their targets from wildly different angles.
Angry George was the bearded iconoclast of the 1970s who shot to heroic counterculture status by picking up Lenny Bruce's mantle as a scathing social critic. During the Vietnam War, Angry George left no hypocrisy unturned. He sprayed comic acid on whatever moved across the front page: religion, politics, feminism, sex, manners, environmentalism, drugs, death.
Gentle George trafficked in small things. He was the absurdist, the semanticist, the wordplay artist. Gentle George's most memorable works are tributes to Carlin's keen powers of observation and Swiftian ear for the English language.
This side of Carlin produced “The Seven Words You Can Never Say on TV,” “Baseball and Football” (his ingenious dissection of the differences between our national pastimes) and the more recent “Modern Man,” Carlin's verbally acrobatic piece of spoken-word art.
The 71-year-old, who had a history of heart trouble, went into St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif., on Sunday afternoon complaining of chest pain and died that evening.
“Seven Words,” which remains accurate to this day (if you don't count cable), is one of the most famous “blue” comedy routines ever performed. When Carlin uttered all seven at a show in Milwaukee in 1972, he was arrested on charges of disturbing the peace, freed on $150 bail and exonerated when a judge dismissed the case, saying it was indecent but citing free speech and the lack of any disturbance.
When the words were later played on a New York radio station, they resulted in a 1978 Supreme Court ruling upholding the government's authority to sanction stations for broadcasting offensive language during hours when children might be listening.
It was fascinating to watch the nearly-70ish Carlin – wizened and weakened by years of heart trouble and a cocaine habit – pushing miles beyond the interplanetary boundaries of good taste. But so much of the material invited not laughter but a thunderstruck “wow” at the aggressiveness with which he pushed into darkness.
It was easier to love the Carlin who delighted in pointing out the absurdity of the trivial, and the simply absurd – the kind of humor that clearly inspired the likes of Jerry Seinfeld and Steven Wright.
There were his ever-growing list of oxymorons – “closed fist,” “plastic glass,” “holy war,” “military intelligence” – and redundancies, such as “raw sewage” (“Do some people cook the stuff?”).
Despite his reputation as unapologetically irreverent, Carlin was a TV staple through the decades, serving as host of the “Saturday Night Live” debut in 1975 – noting on his Web site that he was “loaded on cocaine all week long” – and appearing some 130 times on “The Tonight Show.”
He produced 23 comedy albums, 14 HBO specials, three books and a few TV shows and appeared in several movies, from his own comedy specials to “Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure” in 1989 and “Cars” in 2006 – a testament to his range from cerebral satire and cultural commentary to downright silliness (sometimes hitting all points in one stroke). As much as George Orwell, Carlin saw in language the power not just to obscure, but also to twist and pervert. “I can remember when I was young that poor people lived in slums,” he once riffed. “Not anymore. These days, the economically disadvantaged occupy substandard housing in the inner cities. It's so much nicer for them.”
And he once asserted: “If honesty were introduced into American life, everything would collapse.”
The Associated Press contributed.