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George Carlin’s Life and Comedy

If a newspaper like The New York Times devotes three different articles to the life and death of one person in the same edition of the paper, it has to be somebody important.

George Carlin, who died last Sunday, was one of the most famous U.S. comedians. In his obituary, Jerry Seinfeld writes about him:

You could certainly say that George downright invented modern American stand-up comedy in many ways. Every comedian does a little George. I couldn’t even count the number of times I’ve been standing around with some comedians and someone talks about some idea for a joke and another comedian would say, “Carlin does it.” I’ve heard it my whole career: “Carlin does it,” “Carlin already did it,” “Carlin did it eight years ago.”
And he didn’t just “do” it. He worked over an idea like a diamond cutter with facets and angles and refractions of light. He made you sorry you ever thought you wanted to be a comedian.

Charles McGrath comments on Carlin’s appeal to various audiences:

George Carlin, who died on Sunday at 71, had a remarkably long and productive career of 50-odd years and was far from a museum piece. His last HBO special, “It’s Bad for Ya,” was broadcast in March, and like all the others, was an enormous hit. Mr. Carlin was beloved by the middle-aged, who had practically grown up with him, but also by young people whose parents weren’t even alive when he began appearing on “The Tonight Show” in the 1960s and transforming everyone’s notion of what stand-up could be.

Mel Watkins and Bruce Weber mention Carlin’s playful attitude to language and the topics that he most cared about:

“By and large, language is a tool for concealing the truth,” read a message on Mr. Carlin’s Web site,, and he spent much of his life in a fervent effort to counteract the forces that would have it so. In his always irreverent, often furious social commentary, in his observations of the absurdities of everyday life and language, and in groundbreaking routines like the profane “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television,” he took aim at what he thought of as the palliating and obfuscating agents of American life — politicians, advertisements, religion, the media and conventional thinking of all stripes.
“If crime fighters fight crime and firefighters fight fire, what do freedom fighters fight?” he asked in a 1980s routine, taking a jab at the Reagan administration’s defense of the Nicaraguan Contras.

And here you can watch George Carlin commenting on language use in America:

A few days before his death, it was announced that Carlin was to be this year’s winner of the Mark Twain Humor Prize. It will be awarded posthumously in November.

1 comment to George Carlin’s Life and Comedy

  • *sigh*
    I’m ever so thankful that a friend introduced me to George Carlin some 15 years ago, playing his audio tapes to me (the first number I remember was concerned with the use of the word “nice”). For some reason I always pictured Mr Carlin as a black skinned man doing his routines sitting at a desk – a kind of US-American Hanns Dieter Hüsch. It quite puzzled me when I discovered that he was as white skinned as you and me. And now I watch all those video clips of his show and see how physical his act is. He will sorely be missed.