George Carlin, the Grammy-Award winning standup comedian and actor who was hailed for his irreverent social commentary, poignant observations of the absurdities of everyday life and language, and groundbreaking routines like “Seven Words You Can Never Use on Television,” died in Los Angeles on Sunday, according to his publicist, Jeff Abraham. He was 71.
The cause of death was heart failure, according to Abraham.
Carlin began his standup comedy act in the late 1950s and made his first television solo guest appearance on “The Merv Griffin Show” in 1965. At that time, he was primarily known for his clever wordplay and reminiscences of his Irish working-class upbringing in New York.
But from the outset there were indications of an anti-establishment edge to his comedy. Initially, it surfaced in the witty patter of a host of offbeat characters like the wacky sportscaster Biff Barf and the hippy-dippy weatherman Al Sleet. “The weather was dominated by a large Canadian low, which is not to be confused with a Mexican high. Tonight’s forecast . . . dark, continued mostly dark tonight turning to widely scattered light in the morning.”
Carlin released his first comedy album, “Take-Offs and Put-Ons,” to rave reviews in 1967. He also dabbled in acting, winning a recurring part as Marlo Thomas’ theatrical agent in the sitcom “That Girl” (1966-67) and a supporting role in the movie “With Six You Get Egg-Roll,” released in 1968.
By the end of the decade, he was one of America’s best known comedians. He made more than 80 major TV appearances during that time, including the Ed Sullivan Show and Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show; he was also regularly featured at major nightclubs in New York and Las Vegas.
That early success and celebrity, however, was as dinky and hollow as a gratuitous pratfall to Carlin. “I was entertaining the fathers and the mothers of the people I sympathized with, and in some cases associated with, and whose point of view I shared,” he recalled later, as quoted in the book “Going Too Far” by Tony Hendra, which was published in 1987. “I was a traitor, in so many words. I was living a lie.”
In 1970, Carlin discarded his suit, tie, and clean-cut image as well as the relatively conventional material that had catapulted him to the top. Carlin reinvented himself, emerging with a beard, long hair, jeans and a routine that, according to one critic, was steeped in “drugs and bawdy language.” There was an immediate backlash. The Frontier Hotel in Las Vegas terminated his three-year contract, and, months later, he was advised to leave town when an angry mob threatened him at the Lake Geneva Playboy Club. Afterward, he temporarily abandoned the nightclub circuit and began appearing at coffee houses, folk clubs and colleges where he found a younger, hipper audience that was more attuned to both his new image and his material.
By 1972, when he released his second album, “FM & AM,” his star was again on the rise. The album, which won a Grammy Award as best comedy recording, combined older material on the “AM” side with bolder, more acerbic routines on the “FM” side. Among the more controversial cuts was a routine euphemistically entitled “Shoot,” in which Carlin explored the etymology and common usage of the popular idiom for excrement. The bit was part of the comic’s longer routine “Seven Words That Can Never Be Said on Television,” which appeared on his third album “Class Clown,” also released in 1972.
“There are some words you can say part of the time. Most of the time ‘ass’ is all right on television,” Carlin noted in his introduction to the then controversial monologue. “You can say, well, ‘You’ve made a perfect ass of yourself tonight.’ You can use ass in a religious sense, if you happen to be the redeemer riding into town on one — perfectly all right.”
The material seems innocuous by today’s standards, but it caused an uproar when broadcast on the New York radio station WBAI in the early seventies. The station was censured and fined by the FCC. And in 1978, their ruling was supported by the Supreme Court, which Time magazine reported, “upheld an FCC ban on ‘offensive material’ during hours when children are in the audience.” Carlin, refused to drop the bit and was arrested several times after reciting it on stage.
Carlin released a half dozen comedy albums during the ’70s, including the million-record sellers “Class Clown,” “Occupation: Foole” (1973) and “An Evening With Wally Lando” (1975). He was chosen to host the first episode of the late-night comedy show “Saturday Night Live” in 1975. And two years later, he found the perfect platform for his brand of acerbic, cerebral, sometimes off-color standup humor in the fledgling, less restricted world of cable television. By 1977, when his first HBO comedy special, “George Carlin at USC” was aired, he was recognized as one of the era’s most influential comedians. In the years following his 1977 cable debut, Carlin was nominated for a half dozen Grammy awards and received CableAces awards for best stand-up comedy special for “George Carlin: Doin’ It Again (1990) and “George Carlin: Jammin’” (1992). He also won his second Grammy for the album “Jammin’” in 1994.
During the course of his career, Carlin overcame numerous personal trials. His early arrests for obscenity (all of which were dismissed) and struggle to overcome his self-described “heavy drug use” were the most publicized. But in the ’80s he also weathered serious tax problems, a heart attack and two open heart surgeries. His greatest setback was the loss of his wife, Brenda Hosbrook, who died in 1997. They had been married for 36 years. Carlin is survived by wife, Sally Wade; daughter Kelly Carlin McCall; son-in-law, Bob McCall; older brother, Patrick Carlin; sister-in-law, Marlene Carlin and long time manager, business partner and best friend Jerold Hamza.