George Carlin mourned as counterculture hero

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

LOS ANGELES -- Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television. Some People Are Stupid. Stuff. People I Can Do Without.

George Carlin, who died Sunday at 71, leaves behind not only a series of memorable routines, but a legal legacy: His most celebrated monologue, a frantic, informed riff on those infamous seven words, led to a Supreme Court decision on broadcasting offensive language.

The counterculture hero's jokes also targeted things such as misplaced shame, religious hypocrisy and linguistic quirks -- why, he once asked, do we drive on a parkway and park on a driveway?

Carlin, who had a history of heart trouble, went into St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica on Sunday afternoon complaining of chest pain and died of heart failure later that evening, said his publicist, Jeff Abraham. He had performed as recently as last weekend at the Orleans Casino and Hotel in Las Vegas.

Actor Ben Stiller called Carlin "a hugely influential force in stand-up comedy. He had an amazing mind, and his humor was brave, and always challenging us to look at ourselves and question our belief systems, while being incredibly entertaining. He was one of the greats."

Carlin constantly breached the accepted boundaries of comedy and language, particularly with his routine on the "Seven Words" -- all of which are taboo on broadcast TV to this day.

When he 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 Wisconsin judge dismissed the case, saying it was indecent but citing free speech and the lack of any disturbance.

The words were later played on a New York radio station, resulting 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.

"So my name is a footnote in American legal history, which I'm perversely kind of proud of," he said earlier this year.

He produced 23 comedy albums, 14 HBO specials, three books, a few TV shows and appeared in several movies -- a testament to his range from cerebral satire and cultural commentary to downright silliness (sometimes hitting all points in one stroke).

Carlin was as much a social commentator and philosopher as comedian, a position he would relish through the years.

In one of his most famous routines, Carlin railed against euphemisms he said have become so widespread that no one can simply "die."

"'Older' sounds a little better than 'old,' doesn't it?," he said. "Sounds like it might even last a little longer. ... I'm getting old. And it's OK. Because thanks to our fear of death in this country I won't have to die -- I'll 'pass away.' Or I'll 'expire,' like a magazine subscription. If it happens in the hospital they'll call it a 'terminal episode.' The insurance company will refer to it as 'negative patient care outcome.' And if it's the result of malpractice they'll say it was a 'therapeutic misadventure."'

Carlin won four Grammy Awards for best spoken comedy album and was nominated for five Emmys. It was announced today that Carlin was being awarded the 11th annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, which will be presented Nov. 10 in Washington and broadcast on PBS.

Carlin's first wife, Brenda, died in 1997. Survivors include his wife Sally Wade, his daughter, Kelly Carlin McCall, and his brother, Patrick Carlin.

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