Monday, June 23, 2008

IBC: In The News - George Carlin Dies at 71

Comic pioneer George Carlin dies at 71

George Carlin, an extraordinary standup comedian whose dark social satire won him multigenerational popularity and a starring role in the most famous broadcast obscenity case of modern times, died Sunday of heart failure in Los Angeles. He was 71.

The Manhattan-born comedian, who always said his often-cynical satire simply reflected his real-life disdain for mankind's greed, stupidity and inconsideration, had a history of heart problems. He also did a stint in rehab in 2003 for drug dependency.

The TV network Comedy Central in 2004 named him the second best standup comedian of all time, behind Richard Pryor.

Late last week the Kennedy Center announced he would receive its annual Mark Twain prize for American humor this November.

Carlin became one of the most popular standup comedians in America in the 1960s and early 1970s through programs like "The Ed Sullivan Show."

He seemed ambivalent about that success, though, and gradually shifted much of his act to a counterculture posture reminiscent of the late Lenny Bruce. Carlin admired Bruce and was in the building when Bruce was arrested for obscenity.

Carlin was one of the first comedians to dress "naturally" for a standup routine, in jeans and a beard, and his most famous routine became "Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television."

The comic point of the bit was that everyone says the words, but that we hypocritically pretend to find them offensive in the media. He was arrested for performing that routine in Milwaukee in 1972. A year later the routine was broadcast by radio station WBAI in New York, which was sanctioned by the FCC for broadcasting obscene language during daytime hours.

The case eventually worked its way to the U.S. Supreme Court, where the sanction was upheld in a 5-4 vote that has continued to guide broadcast obscenity and indecency policy through today.

Carlin said that ruling simply reinforced the original point of the routine - and his own frustration with America. He stopped voting after George McGovern was defeated by Richard Nixon in 1972, he said, calling elections "the illusion of choice."

The "Seven Dirty Words" case did reinforce his stature as a counterculture hero, though, and he was the first host of a new TV comedy show called "Saturday Night Live" in October 1975.

A year later he unexpectedly quit live performing. He returned five years later with the acclaimed album "A Place for My Stuff" and began a series of HBO specials he would continue until early this year. He also performed regularly in Las Vegas.

He took a number of TV and movie roles over the years, introducing himself to a new generation of fans with the "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" series and an even newer generation with children's shows like "Thomas the Tank Engine."

He did voiceovers in films that included "Cars" and in 1993 he got his own sitcom on Fox, "The George Carlin Show." He played George O'Grady, a New York cab driver, and the show ran 27 episodes.

Carlin also wrote several best-selling books, including "Brain Droppings." Columnist Mike Barnicle, a big fan, was fired from the Boston Globe after borrowing too liberally from a Carlin essay there.

He was a frequent guest with radio host Don Imus, one of many performers who hailed Carlin as a deity of modern comedy.

Carlin grew up on W. 121st St., which he would later joke that he and his friends "called 'White Harlem' because it sounded tougher than 'Morningside Heights.' "

He attended Cardinal Hayes High, dropping out at 14. He was in the Air Force before he tried his hand at show biz.

While growing up he developed a lifelong love of New York street-corner rhythm and blues and remained a lifelong fan even after he moved to the West Coast.

Off-stage, he was married for 26 years to the former Brenda Hosbrook, until she died in 1997. They had one daughter, Kelly.
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