Along with Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, George Carlin was one of the most influential, respected and controversial stand-up comics of the late 20th century. His humor was built on the vagaries of human behavior – the truth behind words and phrases, the quandaries presented in everyday life, and the hypocrisies of authority – which was unleashed on audiences in a stream-of-consciousness delivery that was equal parts profanity and profundity. Carlin sowed his seeds of free thought through over 20 albums and a record 14 specials for the HBO network, as well as five best-selling books and countless live performances in Las Vegas and around the United States. And over the course of a 50-year career in comedy, he helped re-define the notion of the stand-up, as well as broaden and question the boundaries of free speech in entertainment.
Born George Dennis Carlin on May 12, 1937, Carlin was raised in New York City, NY primarily by his mother, who left her husband when Carlin was an infant. His early years showed a marked anti-authority bent – he quit school at the age of 14 and spent much of his twenties earning numerous court martials and rank demotions while serving as a radar technician with the Air Force at a base in Shreveport, LA, from 1954 to 1956. He was honorably discharged in 1957. While still in the Air Force, the 19-year-old Carlin started working as a disc jockey at a local radio station, and pursuing this line of work for several years after his discharge in Boston and Fort Worth, TX.
Carlin partnered with another fast-talking and funny jock named Jack Burns while at KXOL in Texas, and in 1960, the duo lit out for Hollywood with dreams of finding their fortune as a comedy duo. The pair worked as DJs in Los Angeles while honing their stand-up act in local clubs; even recording a live album, Burns and Carlin at the Playboy Club Tonight, which was actually recorded at the less-upscale Cosmo’s Alley. The pair covered the Los Angeles and national nightclub scene until 1962, when they parted ways amicably to pursue solo careers (the “Playboy Club” album was released a year after they broke up). During this period, Carlin also met Brenda Hosbrook while performing in Dayton, OH, and after driving from New York to Dayton to propose to her, the couple was married on June 3, 1961 in the living room of Hosbrook’s parents. A daughter, Kelly, was born on June 15, 1963.
Carlin made his debut as a solo stand-up act on “The Tonight Show” (NBC, 1954- ) in 1961, shortly after Jack Paar had left the program. The appearance did nothing for Carlin’s career, but he refused to relent from his goals; instead heading for New York with the intention of landing appearances on some of the primetime variety and talk shows. He also began appearing at some of the hipper clubs in the city, like Café Wha and The Bitter End in the East Village. Eventually, talent bookers for “The Merv Griffin Show” (NBC/CBS, Syndicated, 1962-63, 1965-69, 1969-1972, and 1972-1986) caught his act, and he made his debut on the “Griffin” show in 1965. This was followed shortly by appearances on “The Mike Douglas Show” (syndicated, 1961-1982) and “The Jimmy Dean Show” (ABC, 1963-66). The sudden wave of success prompted Carlin to relocate with his family to Los Angeles, after which his profile grew even larger with guest shots on “The Ed Sullivan Show” (CBS, 1948-1971) and a 12-week stint as a writer and performer on “The Kraft Summer Music Hall” (CBS, 1966). Carlin also logged his first acting role as Marlo Thomas’ agent on “That Girl” (ABC, 1966-1971). His first movie appearance came in 1968 as a “kooky” carhop in the Doris Day vehicle “With Six You Get Eggroll.”
Carlin’s comedy at this point was essentially a cleaner and less confrontational version of his act in the 1970s and beyond. He was enamored with observational humor, and used his deep, flexible voice to excellent effect – most notably on popular characters like “The Indian Sergeant” and “Al Sleet, The Hippie-Dippie Weatherman,” who gave philosophical and occasionally thick-headed broadcasts on the weather. Both of these routines, along with several others he honed during his growing television appearances, were featured on his first comedy album as a solo performer, 1967’s Take Offs and Put Ons, which was recorded before a live audience in Detroit. The LP earned Carlin his first Grammy nomination.
But as the 1960s drew to a close, Carlin became uncomfortable with his standing as a mainstream comedian, so began to align himself with the growing counterculture movement. His onstage persona grew more confrontational – he left stages if the audience was not responding to his material – and he began incorporating more frank and adult language into his act, as well as questions about religion, societal trends, politics, and oddities in American and Western culture. The response was not entirely positive – Carlin was fired from the Frontier Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas for using the word “ass” onstage – but he felt a newfound creative freedom in his decision to move outside the mainstream. An interest in and appetite for drugs – in particular, LSD and cocaine – also helped to fuel his material and dangerous onstage personality.
Carlin entered the 1970s with a new look – a stint in the hospital to repair a hernia resulted in a beard and longer hair – and a new act, which he cemented in wax on the LP AM & FM (1972), which won him a Grammy. The popularity of the album and his non-conformist attitude made him popular with counterculture audiences, though he never lost the majority of his mainstream fans – thanks in large part to Ed Sullivan, who continued to give him air time on his program. In 1972, Carlin made his debut at Carnegie Hall to considerable acclaim, as well as criticism over his increasingly graphic language. That same year, he was arrested on obscenity charges after performing at Milwaukee’s Summerfest.
Among the routines that earned Carlin his bust was a version of his famous “Seven Dirty Words You Can Never Say on Television” – a hilarious list of the proper uses of seven particularly vulgar curses and terms. The bit, which sought to nullify the words’ power by making them seem both commonplace and foolish, was later included on his 1972 album Class Clown, which went gold and helped to cement Carlin’s stature as a free-thinking and risky comedian who appeared to be following in the footsteps of Lenny Bruce. He followed this with Occupation: Foole (1973), which culled material from Carlin’s upbringing and included an expanded version of “Seven Dirty Words” called “Filthy Words.”
The latter became the center of a Supreme Court decision when, in 1973, a man in New York overheard his son listening to “Filthy Words” during an afternoon broadcast on WBAI. The resulting complaint to the FCC earned the station’s network, The Pacifica Foundation, a citation for broadcasting obscene material and the threat of a sanction. Pacifica appealed the ruling, which was overturned by the Supreme Court in 1978. The resulting attention over the case only served to increase Carlin’s popularity among hip and smart audiences, quickly making “Seven Dirty Words” a touchstone for fans of outrageous comedy. Carlin expanded the list throughout his career before bringing it to a close with a massive, 200-word list broadcast during his 1982 HBO special, “Carlin at Carnegie.”
Carlin responded to the new wave of popularity by launching into a hectic work schedule for the next few years, releasing three albums between 1974 and 1977 – 1974’s Toledo Window Box; 1975’s An Evening with Wally Londo Featuring Bill Slazso, which earned him a Grammy nomination; and 1976’s On the Road), which tackled hot button subjects like death, drugs, religion, sexual and bodily functions, and the elastic nature of the English language, which became a particular obsession for Carlin. Despite some reservations on the part of the peacock network, he also hosted the first episode of “Saturday Night Live” (NBC, 1975- ) and appeared in the cult movie “Car Wash” as a randy cab driver. Carlin even branched out into mainstream network TV with 10 appearances on “The Tony Orlando and Dawn Show” (CBS, 1974-76) and a guest shot on “Welcome Back, Kotter” (ABC, 1975-79). In all of the TV appearances save the latter, Carlin only performed a monologue from his stand-up act, citing that he disliked sketches and felt his acting skills were not up to snuff.
Carlin also taped his first two comedy specials for the fledgling HBO Network: 1977’s “On Location: George Carlin at USC” and 1978’s “On Location: George Carlin at Phoenix,” which was transferred from videotape to film for a proposed theatrical concert film which never came to fruition. The latter specials were the only live performances by Carlin for several years; the punishing schedule, exacerbated by a growing cocaine addiction, resulted in a minor heart attack in 1978.
Carlin returned to comedy with a vengeance in 1981 with A Place for My Stuff, arguably his best and most popular album to date, and his first to feature material written specifically for the LP’s release. He also filmed his third HBO special, the aforementioned “Carlin at Carnegie,” which focused on newer material. Even a second heart attack (at Dodger Stadium) could not halt Carlin’s upward momentum. He published his first book, Sometimes a Little Brain Damage Can Help, in 1983; returned for a second guest shot on “Saturday Night Live” in 1984; and taped his fourth HBO special, “Carlin on Campus” that same year. “Campus” featured Carlin revisiting his “Class Clown” routine, playing piano on an original song, and appearing in three animated segments. An album version was released the same year.
By the mid-80s, Carlin was approaching his fifth decade – a period when most stand-up comics have either settled into an acting career, relocated permanently to Las Vegas, or faded into obscurity. But Carlin’s comic skills and energy showed no signs of slowing, though he did attempt to venture into other entertainment avenues outside of stand-up. The first of these was a failed pilot for HBO called “2C,” which was taped in 1985. He also co-starred with Bette Midler and Shelly Long in the feature film comedy “Outrageous Fortune” (1987), playing as an aging hippie, and spoofed the private eye genre as a deceased detective whose spirit assists a young woman solve his murder in “Justin Case,” a 1987 TV-movie by Blake Edwards that was intended (but never saw the light) as a series pilot. He also shot a low-budget feature comedy called “Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure” (1989) – an unexpectedly witty pop-culture spoof in which he played the futuristic mentor to a pair of hapless California nitwits charged with saving humanity. The latter was a huge hit with younger audiences, who got their first taste of Carlin’s offbeat humor through the picture.
On the comedy front, Carlin taped two more HBO specials – 1986’s “Playin’ with Your Head” and 1988’s “What Am I Doing in New Jersey” – both of which were also recorded as comedy albums, which both received Grammy nominations. He also received his star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame in 1987 in a ceremony presided over by the dean emeritus of television comedy, Milton Berle.
Carlin kicked off the 1990s with his seventh HBO special, “Doin’ It Again” (1990), which was released as an album under the title Parental Advisory: Explicit Lyrics, earning him another Grammy nomination. He also purchased the independent record label Little David, which had released all of his albums since 1971, and renamed it Eardrum Records. In 1991 alone, he appeared in two feature films –“Bill and Ted’s Bogus Journey” and “The Prince of Tides,” as star/director Barbara Streisand’s gay neighbor – and surprised many longtime fans (and parents) by replacing Ringo Starr as both the narrator of the PBS broadcast of “Thomas the Tank Engine” (ITV, 1984- ) and as Mr. Conductor, the six-inch-tall host and star of “Shining Time Station” (PBS, 1989-1993), an American spin-off of “Thomas.” Carlin would remain with the series until 1993, and earn two Emmy nominations from the kid-friendly series. Again, Carlin’s hectic schedule and lifestyle caught up with him during this period, and he suffered the worst of his three heart attacks while driving to Las Vegas in 1991.
Again Carlin bounced back with more new material, beginning in 1992 with “Jammin’ in New York,” his eighth HBO special and the first to be broadcast live on the network. The special won him a CableACE award, and the resulting comedy album landed him his first Grammy Award. Two years later, Carlin attempted a sitcom on the Fox network, but “The George Carlin Show” (1993-1995), which featured the comic as a garrulous New York cab driver, ended after its second season – proving yet again that Carlin was best left unscripted.
Carlin gave one of his best performances as a grizzled Indian tracker and companion to Sonia Braga in “Streets of Laredo,” a 1995 follow-up miniseries to the popular “Lonesome Dove” (1993). He taped his ninth and tenth HBO specials in rapid succession during the following years: 1996’s “Back in Town” was also broadcast live on the network, and 1997’s “George Carlin: 40 Years of Comedy” featured a career retrospective of his television stand-up appearances, as well as a tribute and interview by Jon Stewart. The special won two CableACE awards and was nominated for an additional two Emmys; however, the celebration was dimmed significantly by the death of Carlin’s wife that same year on the day before his 60th birthday.
Carlin bounced back from the tragedy with the release of Brain Droppings, a 1997 collection of his musings on life, society, politics and the human condition. The book spent 18 weeks on The New York Times best seller list, and the soft-cover edition (1998) beat that record by an additional two weeks. Its popularity spurred Carlin to pen two more books – Napalm and Silly Putty (2001) and When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? (2004). The former was another best seller and earned Carlin a Grammy for the audio book version, while the latter – which compiled routines from throughout his career – received press for its cover, which placed Carlin next to Jesus in Da Vinci’s “The Last Supper,” keeping it off the shelves at Wal-Mart. A collection of all three books, entitled An Orgy of George, which was supplemented with new material, was released in 2006.
In 1999, the comic legend joined forces with independent filmmaker and satirist Kevin Smith to explore a subject the atheist Carlin could truly get behind – the questioning of religion faith – in the feature “Dogma,” in which Carlin played a Catholic cardinal who implements a more “user-friendly” version of Jesus in churches. He also taped several commercials for MCI and relocated from Los Angeles – his home for the past 23 years – to Las Vegas, where he was appearing regularly, ending a 10-year engagement at Bally’s in 2000 and launching a new contract at the MGM Grand the following year. Carlin also taped his eleventh HBO special, “You Are All Diseased,” which featured some of his strongest and darkest material to date – “There Is No God” is among the bits – and earned him two Emmy nods and a Grammy nomination for the CD version. That same year, Carlin’s early career received a retrospective with The Little David Years (1971-1977), a seven-disc set which compiled his first six solo CDs and included unreleased material, as well as six early recordings made by Carlin as a boy at a penny arcade on Coney Island.
In 2001, the 64-year-old Carlin received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 15th Annual American Comedy Awards. He also kicked off a 15-city tour to promote Napalm and Silly Putty, which saw him return to many of the major primetime talk shows, and taped his twelfth HBO special, “Complaints and Grievances” – which was originally titled “I Like It A Lot When People Die,” but was changed after the September 11th attacks. The following year, he was given the Free Speech Award at the U.S. Comedy Arts Festival, and re-teamed with Smith for “Jersey Girl” (2004), which gave him his biggest and most dramatic role to date as Ben Affleck’s father. Sadly, the flack over Affleck’s failed relationship with Jennifer Lopez overshadowed the picture’s brief stint at the box office, preventing many from seeing Carlin in fine dramatic form.
In 2004, Carlin made news twice: first for placing second on Comedy Central’s list of the “Top 100 Comics of All Time;” second, for entering a treatment facility to cure his dependency on alcohol and painkillers. He emerged in 2005 and returned to performing, premiering his thirteenth HBO special, “Life is Worth Losing” (2005), which saw Carlin focusing on some of the darkest subject matter of his career – suicide, natural disasters, autoerotic asphyxiation. The CD earned him his seventh Grammy nomination. That same year, Carlin served as the eminence grise of “The Aristocrats” (2005), Penn Jillette and Paul Provenza’s hilarious documentary about a long-running and particularly vulgar joke favored by stand-ups. In 2006, Carlin launched a national tour to hone material for his latest HBO special, “It’s Bad for Ya” (2008). He announced during a date that year that he had suffered heart failure sometime in late 2005 or early 2006. Despite this latest health setback, Carlin was busy with performing and acting gigs, which included lending his voice to characters in the animated features “Cars” (2006) and “Happily N’ever After” (2007).
Job Titles: comedian, author, producer, TV host, disc jockey, actor, writer
Education: dropped out of school in 1953
Sally Wade-Carlin has referred to her as "the sweetheart of my life, present and future"
Brenda Carlin- married from June 3, 1961 until her death on May 11, 1997 from liver cancer