June 23, 2008

Comedian George Carlin dies at 71

George Carlin, an irreverent US comedian who was arrested for offensive language after performances of his cult routine "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television", has died in California of heart failure. He was 71.

Carlin was admitted to a Santa Monica hospital yesterday complaining of chest pain and died last evening, said his publicist, Jeff Abraham. He had a history of heart trouble and drug dependency.

He had performed as recently as last weekend at the Orleans Casino and Hotel in Las Vegas. The previous week it was announced that he was to be awarded the 11th annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humour.

Carlin constantly pushed the envelope with his jokes, particularly with his most celebrated and controversial routine. When he uttered all seven words during a show in Milwaukee in 1972, he was arrested for disturbing the peace. When they were played on a New York radio station, they resulted in a Supreme Court ruling in 1978 upholding the government’s power to punish stations for broadcasting offensive language.

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

Carlin hosted the first ever broadcast of the late night comedy show Saturday Night Live while high on drugs, noting on his website that he was “loaded on cocaine all week long”.

He was a cynic with a gloomy view of mankind. “The world is a big theatre-in-the-round as far as I’m concerned, and I’d love to watch it spin itself into oblivion,” he said. “Tune in and watch the human adventure.”

Carlin was born on May 12, 1937, and he and his brother were given a working-class Irish upbringing in the Morningside Heights section of Manhattan by their single mother. He kept the nuns at his school entertained with his jokes.

He dropped out of high school in the ninth grade, and joined the Air Force aged 17 in 1954. He claimed on his website that he received three court-martials and numerous disciplinary punishments.

After receiving a general discharge in 1957, he took an announcing job at a radio station in Boston. It didn't last. “Fired after three months for driving mobile news van to New York to buy pot,” his website claims.

Carlin took various temporary jobs, including as a carnival organist, a radio disc jockey and marketing peanut brittle, while he tried to get his comedy breakthrough, developing such characters as Al Sleet, a “hippie-dippie weatherman”.

His first chance came in 1960, after he and a friend, Jack Burns, moved to Hollywood to perform in nightclubs as a comedy double act, and were invited to appear on the Tonight Show with Jack Paar. But it was to be 1967 before he made his first solo television performance.

Not long after this, his act underwent a dramatic change. Carlin had once hoped to emulate the gentle humour of his childhood hero, Danny Kaye. When he found that this kindly vein of comedy didn't work for him, he developed a new style of edgy, provocative material, influenced by Lenny Bruce and Bob Newhart. At first his new, foul-mouthed act cost him bookings and popularity, but within a couple of years it paid off, as he was taken up by younger, more disaffected audiences.

His comedy revolved around a central theme: humanity is a cursed, doomed species. “I don’t have any beliefs or allegiances. I don’t believe in this country, I don’t believe in religion, or a god, and I don’t believe in all these man-made institutional ideas,” he said.

Balding and bearded, in the 1970s Carlin achieved the status of an anti-establishment icon with stand-up routines full of drug references. In the 1978 legal case that surrounded his "Seven Words..." routine, Federal Communications Commission vs Pacifica Foundation, the highest court in America ruled that the words cited in Carlin’s routine were indecent, and that the government’s broadcast regulator could ban them from being aired at times when children might be listening.

Drug addiction plagued him for much of his life, beginning with marijuana as a teenager, graduating to cocaine in the 1970s, and then to prescription painkillers and wine. During the cocaine years, Carlin ignored his finances and ended up owing about $3 million in back taxes. In 2004, he entered a Los Angeles rehab clinic for his alcohol and Vicodin abuse.

He produced 23 comedy albums, 14 HBO specials, three books, a couple of TV shows and appeared in several films, including Bill and Ted's Awesome Adventure. He recently voiced a hippie Volkswagen bus named Fillmore in the Pixar cartoon Cars.

Carlin is survived by his second wife Sally Wade, and his daughter Kelly Carlin McCall. His first wife, Brenda, died of cancer in 1997. [Via TimesOnline]

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