It is impossible to believe that George Carlin -- a man so full of life -- is dead. And he died much too young, at age 71, of heart failure. I owe a huge debt to Carlin and I've never even met the man.
Carlin might scoff at the short tribute I'm about to give him here. He was acerbic, full of rage, a brilliant master of words, and an unrelenting skeptic. He has often been accused of being cynical. He countered the charge by saying, "I don't consider myself a cynic. I think of myself as a skeptic and a realist. But I understand the word 'cynic' has more than one meaning, and I see how I could be seen as cynical. 'George, you're cynical.' Well, you know, they say if you scratch a cynic you find a disappointed idealist."
No other comedian unleashed a fury of words against hypocrisy in America with the same force as George Carlin. He was a one-man hurricane, lashing out against religious bigotry, consumerism, destruction of the environment, grammatical errors, narrow-mindedness, dogmatism, congested freeways, conspicuous consumption, extreme inequality, racism, war, nuclear weapons, shitty TV shows. The list goes on and on.
Carlin's accomplishments speak for themselves. His comedy albums netted him four Grammy Awards -- for "FM & AM" (1972), "Jammin' in New York" (1991), "Brain Droppings" (2000) and "Napalm & Silly Putty" (2001). He starred for a few seasons as Mr. Conductor on Shining Time Station (he took Ringo Starr's place, narrating the Thomas the Tank Engine Stories). His BBC obit noted some of his many accomplishments: "Carlin produced 23 comedy albums, 14 HBO specials, three books, a couple of TV shows and appeared in several movies."
He was born in New York City and raised in an Irish Catholic home by a single mother. He grew up in Morningside Heights, which he preferred to call "White Harlem" because that sounded grittier. Always restless, he dropped out of school early (he once said, "When you quit school in ninth grade and you're smart, you spend your life in some small or large way proving yourself.") He served in the Air Force for a time in the 1950s, became a disc jockey in the early 1960s and moved into stand-up comedy, performing on the Ed Sullivan show and on stage in New York City. At first, his comedy routines were relatively innocuous. He recalled: "I was doing superficial comedy entertaining people who didn't really care: Businessmen, people in nightclubs, conservative people. And I had been doing that for the better part of 10 years when it finally dawned on me that I was in the wrong place doing the wrong things for the wrong people."
By the late 1960s and early 1970s, he had fine tuned his comedy routines and emerged as George Carlin, the counterculture icon/hero. He was an heir to the Lenny Bruce tradition. He grew his hair out long. He also grew a beard and moustache. He experimented with drugs (he'd been smoking dope since his teen years). He developed a routine called "The Seven Words You Can Never Say On TV," and when he was arrested after performing it in Milwaukee in 1972.
Over the years, Carlin made audiences howl with laughter at his often over-the-top rants about American society. What was great about Carlin -- among so, so many things -- was that as he gold older, he got more and more pissed off. The man was a tornado on the stage. But his savage comedy routines concealed -- and sometimes revealed -- a troubled life, full of drug addiction, alcoholism and despair. His beloved wife Brenda died in 1997, the day before he turned 60. In 2004, he checked himself into rehab in L.A. because of an addiction to "Vicodin and wine." He had a long history of heart problems.
I have my own personal Carlin story. Back when my parents were going through a divorce in the early 1970s, I was just a little boy -- only 5 -- nervous, afraid, uncertain of the future. My parents were drifting apart. My world seemed to be unraveling. It was a terribly painful time. One of my most cherished possessions at the time was George Carlin's FM & AM album (right). Sometimes, when I was alone and insecure, I'd put it on the turntable, plug in the gargantuan pair of headphones, and listen away. At that young age, I didn't understand all the humor on the album, but that didn't stop me from doubling over with laughter. Carlin became an old friend at a difficult moment in my life. And after all these years, I've never forgotten how his humor made me feel better. For the next few years, I played that album until I wore it out.
When I had the good fortune of seeing Carlin perform many years later in Salt Lake City, it was like being reunited with a long lost pal.
I still can't believe he's gone. Like Lenny Bruce, Carlin leaves behind a rich legacy of humor. Just before he died, it was announced that Carlin would be the next recipient of the 11th annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. What a fitting honor. Twain, like Carlin, used humor to lash out at the injustices and hypocrisies of American society. Beneath the skepticism of both humorists, one could find an idealism and a little glowing ember of hope that maybe -- just maybe -- America might one day live up to its most cherished ideals.