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George Carlin (1937–2008): Legendary Comedian Challenged Status Quo Throughout 50-Year Career

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Legendary comedian George Carlin died of heart failure on Sunday evening at the age of seventy-one. Carlin was one of the most well-known comedians of the past fifty years and was widely considered one of the top stand-up comics of all time. We play some of Carlin’s memorable routines and look at his legacy with Richard Zoglin, author of Comedy on the Edge: How Stand-Up in the 1970s Changed America. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Fellow comedians and fans across the country are mourning the death of George Carlin. He died of a heart attack, heart failure on Sunday at the age of seventy-one.

George Carlin was one of the most well-known comedians of the past half-century. He was widely considered one of the top stand-up comics of all time. In a career that spanned half a century, he released twenty-two comedy albums, earning him five Emmy nominations, four Grammys. He was the first guest host of Saturday Night Live in 1975, appeared on The Tonight Show 130 times, starred in fourteen HBO specials and authored three bestselling books.

The most significant moment in George Carlin’s career may have been his landmark routine “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” When Carlin did the bit during a 1972 show in Milwaukee, he was arrested. He was charged with disturbing the peace. A state judge later dismissed the case, saying while Carlin’s language may have been indecent, it still represented free speech. Then, in 1973, Pacifica Radio station WBAI aired an unedited version of George Carlin’s monologue. This is an edited version of what they heard.

    GEORGE CARLIN: I want to tell you something about words that I think is important. As I say, they’re my work, they’re my play, they’re my passion. Words are all we have, really. We have thoughts, but thoughts are fluid, you know. And then we assign a word to a thought, and we’re stuck with that word for that thought. So be careful with words. I like to think, yeah, the same words, you know, that hurt, can heal. It’s a matter of how you pick them.

    There are some people that aren’t into all the words. There are some people who would have you not use certain words. Yeah. There are 400,000 words in the English language, and there are seven of them you can’t say on television. What a ratio that is! 399,993 to seven. They must really be bad. They’d have to be outrageous to be separated from a group that large. All of you over here, you seven. Bad words. That’s what they told us they were, remember? “That’s a bad word!” You know bad words. Bad thoughts. Bad intentions. And words. You know the seven don’t you, that you can’t say on television? [beep] [beep] [beep] [beep] [beep] [beep] [beep] Those are the heavy seven. Those are the ones that will infect your soul, curve your spine and keep the country from winning the war.

AMY GOODMAN: A radio listener lodged a complaint with the FCC after hearing George Carlin’s routine. The FCC v. Pacifica case would become one of the most important recent Supreme Court decisions on free speech. The legal controversy brought about the FCC rule permitting a ban on certain material when children are most likely to be in the audience.

In November, George Carlin will be remembered once more onstage, when he receives, posthumously, the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

For more on George Carlin and his legacy, I’m joined by Richard Zoglin. He is a senior writer and editor at Time magazine, author of Comedy on the Edge: How Stand-Up in the 1970s Changed America. Welcome to Democracy Now!


AMY GOODMAN: Well, that was a very significant case.

RICHARD ZOGLIN: Absolutely. You know, Carlin was using these words to shock people but also to raise this larger point of, you know, why are these words — you know, why do they cause such fear in us? And he was never on trial for it. He was arrested once, only because his routine was heard by children in an outdoor setting, but he never went to trial himself. It was the radio station that fought that battle all the way to the Supreme Court. And it resulted in the creation of the family hour on television that you couldn’t air, quote-unquote, “indecent” material before like 8:00 at night.

AMY GOODMAN: Talk about Geroge Carlin, how his style evolved, who he was.

RICHARD ZOGLIN: Well, in the late ’60s, when this country really went through a cultural revolution, you know, he was the guy, I think, who brought stand-up comedy into that cultural revolution. I mean, he was short-haired comic, sort of skinny-tie guy, who did sort of straight-laced material on the Ed Sullivan Show. He looked around in the late ’60s, and, you know, he was hanging out with musicians, he was singing with the protest movement, and he was seeing what was happening. And he decided he was doing material for the enemy. He wanted to talk to a different audience, the college audience. He wanted to go back into the coffee houses. And this was a radical thing for a guy to do with a successful career. So he started all over again, and he started doing material that really reflected the attitudes of that counterculture generation.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s go back to a few more of those clips of George Carlin’s political humor. In this bit, Carlin talks about why he thinks America likes war.

    GEORGE CARLIN: It’s the old American double standard, you know, say one thing, do something different. And, of course, the country is founded on the double standard. That’s our history. We were founded on a very basic double standard. This country was founded by slave owners who wanted to be free. Am I right? A group of a slave owners who wanted to be free, so they killed a lot of white English people in order to continue owning their black African people, so they could wipe out the rest of the red Indian people and move west and steal the rest of the land from the brown Mexican people, giving them a place to take off and drop their nuclear weapons on the yellow Japanese people. You know what the motto of this country ought to be? You give up a color, we’ll wipe it out. You got it.

    So, anyway, about eighty years after the Constitution is ratified, eighty years later, the slaves are freed. Not so you’d really notice it, of course. Just sort of on paper. And that was, of course, during the Civil War. Now, there’s another phrase I dearly love. That is a true oxymoron if I’ve ever heard one: civil war. Do you think any country could really have a civil war? “Say, pardon me” [gun shots] — “I’m awfully sorry. I’m awfully sorry.” Now, of course, the Civil War has been over for about 120 years, but not so you’d really notice it, because we still have these people called Civil War buffs, people who thought it was a really keen war, and they study the battles carefully, and they try to improve on the strategies and the tactics to increase the body count, in case we have to go through it again sometime. In fact, some of these people actually get dressed up in uniform once a year and go out and refight these battles. You know what I say? Use live ammunition, [bleep], would you please? You might just raise the intelligence level of the American gene pool.

    But what do you expect? Hey, come on, this is a warlike country. We come from that northern European, basically the northern European genes, the blue eyes. Those blue eyes. Boy everybody in the world learned real quick, didn’t they? When those blue eyes sail out of the north, you better nail everything down [bleep]. Nail it down, strap it down, or they’ll grab it. If they can’t take it home, they’ll burn it. If they can’t burn it, they’ll [bleep]. That’s what happened to us. And it’s a warlike country. C’mon, I mean, forget foreign policy. Even the domestic rhetoric is warlike. Everything about our domestic policy invokes the thought of war. We don’t like something in this country, we declare war on it. The war on poverty, the war on drugs, the war on crime, the war on AIDS, the war on cancer. We’ve got the only national anthem that mentions [bleep] rockets and bombs in the [bleep] thing. You know what I mean?

AMY GOODMAN: George Carlin. Well, this is a clip from his HBO special Back in Town, taped here in New York. In this bit, he deals with the anti-abortion movement.

    GEORGE CARLIN: Boy, these conservatives are really something, aren’t they? They’re all in favor of the unborn. They will do anything for the unborn. But once you’re born, you’re on your own. Pro-life conservatives are obsessed with the fetus, from conception to nine months. After that, they don’t want to know about you. They don’t want to hear from you. No nothing. No neo-natal care, no day care, no Head Start, no school lunch, no food stamps, no welfare, no nothing. If you’re pre-born, you’re fine. If your pre-school, your [bleep].

    Conservatives don’t give a [bleep] about you until you reach military age. Then they think you are just fine, just what they’ve been looking for. Conservatives want live babies so they can raise them to be dead soldiers. Pro-life. Pro-life. These people aren’t pro-life. They’re killing doctors. What kind of pro-life is that? What, they’ll do anything they can to save a fetus, but if it grows up to be a doctor, they just might have to kill it?

    They’re not pro-life. You know what they are? They’re anti-women. Simple as it gets. Anti-women. They don’t like them. They don’t like women. They believe a woman’s primary role is to function as a brood mare for the state. Pro-life? You don’t see any of these white, anti-abortion women volunteering to have any black fetuses transplanted into their uteruses, do you? No. You don’t see them adopting a whole lot of crack babies, do you? No, that might be something Christ would do. And you won’t see a lot of these pro-life people dousing themselves in kerosene and lighting themselves on fire. You know, morally committed religious people in South Vietnam knew how to stage a [bleep] demonstration, didn’t they? They knew how to put on a [bleep] protest. Light yourself on fire! Come on, you moral crusaders, let’s see a little smoke.

AMY GOODMAN: George Carlin, here in New York, an HBO special. Richard Zoglin, your subtitle of Comedy at the Edge, How Stand-Up in the ’70s Changed America, how did he change America, and who are the comedians that influenced him most?

RICHARD ZOGLIN: Well, his idol was Lenny Bruce, who of course kind of introduced the idea of the comedian as a social commentator, not a guy just telling jokes and a punch line. But what Carlin did was bring that attitude to a much broader audience and a whole new generation. In the years when that new generation was questioning everything that was going on in this country, you know, authority, the war, the restrictions on language, etc., and Carlin was the guy who converted that into comedy, he made it incredibly accessible, and I think he helped change the country in the whole way that, you know, rock music and everything else and the political movements of the late ’60s were changing in America. I think stand-up comedy that George Carlin was doing was changing America in the same way.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, a lot of what George Carlin spoke about was the use of language in American society. This is one of his more controversial bits.

    GEORGE CARLIN: When I was a little kid, if I got sick, they wanted me to go to the hospital and see the doctor. Now they want me to go to a health maintenance organization or a wellness center to consult a healthcare delivery processional. Poor people used to live in slums. Now the economically disadvantaged occupy substandard housing in the inner cities. And they’re broke! They’re broke. They don’t have a “negative cash flow position.” They’re [bleep] broke! ‘Cause a lot of them were fired. You know, fired? Management wanted to curtail redundancies in the human resources area, so many people are no longer viable members of the work force.

    Smug, greedy, well-fed white people have invented a language to conceal their sins. It’s as simple as that. The CIA doesn’t kill anybody anymore, they neutralize people. Or they de-populate the area. The government doesn’t lie, it engages in disinformation. The Pentagon actually measures nuclear radiation in something they call “sunshine units.” Israeli murderers are called commandos. Arab commandos are called terrorists. Contra killers are called freedom fighters. Well, if crime fighters fight crime, and firefighters fight fire, what do freedom fighters fight? They never mention that part of it to us, do they? Never mention that part of it.

AMY GOODMAN: George Carlin. Richard Zoglin, George Carlin, for years, dealt with drug and alcohol problems.

RICHARD ZOGLIN: Yeah. Well, you know, he was part of the counterculture generation and lived the counterculture lifestyle. He admits his drug problems in the late ’70s. He actually will talk about cocaine as kind of being a liberating force in some ways in his performances. But in the end, he decided it was hampering his health, it was hurting his health, and it was hampering his career. So he did pretty much kick the habit in the late ’70s, early ’80s, and he restarted his career and went on to an amazing career. You know, no one has had that kind of length of a stand-up career as George Carlin.

AMY GOODMAN: First Saturday Night Live?

RICHARD ZOGLIN: The very first Saturday Night Live. People don’t remember that, because he’s kind of been a little bit scrubbed out of the histories of Saturday Night Live. Whenever you see the retrospectives, they don’t ever show Carlin, the first host, but he was an incredible, you know —


RICHARD ZOGLIN: Because they were moving in a different direction. They were going into sort of ensemble comedy, and the old stand-ups, the guys who got up there one-on-one and talked, were not quite, you know, in the line of what Saturday Night Live wanted to do, but he was so popular that they knew they needed that jolt of Carlin’s popularity to get that show off the ground. And, by the way, Carlin’s routine on God in that first Saturday Night Live — he did a bit on God and the omnipotence of God — was the one thing that got NBC censors upset, nothing that the Saturday Night Live players did, it was something that Carlin said.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to go out with this George Carlin, talking about the similarities between us and a class-conscious, economically unequal American society.

    GEORGE CARLIN: I’d like to talk about some things that bring us together, things that point out our similarities instead of our differences, because that’s all you ever hear about in this country, is our differences. That’s all the media and the politicians are ever talking about, the things that separate us, things that make us different from one another. That’s the way the ruling class operates in any society. They try to divide the rest of the people. They keep the lower and the middle classes fighting with each other, so that they, the rich, can run off with all the [bleep] money. Fairly simple thing, happens to work. You know, anything different, that’s what they’re going to talk about. Race, religion, ethnic and national background, jobs, income, education, social status, sexuality. Anything you can do, keep us fighting with each other, so that they can keep going to the bank.

    You know how I describe the economic and social classes in this country? The upper class keeps all of the money, pays none of the taxes. The middle class pays all of the taxes, does all of the work. The poor are there just to scare the [bleep] out of the middle class. Keep them showing up at those jobs. So [bleep] I like to do from time to time.

    But I also like to know that I can come back to these little things we have in common, little universal moments that we share separately, the things that make us the same. They’re so small we hardly ever talk about them. Do you ever look at your watch, and then you don’t know what time it is? Then you have to look again, and you still don’t know the time. So you look a third time, and somebody says, “What time is it?” You say, “I don’t know.” Do you ever notice how sometimes all day Wednesday, you keep thinking it’s Thursday? And it happens over and over all day long. And then the next day, you’re alright again.

AMY GOODMAN: George Carlin. Finally, his influence on this generation?

RICHARD ZOGLIN: I think every comedian who came after Carlin looked up to him as a guy who showed that a stand-up comedian wasn’t just telling jokes, he was making commentary. He was a thinker, not just a joke teller. And also, Carlin, because of his long career, I mean, he showed that being a stand-up comedian was an important thing, as something you can do for your entire life. He didn’t get any help from movies. He never had a movie career. He never had a sitcom career like a lot of other stand-up comics. But he could be a top draw on the stand-up comedy circuit for more than forty years, and that was a real inspiration, and I think it’s helped make stand-up comedy a vital art form today.

AMY GOODMAN: George Carlin died of heart failure this weekend. Richard Zoglin, I want to thank you for being with us. Comedy on the Edge is the name of his book, How Stand-Up in the 1970s Changed America.

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