On this day in 2008, the influential comic writer, actor and stand-up comedian George Carlin dies of heart failure at the age of 71.
Born in New York City, Carlin dropped out of high school and joined the Air Force. While stationed in Shreveport, Louisiana, he got a job as a radio disc jockey; after his discharge, he worked as a radio announcer and disc jockey in Boston and Fort Worth, Texas. Carlin and his early radio colleague, Jack Burns, formed a moderately successful stand-up comedy duo, appearing in nightclubs and on The Tonight Show with Jack Paar. They soon parted ways, and Carlin made his first solo appearance on The Tonight Show in 1962. Three years later, he began a string of performances on The Merv Griffin Show and was later hired as a regular on Away We Go, 1967’s summer replacement for The Jackie Gleason Show. Carlin cemented his early career success with the release of his debut comedy album, the well-reviewed Take-Offs and Put-Downs, that same year.
During the late 1960s, Carlin had a recurring role on the sitcom That Girl, starring Marlo Thomas, and made numerous TV appearances on shows such as The Ed Sullivan Show and Johnny Carson’s Tonight Show. Seeking to make a leap into big-time stardom, the relatively clean-cut, conventional comic reinvented himself around 1970 as an eccentric, biting social critic and commentator. In his new incarnation, Carlin began appealing to a younger, hipper audience, particularly college students. He began dressing in a stereotypically “hippie” style, with a beard, long hair and jeans, and his new routines were punctuated by pointed jokes about religion and politics and frequent references to drugs.
Released in 1972, Carlin’s second album, FM/AM, won a Grammy Award for Best Comedy Recording. A routine from his third hit album, Class Clown (also 1972) grew into the comic’s now-famous profanity-laced routine “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television.” When it was first broadcast on New York radio, a complaint led the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to ban the broadcast as “indecent.” The U.S. Supreme Court later upheld the order, which remains in effect today. The routine made Carlin a hero to his fans and got him in trouble with radio brass as well as with law enforcement; he was even arrested several times, once during an appearance in Milwaukee, for violating obscenity laws.
More popular than ever as a countercultural hero, Carlin was asked to be the first guest host of a new sketch comedy show, Saturday Night Live, in 1975. Two years later, he starred in the first of what would be 14 comedy specials on the cable television station HBO (the last one aired in March 2008). Carlin had a certain degree of success on the big screen as well, including a supporting role in Outrageous Fortune (1987), a memorable appearance in Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) and a fine supporting turn in the drama The Prince of Tides (1991). More recently, he played a Roman Catholic cardinal in Kevin Smith’s satirical comedy Dogma (1999).
Though a 1994 Fox sitcom, The George Carlin Show, lasted only one season, Carlin continued to perform his HBO specials and his live comedy gigs into the early 21st century. He also wrote best-selling books based on his comedy routines, including Brain Droppings (1997), Napalm & Silly Putty (2001) and When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops? (2004). According to his obituary in the New York Times, Carlin gave his last live comedy show in Las Vegas just weeks before his death.