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George Carlin - Biography


George Carlin - Biography
Photo by Neilson Barnard/Getty Images


May 12, 1937


June 22, 2008

George Carlin Quick Facts:

  • Carlin is a native of New York City.
  • During his career, Carlin released 23 comedy albums, 14 HBO specials and three best-selling books.
  • He won four Comedy and Spoken Comedy Grammys from 1973 to 2002.
  • Carlin was arrested in 1972 after a performance of his famous "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television" routine.
  • He hosted the first episode of Saturday Night Live in 1975.
  • In 2008, it was announced that Carlin would receive the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor. The announcement came just four days before his death on June 22.

George Carlin Overview:

Along with Lenny Bruce and Richard Pryor, George Carlin helped define modern stand-up comedy. Practically defining the term "edgy," Carlin always pushed the limits of what comedy could be. His material was often political; more than that, Carlin was the master of "sociological" comedy. He was an expert at calling attention to the things people take for granted, pointing out hypocrisies in human behavior He loved language, and often dissected the meanings of words and phrases in his act. As time went on, his act became increasingly dark and angry, but he never lost his talent as one of our best social critics.

In the Beginning:

Born in Manhattan in 1937, George Denis Patrick Carlin was a rebel from a very young age. Raised Roman Catholic primarily by a single mother, Carlin dropped out of school at age 14 and eventually joined the Air Force. After working for several years as a disc jockey, Carlin began to try his hand at comedy. In 1960, he formed a duo with fellow comic Jack Burns; they worked together for two years and released an album, called Burns and Carlin at the Playboy Club Tonight.

George Carlin Reborn:

Going it alone in 1962, Carlin released his first solo album, Take-Offs and Put-Ons in 1966. During that time, he was relatively straitlaced, appearing in a jacket and tie during numerous television appearances from The Ed Sullivan Show to The Tonight Show.

As he entered the 1970s, Carlin began a radical transformation that would change comedy forever. Responding to the social and political upheaval of the times, Carlin grew his hair long and began attacking institutions like the government and organized religion. In the process, the once-again rebellious Carlin became the comedic voice of a generation.

Seven Dirty Words:

In 1972, Carlin came up with what would eventually be his most famous routine: "Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television." The bit, which focused on the arbitrary nature of censorship, got Carlin arrested on charges of obscenity after a Milwaukee performance in 1972. The case was eventually thrown out, but the routine played a significant role in a U.S. Supreme Court case that ultimately upheld the FCC's ability to regulate "indecent" programming on public airwaves. Carlin's battles against the establishment helped make him even more popular among young audiences.

George Carlin: Workhorse:

After establishing himself as a counterculture icon, Carlin went off the radar for a while. In the late '70s, his appearances were infrequent -- though he did produce his first two HBO specials, Carlin at USC and George Carlin: Again! in 1977 and 1978. It was during this self-imposed "break" that Carlin suffered his first heart attack.

By 1981, Carlin came roaring back to form, releasing his album A Place for My Stuff and his newest HBO special, Carlin at Carnegie, in '81 and '82. From that point on, Carlin would release an album and/or and HBO special every one to two years for the rest of his career.

Carlin Acts:

In addition to a prolific stand-up career, Carlin worked regularly in film and television throughout the '80s, 90's and 2000s. He played supporting roles in comedies like Outrageous Fortune and Kevin Smith's Dogma, as well as dramas such as The Prince of Tides and Jersey Girl. His most famous role was probably that of Rufus, the time-traveling guide in the two Bill and Ted films.

The always-surprising Carlin even got involved in children's programming, voicing a character on Thomas the Tank Engine and playing "Mr. Conductor" for two seasons on the PBS show Shining Time Station. He also had his own sitcom, The George Carlin Show, on FOX from 1993 to 1995.

Carlin Says Goodbye

In March of 2008, HBO aired Carlin's stand-up special, It's Bad for Ya. It would end up being his last. Having suffered from heart problems for a large part of his life (he survived three non-fatal heart attacks), Carlin was admitted to St. John's Hospital in Santa Monica, California, complaining of chest pains on June 22, 2008. Later the same day, he died of heart failure. He was 71 years old.

Additional George Carlin Facts

  • Carlin was present during Lenny Bruce's legendary arrest for obscenity. When he refused to provide identification to the police, he was arrested and put in the same car as Bruce.
  • He was given a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 15th Annual Comedy Awards in 2001.
  • In 2004, Comedy Central placed Carlin at #2 on its list of the Greatest Stand-ups of All Time.
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