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George Carlin, R.I.P.

By admin Published: June 23, 2008


The comedian has died of heart failure at 71. Obituary here, with a nice photo gallery.

Just the other day I was quoting Carlin -- rather old Carlin, a line from Al Sleet, the hippy-dippy weatherman -- and that, if nothing else, demonstrates his enduring ability to make people laugh.

I am also of the age when no floor of a college dorm was complete without a copy of a Carlin album somewhere, the monologues -- and the trouble-inciting language -- echoing. Laughter, too, because Carlin was going places most of us had never been verbally, or thought about going; more important, he was saying that you could push language, get laughs and still be smart. Carlin was not only a regular performer on HBO, he was HBO: breaking barriers to what you could hear on your TV set, but with good reason. Hey, people, there's both a joke and an idea in the middle of this profanity.

And yes, he was Mr. Conductor, too.

Still, there was often something a bit studied about Carlin; a riff like his one on baseball vs. football was more social commentary than laugh-generating comedy. If we reduce comedy of the '70s to Carlin and Richard Pryor, I lean more toward Pryor, who was not only funnier but more willing to draw on his own life and emotions in making people laugh and think.

Of course, Carlin as I remember him was often a social commentator, not only a fan and follower of Lenny Bruce but someone who wanted to keep his approach to comedy alive, especially in the face of entrenched resistance. (Dim memory says that Carlin, when guest-hosting "The Tonight Show," fought unsuccessfully to have one of Bruce's family members on with him. But made sure the world knew that he had been refused.) As much as he made people laugh, he studied where the laughter came from, and could explain it in a detailed way that went way beyond, oh, "words with a k sound are funny."

In Paul Provenza's hilarious, mad, foul documentary "The Aristocrats," Carlin is the first comic we hear from. Oh, he tells the joke, and tells it rather well. (Two words: hemorrhoidal polyp.) But he's also a recurring presence to analyze the joke, and in doing so, he explains his own approach to comedy.

And here's Carlin's summation: "I do like finding out where the line is drawn, deliberately crossing it, bringing some of them with me across the line, and having them be happy that I did."

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