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A fine troublemaker

George Carlin was a valuable critic, not just of power but of all humanity.

June 24, 2008|Robert Lloyd | Times Television Critic

It was always comforting to know that George Carlin was out there making trouble. Like Richard Pryor, he straddled the great cultural divide that was the 1960s, coming in as a lamb and going out as a lion.

I remember him first as another of that age's suit-and-tie comics, putting on funny characters: the Hippy-Dippy Weatherman ("Tonight's forecast: Dark") or an Indian drill sergeant ("knock off the horseplay -- you guys over there playing with the horse, will ya knock it off?"), a part he played wearing a headband and a feather. He eventually went native himself, growing his hair long and taking up themes inherited from Lenny Bruce: American fear, the hypocrisy of religion, the subtle traps and distorting power of language, and especially the way that people hide behind words in order not to not face facts -- in the way, for instance, that the straightforward term "shell shock" became "battle fatigue" ("Four syllables now, takes a little longer to say, doesn't seem to hurt as much -- 'fatigue' is a nicer word than 'shock' ") and then "post-traumatic stress disorder" ("We've added a hyphen, and the pain is completely buried under jargon").

But the time was ripe for Carlin in a way it never was for Bruce -- success on the college circuit kept his audience young and allowed his comedy to be as profane as he needed it to be.

Despite his own problems with drugs and health -- the heart attack that killed him was one in a line running back to the 1970s -- and at least one obscenity bust, Carlin continued to flourish: His albums won Grammys, his television specials were nominated for Emmys, and just before he died he was awarded the Mark Twain Prize for American Humor by the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts, which will host a night of tributes on Nov. 20.

He was booked for personal appearances through the end of the year.

A guest host both of "The Tonight Show" and "Saturday Night Live" (its first host, in fact), Carlin was a mainstream success who also kicked in dirt from the banks, a kind of troublemaking father figure. Not like Andy Rooney, a curmudgeon, but something darker, a man who cocked a dubious eye at the whole of mankind. ("I have absolutely no sympathy for human beings whatsoever," he said in his show "Life Is Worth Losing.") And yet he was also the host and narrator of the children's show "Shining Time Station," where Thomas the Tank Engine put in. So go figure.

Historically, the fool is supposed to have been the agent of truth, speaking jokes to power. "Occupation: Foole" was the title of Carlin's fourth album, from 1973. (It's the source of the infamous "Filthy Words" routine, whose broadcast on a public-supported radio station led to a Supreme Court case.)

The power may not have been listening -- most comics preach to the choir, after all -- but that didn't stop him talking.

Even at its most strident, there was something soothing about that sound; I will miss it.


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