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Book Review: Seven Dirty Words — The Life and Crimes of George Carlin by James Sullivan

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“We’re going to snatch that pussy and put him in a box,” can be heard even in a Walt Disney movie opines George Carlin. “There are no bad words. Bad thoughts. Bad intentions. And words.” He explains that it’s the context in which a word is used that some find offensive, not the word itself. He researched over 400,000 words in the English language and was unable (even with his incredible creativity) to find a context in which several words could be acceptable. These are the famous “Milwaukee Seven,” as he dubbed them as legal proceedings worked their way up the Supreme Court.

George CarlinJames Sullivan has also written a biography about singer James Brown and is a frequent contributor to the Boston Globe. He has written for the San Francisco Chronicle and Rolling Stone. Now Sullivan explores the life and times (crimes) of one of the most popular and controversial stand-up comedians in history. George Carlin was a self-styled protege of Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl, seeking and achieving success by making language an issue.

The story begins with Carlin in Shreveport, LA where he became the first disc jockey in the country to play Elvis Presley’s “All Shook Up.” Then we flash back to his childhood in New York City in what Carlin describes as “White Harlem,” a tougher sounding name than Morningside Heights. Sullivan describes Carlin’s Irish immigrant father as a “slick-talking newspaper advertising salesman” who was once the nation’s top ad salesman for three consecutive years. With those genes and the influences of Mad magazine, Esar’s Comic Dictionary, and his avid radio listening, Carlin was set.

Like many successful entertainers, it took years for Carlin’s wave to crest. But once he left Shreveport with partner Jack Burns, and headed to Los Angeles, he had made it to The Tonight Show (with Jack Paar) in less than a year. Sullivan narrates an in-depth look at a man who chose a tough career which caused a difficult family life. Carlin made choices all through his life that, as usual, made later decisions more difficult. He started smoking marijuana at age thirteen, drank a lot, and later used cocaine. Flashbacks fill in the gaps and answer questions about personal and career influences, Carlin’s interest in politics and language, and scrapes with the law.

Thanks to Sullivan’s writing style, the reader will learn of Carlin’s lows, both personally and professionally, without becoming depressed. Conversely, Sullivan makes it easy for us to join Carlin’s reveling in the Grammy wins and popular acceptance of his career. While some aspects of Carlin’s material were controversial, Sullivan makes him likable. No doubt even the most strident of the comedian’s detractors would confess to having laughed at some of his routines even, as did the judge in the famous “Seven Words” trial.

Would I buy Seven Dirty Words — The Life and Crimes of George Carlin? Yes. This biography is thorough, respectful, sensitive and appropriately funny!

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