George Carlin, legendary comedian, author, actor, and counterculture icon, died Sunday of heart failure, age 71, at Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California. He is survived by his second wife, Sally Wade, and daughter Kelly Carlin McCall. His first wife, Brenda, predeceased him in 1997 after 36 years of marriage.
Considered one of the most significant and influential of his craft, Carlin laced comic scenarios with intelligence and social criticisms, presaging the comedic styles of Chris Rock, Bill Hicks, Jerry Seinfeld, Bill Maher, and Jon Stewart, among many others.
Born May 12, 1937, Carlin grew up in New York City with his mother, Mary, and older brother, Patrick. His father, whom he never knew, died in 1945. After dropping out of school in 1953, Carlin joined the Air Force, an ill-fated choice considering his contempt for authority. Following a series of infractions, he received a general discharge under honorable conditions in 1957.
A string of radio jobs and comedy nightclub gigs, mostly with sideman Jack Burns, acquainted Carlin with the entertainment industry. The duo made their television debut on an October 10, 1960 taping of The Tonight Show with Jack Parr, but split to pursue individual ambitions soon thereafter.
Carlin released his first stand-up album, Take-Offs and Put-Ons, in 1967, yet it was with 1972’s Class Clown – which introduced the infamous “7 Words You Can Never Say On TV” – that he not only galvanized his subversive image, but also prompted a landmark United States Supreme Court case. In F.C.C. vs. Pacifica Foundation, the Court ultimately ruled that Carlin’s act, while not deemed obscene, was considered “indecent,” thus relegating it to broadcast regulations. Such restrictions, as well as personal controversies (including arrests and substance abuse), further fueled his dissident reputation and following.
The first host of Saturday Night Live, Carlin employed his talents on television as well as in motion pictures, yielding 14 HBO specials as well as roles in such films as Car Wash, Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure, The Prince of Tides, Dogma, and Jersey Girl.
His professional accolades include 4 Grammy Awards, a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 15th Annual Comedy Awards in 2001, the Free Speech Award from the First Amendment Center in 2002, and, in 2004, Comedy Central ranked him second (only to Richard Pryor) among the “100 Greatest Comedians of All Time.”
As well, the John F. Kennedy Center For The Performing Arts announced last week that Carlin would receive this year’s Mark Twain Humor Prize, a lifetime achievement recognition. In a statement released at the time, Kennedy Center chairman Stephen A. Schwarzman said, "In his lengthy career as a comedian, writer and actor, George Carlin has not only made us laugh, but he makes us think. His influence on the next generation of comics has been far-reaching.” Carlin then issued his own statement, sardonically saying, “Thank you Mr. Twain. Have your people call my people.”
“My feeling is that as long as you’re going to die, you should go out with a bang,” Carlin wrote in his best-selling book, Napalm and Silly Putty. “I say go out big, folks; it’s your last chance to make a statement. Before you go, give ‘em a show; entertain those you leave behind.” Indeed, George Carlin made indelible statements and entertained at will for over a half-century.