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November 4, 2005

HBO celebrates Life and comedy gold of controversy magnet George Carlin

“S#%!, P!$$, F#%!, C#$%, C@#%-S#@&?!%, M#&%@!-F#%!@!, and T!&#$.”

Seven words you can’t say on television. Well, in 1973, despite FCC regulations, maverick comedian George Carlin said them—and he hasn’t stopped spewing words since. This course of action eventually helped redefine what was considered suitable speech for broadcast across national airwaves, and shaped Carlin’s singular identity as both rebel and a magnet for controversy.

This Saturday, the audience at New York’s prestigious Beacon Theatre will witness more than their fair share of profanity. But vulgarity for vulgarity’s sake was never Carlin’s aim. It was just a rebel’s shot at the hypocritical establishment. Carlin’s very real love of language excludes no words from his comic arsenal.

Even so, “slowing down” and “mellowing” may be a few words that are not in his vocabulary. Saturday’s show, Life Is Worth Losing, will mark the 13th HBO comedy special for the 68-year-old stand-up veteran. Despite years of drug abuse and three heart attacks, Carlin still tours furiously, doing up to 100 shows per year.

While much of Carlin’s fan base was forged during the height of his popularity in the ’70s and ’80s, his unbelievable longevity has resulted in giving a new generation insight into the “old guy” character in the Kevin Smith movies.

Carlin is arguably the greatest comedian since Lenny Bruce. Bruce rose to prominence extremely quickly, breaking a myriad of barriers along the way. But his tenure was tragically cut short. Carlin has outlasted his contemporaries and exceeded the influence of his predecessors.

Very early on, Carlin lived up to those who went before him. Since the early days, however, he has been so influential that it appears every comedian that follows will always be in debt to his genius. Always the iconoclast, Carlin never shies away from mocking religion, government, the right, the left, your mother, your father, your dog, and everyone in between.

Carlin is still able to move from the fringes to the center of society with relative ease. As an equal opportunity comic, he criticizes everyone. If something doesn’t gibe, he will surely point it out. His observations are so perceptive that there has never been a need for a retort.

Carlin’s books (Brain Droppings, Napalm and Silly Putty, and, most recently, When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops?) illustrate the linguist behind the comic. He lists euphemisms, redundancies, oxymorons, and just plain stupidity with a keen intellect and remarkable vocabulary for somebody who dropped out of school at age 17. I guess academia isn’t for everyone. Nor is Carlin himself, but if you love comedy, then you cannot miss Saturday’s special.

George Carlin first’s HBO comedy special (on March 5, 1977) came a few years after the channel’s inception. On Location with George Carlin set a standard of comedy reached only by the comic himself. Only on HBO, where Carlin was left to his own devices, could he be truly comfortable. Censorship was never an option, and thus HBO was his comedic haven.

Seminal comedy albums such as Occupation Foole, Class Clown, and FM & AM colored the landscape of the ’70s. But the listener misses out because of the very nature of the comedy album: audio only. Much of Carlin’s comedy lies in his onstage physicality. Whether it’s his awful posture, trademark gesticulations, or unique and original faces, it’s all part of the performance. Those aspects of the Carlin experience that are previously lost on record are recaptured on HBO.

In the 32 years since that infamous dialogue containing seven forbidden words, society has expanded its definition of what it finds acceptable on the airwaves. With the growth of cable television, profanity is no longer considered an act of defiance. Ironically, swearing almost seems mainstream now, while finding ways around expressing vulgarity appears to be strangely rebellious. But despite sweeping changes in social norms, Carlin’s almost musical routine on Class Clown transcends time and remains funny, even though many of those words have become commonplace.

In his eminent originality, Carlin demonstrates the ability to craft material that is both timely and timeless. His material comments on the past, remains relevant for the present, and, most importantly, resonates with the future. Life may be worth losing, but the comedy of George Carlin definitely is not.