George Carlin: Rethinking a free speech icon

As a new court ruling overturns the rules on TV cussing, a look back at the comic who helped start the debate

Published July 16, 2010 3:55PM (EDT)

Thirty-two years after the Supreme Court ruled on a free speech case sparked by the George Carlin routine "Filthy Words," profanity and the First Amendment are in the news again. A ruling handed down this week by the New York-based Second Court of Appeals all but torpedoed the Federal Communications Commission's recent attempts to regulate so-called fleeting profanity on TV.

Carlin, a First Amendment absolutist who died in 2008, would have gotten a kick out of the court's decision (and a new routine as well). The ruling is a handy excuse to appreciate Carlin and praise a couple of excellent books about the comic: One is James Sullivan’s new biography "7 Dirty Words: The Life and Crimes of George Carlin." The other is "Last Words," a posthumous autobiography by Carlin and Tony Hendra that came out last November. Both are insightful stand-alone portraits of Carlin. But put them together and you get more than a multifaceted account of a comic’s career. You get a chronicle of a man's psychological evolution -- a slow unfurling of self-awareness that transformed Carlin from the colorful but safe performer he once believed he was fated to be, into the unique and courageous artist that he ultimately became.

Carlin recorded 22 solo albums and 14 HBO specials, won five Grammys, was nominated for five Emmys, appeared in over a dozen feature films, anchored four TV shows (including "The George Carlin Show" and "Shining Time Station") and published three books. At the time of his death in 2008 he was recognized as a unique comic voice -- not just a foulmouthed troublemaker but a hero to skeptics and rationalists, and a social critic in the tradition of Mark Twain. The Carlin depicted in posthumous appreciations was an uncompromising soul, targeting everyday stupidity, right-wing corporate fascism, left-wing political correctness, theocratic bullying, the homoerotic adoration of the military and other aspects of American delusion. "Politicians are there to give you the idea that you have freedom of choice," Carlin said in a rant titled "Who Really Controls America." "You don't. You have no choice. You have owners."

Obituaries also portrayed him as a free speech pioneer following in the footsteps of Lenny Bruce (one of Carlin's heroes, and an early Carlin booster). Superficially, the label made sense: Carlin was the subject of a 1978 Supreme Court case, sparked four years earlier when a New York radio show featured Carlin's routine about the seven dirty words you can't say on TV, and a listener wrote a fine-inducing letter to the FCC complaining that he shouldn't have to risk hearing profanity during daylight hours while driving in the car with his young son. (Carlin never stopped blasting adults who tried to micromanage free expression under the guise of protecting kids. "Fuck the children!" Carlin growled in a same-titled routine. "They're getting entirely too much attention.")

Landmark court case aside, though, for the first three decades of Carlin's career his material didn't cut as deep as Bruce's. It was content to skim the surface of American politics and culture and fixate on quirks of language and behavior and surreal images. The idea that Carlin's career represented the continuation of Bruce's legacy wasn't borne out by the Carlin who entertained college students in the 1970s -- a brainier, druggier ancestor of the soft observational comics who kept getting handed network sitcoms in the '80s and '90s. The image bore even less resemblance to the 1960s incarnation of Carlin -- a mainstream clown whose routines adopted outward characteristics of beatnik and hippie subculture (notably the Hippie Dippie Weatherman) but rarely captured their alienation from America's mainstream.

Carlin identified with outsiders his whole life. He collected jazz and R&B records, smoked prodigious amounts of pot, hung out with African-American airmen during his Air Force hitch, and wore buttons and T-shirts with left-wing political slogans offstage. During the Vietnam era he started taking LSD and growing his hair and beard out (incrementally, almost gingerly). But he couldn't muster the nerve to let his inner freak cut loose because the entertainment industry's powers-that-be -- network executives, casino owners, nightclub bookers and Hollywood trade paper reporters -- deemed such people dirty, disrespectful of authority, unpatriotic and, worst of all, uncommercial, and Carlin feared losing the money and industry status he'd worked so hard to accrue. As much as he claimed to prize truth, originality and unfettered self-expression -- values that his hero Lenny Bruce epitomized -- he was addicted to comfort. So he feigned edginess while playing it safe.

In "Last Words," a rare showbiz autobiography filled with scathing self-criticism, Carlin admits he was a conformist throughout most of his career. "As I did more and more television," Carlin says, "I began to realize that there was a price that you paid to do your stuff. You had to make believe you really cared about and belonged to the larger community of show business. That you were really interested in their small talk and shared whatever their values were. The two-track life was there all the time. I clung to the respectability and mainstreamness, yet I had no respect for the things stars did and talked about and seemed to glorify and find glory in."

By the late '60s, Carlin lavished praise on his more daring colleagues, including Richard Pryor, Flip Wilson and Mort Sahl, and hung out with innovative popular artists and left-wing activists. Yet he continued chasing roles in forgettable comedy films, flogging his counterculture mascot routine for nightclub and casino audiences, and doing guest shots on network variety shows (all of which, save "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour," were toothless). In "Last Words," Carlin says that sometime in the '60s he grew disgusted with himself and wondered if he just should quit pretending, "change my name to Jackie Carlin, buy some white shoes, gold chains and pinkie rings." He worried about "being on this rigid track, about being rewarded more and more for being cute and clever and funny. But not for being George Carlin."

The traditions and restrictions that Carlin chafed at were all manifestations of the same, then-unquestioned assumption: that popular entertainment had to be as apolitical, sanitized and generally tame as could be. A baseline interpretation of that mandate meant a performer shouldn't do or say anything that might violate commonly accepted standards of discourse, especially if the performance occurred in an unrestricted public setting (such as a TV talk show, or onstage at a state fair) or if women or children happened to be present. Here and there you could find little zones of expression that were exempt from the usual constraints: strip joints and bawdy nightclubs; big-city art-house cinemas; raunchy "party records" by performers who were known to work "blue," such as Redd Foxx. But for the most part, America considered itself a clean country. Whenever a popular phenomenon challenged that perception -- artful yet racy bestsellers, E.C. horror comics, Elvis Presley's swiveling hips -- its creators got smacked around by society's gatekeepers: attacked on editorial pages, censored or pushed off the air by radio and TV executives, protested by conservative or religious groups, vilified in congressional hearings, even prosecuted in court.

The rules started to give way in the 1960s with the rise of counterculture sensibilities, and the slow ebb of once-powerful watchdog groups such as the National Legion of Decency. But the assumption that "popular" necessarily had to be a synonym for "inoffensive" persisted even though it didn't make much sense anymore. The news was full of stories about battlefield carnage, police brutality, protests, assassinations, free love and acid trips. But you couldn't address any of it in comedy except obliquely, often in a sniggering, reductive way that pandered to the Archie Bunker contingent. Comedians who tried to cut deeper were routinely censored by their bosses (see the Smothers Brothers) or exiled to pop culture's hinterlands. To Lenny Bruce and like-minded comics that followed him, the insistence that pop culture had to avoid harsh reality was more offensive than the reality itself. George Carlin agreed with that sentiment. But for most of his career he didn't have the stones to embrace it in public.

From the early '70s onward, Carlin refocused his career on campus gigs and established his outlaw bona fides by getting busted for indecency and drug possession. But although his stand-up and recorded material grew weirder and raunchier, it still wasn't as politically charged and confrontational as the voice he heard in his head. Carlin’s mostly gentle, bemused stage persona -- that of a hip junior professor getting baked with the undergrads -- didn't convey the anger he felt when he contemplated Vietnam, Watergate, corporate corruption, and government harassment of anyone who looked and talked like the newer, scruffier Carlin. In "Last Words," the comedian confesses that his stand-up didn't capture his buried true self until 1988's "What Am I Doing in New Jersey?," a concert that railed against "Ronald Reagan and his criminal gang" and the "crypto-fascist" fundamentalists who supported him. ("I don't know how you feel about it, but I am pretty sick and tired of these fucking church people.")

The long-deferred unveiling of the fully self-actualized, near-final version of George Carlin -- at the ripe old age of 51! -- was sparked by the 1984 death of his mother, the militarism and greed of the Reagan era, and the emergence of Sam Kinison, who inspired the older comic "to raise my level to where I wasn't lost in his dust." Nearly all of Carlin’s most widely quoted routines -- including "The Planet Is Fine," "We Like War" and "Religion Is Bullshit" -- were created during the last two decades of his life. By that stage, says Carlin in "Last Words," he had figured out that the most honest and useful forms of self-expression were attempts to solve "the giant puzzle: 'Who the fuck am I, how did I come together? What are the parts and how do they fit?'"

"7 Dirty Words" deepens Carlin's posthumous memoir by putting his evolution in context. Sullivan deftly mixes quotes from Carlin's friends, rivals, protégés, collaborators and employers with impeccably researched overviews of trends in radio, TV, the record industry and the nightclub circuit. The result is at once an engrossing account of Carlin's life that rarely lapses into hero worship, and a highly readable survey of 20th century popular culture, stretching from the last gasp of vaudeville during the Depression through the rise of premium cable and the Internet. No matter how much you know, or think you know, about American show business, you'll still learn a lot from this book.

The sections dealing with the "dirty words" case are especially good. Unlike Carlin in "Last Words," Sullivan explores the muddled fallout of the Supreme Court's decision -- a 5-4 vote in favor of the FCC that validated the government's ability to regulate the content of mass media without providing any guidelines. The decision, Sullivan writes, "passed on an opportunity to clarify which speech, if any, would be subjected to FCC reprimand moving forward." Timothy Jay, a psychology professor known as a "scholar of swearing," tells Sullivan, "One of the weaknesses of this decision is that the government offers no evidence that there's anything harmful about this speech." After the Carlin decision, the FCC has mostly passed up chances to spur more test cases. And with rare, usually silly exceptions, it has let artists, patrons and audiences decide what's appropriate, and watched along with every other private citizen as pop culture got bluer and bluer.

Sullivan's book is most valuable as a companion to "Last Words." The autobiography fills in half of Carlin's "giant puzzle" ("Who the fuck am I, how did I come together?"); "7 Dirty Words" completes the other half ("What are the parts and how do they fit?").

The autobiography, for example, represents Carlin's post-1988 work as a mostly unimpeded march toward total artistic integrity, briefly interrupted by heart attacks, tax problems and an ongoing struggle with drugs. Sullivan is more measured. Among other things, he shows that Carlin's desire to be loved and accepted was another kind of addiction from which he never completely recovered. He got involved in surprising, sometimes challenging non-stand-up work (including a rarely seen supporting turn as a grimy, limping, free-spirited trader in a TV miniseries version of Larry McMurtry's novel "Streets of Laredo"). But he also took on would-be moneymaking projects that evoked his diluted '60s clowning (notably "The George Carlin Show," a likable but lame Fox sitcom).

Such sidelights were rare, though. Both "Last Words" and "7 Dirty Words" agree that Carlin's last two decades focused on exploring and defining who he was and what he stood for, then pouring his realizations into his stand-up -- and that he was happier, more relevant and (paradoxically) richer and more influential as a result.

"Bum ticker and all, Carlin made it to 71," Sullivan writes, "defining a half-century in American comedy." Then he quotes his subject: "There's always hope for comedians. You notice how long fucking George Burns, Groucho Marx, Milton Berle and all those cocksuckers lived? I think it's because comedy gives you a way of renewing life energy. There's something about the release of tension that comes from being a comic, having a comic mind, that makes you live forever."

By Matt Zoller Seitz

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