Honor Thy Elders

In the film classic Network, the most watchable character is a formerly staid newsman who becomes deranged and hysterically spouts real news and societal truths on the air. Rather than take the psychotic off, the executives give him even more airtime -- because he brings in ratings, which brings in money, which feeds the very monster he rails against.

Philosopher/comedian George Carlin (it doesn't seem right to simply call him "comic") is a lot like that newsman -- except a hell of a lot funnier. For over 40 years, Carlin's unique views have fueled his hugely successful comedy records, cable specials, TV appearances and books. Even at the age of 62, when many performers of his era are content to replay their "greatest hits," Carlin is still looking to dissect and disembowel the latest scam, the newest rip-off, the yuppie hype du jour.

Born in New York City in 1937, George Carlin began his professional career in radio and later developed comedy routines with partner Jack Burns. The duo split in the early '60s to pursue solo careers, and Carlin found work and freedom in the coffee houses of the burgeoning Greenwich Village scene. It was here that he developed familiar characters such as Wonderful Wino and the Hippy Dippy Weatherman.

Through the rest of the decade he was a familiar face on those ubiquitous middle-of-the-road talk shows, where he kept his comedy safe. "I never questioned myself until the '60s wore on and I began to hear the musical artists who were expressing their thoughts and values and ideas through their art," Carlin recently told High Times magazine. "I was not. I was doing a superficial act that would make me safe and cute to people so that they'd put me in their movies."

The final straw came when he was fired from a hotel for saying "shit" on stage. By 1969, he was returning to his rebellious antiestablishment firebrand tone, combining his counterculture and blue-collar personas. It was this George Carlin that clicked with a hip audience. Robert Klein, Bill Cosby and Bob Newhart were for old folks and squares. The younger set, primed by the comedic controversy and new direction of Lenny Bruce, was turning on to people like Carlin and Richard Pryor -- not just for laughs, but for social truths.

Several wildly successful comedy albums -- FM & AM, Occupation: Foole and Class Clown -- made him a household name in the '70s and spawned his most famous bit of comedy and First Amendment clarion call: "The Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television."

Later his raw humor actually got him on then-fledgling cable TV, leading to more than 20 years of HBO specials. But his underrated George Carlin Show died a quick death on Fox TV in 1993, and Carlin sought revived success in the seemingly out-of-place roles of author (his Brain Droppings recently spent 18 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list) and -- believe it or not -- children's TV star ("Mister Conductor" on PBS's Shining Time Station).

Today Carlin still performs more than 150 concert dates each year, changing his material almost daily. And though a coronary artery disease checks him at times (his most recent HBO special was called You Are All Diseased), his act is fit and wiry.

As for his trademark rant, things have changed a bit over the years -- perhaps, in part, because he has changed the world. In 1999 you can say at least one of the Seven Dirty Words on television, and you can see all of them in print. So in honor of the great George Carlin, here we go: shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, tits.

George Carlin performs Saturday, September 18, at 8 p.m. at the Arena Theatre, 7326 Southwest Freeway. Tickets are $30. Call (713)988-1020.

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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero