SANTA MONICA - George Carlin, one of the first comedians and social commentators who could be considered a true heir of the legendary Lenny Bruce, died of heart failure at St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica shortly before 6 p.m. Sunday.
Carlin went to the hospital Sunday afternoon because "his heart just didn't feel right," said his publicist Jeff Abraham. Carlin had had a history of heart problems, having suffered multiple heart attacks over the years.
Born in the Bronx in 1937 and raised by his single mother, Carlin dropped out of high school in the ninth grade and joined the Air Force in 1954, receiving a general discharge in 1957 after three courts-martial and several disciplinary punishments.
However, while still in the service, Carlin began working as an off-base disk jockey at a radio station in Shreveport, La., moved to Boston to work at WEZE in 1957, then to KXOL in Fort Worth, Tex. in 1959. While in Texas, Carlin teamed with then-news reporter Jack Burns to perform comedy routines at The Cellar, a notorious Fort Worth all-night club and coffeehouse, where Carlin honed, among others, his "Hippy-Dippy Weatherman" routine. Carlin had also worked a variety of other jobs, including as a carnival organist and market director for a peanut brittle manufacturer.
"George was fairly conservative when I met him," Burns said in an interview with the Associated Press.
But that all changed when the pair caught Lenny Bruce's act one evening.
"We were working in Chicago, and we went to see Lenny, and we were both blown away," Burns said, recalling the moment as the beginning of the end for their collaboration if not their close friendship. "It was an epiphany for George. The comedy we were doing at the time wasn't exactly groundbreaking, and George knew then that he wanted to go in a different direction."
In 1960, Carlin and Burns left Texas for Hollywood to try out the club circuit as Burns & Carlin, and the pair scored an appearance on the "Tonight Show" with Jack Paar, but the duo parted ways shortly thereafter.
Fast-forwarding a decade, Carlin was first arrested in Milwaukee in 1972 on charges of disturbing the peace for performing his now-famous routine, Seven Dirty Words You Can't Say On Television , but the charges were dismissed when the judge found that the routine was indecent but protected speech, also noting that Carlin hadn't created any disturbance for uttering the words.
But "[a]t about 2 o'clock in the afternoon on Tuesday, October 30, 1973," NYC radio station WBAI played a 12-minute recording of Carlin's monologue when he had delivered before a live audience in a California theater - and the world of broadcasting would not be the same for at least the next 35 years.
"A few weeks later," wrote Justice John Paul Stevens for the U.S. Supreme Court in the case of Federal Communications Commission (FCC) v. Pacifica Foundation, "a man, who stated that he had heard the broadcast while driving with his young son, wrote a letter complaining to the Commission. He stated that, although he could perhaps understand the 'record's being sold for private use, I certainly cannot understand the broadcast of same over the air that, supposedly, you control.'"
"The complaint was forwarded to the station for comment," Stevens continued. "In its response, Pacifica explained that the monologue had been played during a program about contemporary society's attitude toward language and that, immediately before its broadcast, listeners had been advised that it included 'sensitive language which might be regarded as offensive to some.' Pacifica characterized George Carlin as 'a significant social satirist' who 'like Twain and Sahl before him, examines the language of ordinary people. . . . Carlin is not mouthing obscenities, he is merely using words to satirize as harmless and essentially silly our attitudes towards those words.' Pacifica stated that it was not aware of any other complaints about the broadcast."
The FCC, of course, didn't take the same attitude that Pacifica had, and essentially put a black mark on Pacifica's record, which, of other complaints were received, might affect the station's license renewal.
Pacifica sued, and eventually, the case wound up before the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, where two of the judges found that the FCC was barred its action.
"Judge Tamm concluded that the order represented censorship and was expressly prohibited by [Sec.] 326 of the Communications Act," Justice Stevens wrote. "Alternatively, Judge Tamm read the Commission opinion as the functional equivalent of a rule and concluded that it was overbroad.' Chief Judge Bazelon's concurrence rested on the Constitution. He was persuaded that 326's prohibition against censorship is inapplicable to broadcasts forbidden by [18 U.S.C. Sec.] 1464. However, he concluded that 1464 must be narrowly construed to cover only language that is obscene or otherwise unprotected by the First Amendment." [Citations omitted here and below]
The Supreme Court reversed that decision.
"When the issue is narrowed to the facts of this case, the question is whether the First Amendment denies government any power to restrict the public broadcast of indecent language in any circumstances," Judge Stevens analyzed.
"[T]he broadcast media have established a uniquely pervasive presence in the lives of all Americans," Stevens concluded. "Patently offensive, indecent material presented over the airwaves confronts the citizen, not only in public, but also in the privacy of the home, where the individual's right to be left alone plainly outweighs the First Amendment rights of an intruder. Because the broadcast audience is constantly tuning in and out, prior warnings cannot completely protect the listener or viewer from unexpected program content. To say that one may avoid further offense by turning off the radio when he hears indecent language is like saying that the remedy for an assault is to run away after the first blow. One may hang up on an indecent phone call, but that option does not give the caller a constitutional immunity or avoid a harm that has already taken place."
"Second, broadcasting is uniquely accessible to children, even those too young to read," he continued. "Although Cohen's [Cohen v. California] written message might have been incomprehensible to a first grader, Pacifica's broadcast could have enlarged a child's vocabulary in an instant. Other forms of offensive expression may be withheld from the young without restricting the expression at its source. Bookstores and motion picture theaters, for example, may be prohibited from making indecent material available to children. We held in Ginsberg v. New York, that the government's interest in the 'well-being of its youth' and in supporting 'parents' claim to authority in their own household' justified the regulation of otherwise protected expression. The case with which children may obtain access to broadcast material, coupled with the concerns recognized in Ginsberg, amply justify special treatment of indecent broadcasting."
"So my name is a footnote in American legal history, which I'm perversely kind of proud of," Carlin told The Associated Press earlier this year.
But Carlin's talent led him to more than 130 appearances on the "Tonight Show," to be the guest host on the debut of "NBC's Saturday Night" (now known as "Saturday Night Live") in September, 1975, to produce 23 comedy albums, 14 HBO specials, three books, a TV series, several TV specials, more than a dozen appearances in theatrical films and as a voice actor in several others.
Several clips from Carlin's performances can be found here.
Carlin's comedy CDs and videos can be purchased here.
Carlin is survived by wife Sally Wade; daughter Kelly Carlin McCall; son-in-law Bob McCall; brother Patrick Carlin; and sister-in-law Marlene Carlin.
"If Tim Russert's death warranted ad nauseum coverage and tributes for more than a week just about everywhere you turned," wrote Kevin Wuzzardo of No. Carolina TV station WWAY-TV3, "then we ought to stop running programming on every channel for a month to properly honor George Carlin. He was more than a comedian. He was a pioneer, a rebel and a man with a legacy few will ever match."