Remembering George Carlin

George Carlin may be the last comedian who comes to mind when you think of family-friendly entertainment, but my sister and I grew up on his routines, thanks to my mom, who used to play his album A Place for My Stuff on long car trips. I’ve never memorized Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address or Hamlet’s "To be or not to be" soliloquy, but to this day, I could probably repeat Carlin’s "Ice Box Man" routine verbatim, even though I haven’t heard it for 25 years. (You can listen to it here, starting about five and a half minutes in. The bit contains one NSFW word.) Gen Y-ers may have first been introduced to him as Mr. Conductor on PBS’ Shining Time Station, and viewers younger still may know him only as a voice from Pixar’s Cars. Carlin, who died yesterday at 71, left us with a vast legacy of classic bits covering all aspects of modern life, not just the angry, profane, decidedly adult corner for which he’ll most likely be remembered.

Carlin was a master of the observational, "Didja ever notice…" humor that is every comic’s stock-in-trade now, but in his case, it wasn’t just random musings; his accounting of our absurd, illogical behavioral tics all added up to a larger point about human folly, hypocrisy, and superstition. Carlin was a satirist of the first rank; just last week, he was named the 2008 winner of the Mark Twain prize for his lifetime of comic work, and he would have been feted at America’s most hilarious annual awards ceremony later this year. Like many satirists, he became even more bitter and angry with age, and his view of human nature was supremely pessimistic, but the way he would marshal the prosecutorial evidence against our feckless species over the course of an evening, it was hard not to agree with his logic — or to laugh ruefully along with him.

Having worked in marketing before his comedy career took off, Carlin had an especially fine ear for language, for the way we use words to mislead rather than to reveal truth. When it came to uncovering the hidden agendas behind language (as in the "Baseball and Football" routine embedded at the top of this post) or deconstructing the taboos behind certain words (as in the "Seven Words You Can’t Say on Television" routine, his most famous and notorious bit), he was better than a media studies class. I know I have a finer ear for what makes language tick, for the unspoken agendas behind advertising and political propaganda, and for what’s clear and unclear in my own writing, because of all the time I’ve spent listening to Carlin.

I don’t want to make Carlin sound like spinach. He was an entertainer first and foremost; just last week, he was playing Vegas. But there was always a message behind the laughs, and that message was usually: Think for yourself. Maybe that’s why I never got tired of hearing his routines over and over, and why I think everyone who’s mature enough should not go through life without hearing (and laughing heartily through) the "Seven Words" routine at least once. I’ve embedded it after the jump; it’s very NSFW, which is, of course, the point.

Here’s the intro, animated à la South Park by a fan.

Here’s the rest of the routine, slightly updated from the original 1972 version.

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  • Henry

    I was one of the children introduced to Carlin as Mr. Conductor for Shining Time Station that you mentioned. As I’ve grown in the intervening years, I’ve loved listening to Carlin’s routines and reading his books over and over again. Sad day…

  • Tuzo

    A master of stand up comedy and trail blazer for many who followed. He will be missed.

  • Jayel

    When I was a kid, my parents had one of those “console” stereos that look like a big wooden sideboard. Open the lid, and there was a turntable on the right and a big slot for 33 rpm albums on the other. When I turned 12 and finally got my own room, I inherited this ugly but highly useful piece of furniture, and, to my great delight, nobody remembered to clear my parents’ album collection out of it first. In amidst ‘Abbey Road’ and ‘Eat a Peach,’ I found ‘Class Clown,’ the Carlin album on which the Seven Words routine appeared. The whole album was a revelation to me and my slumber party compatriots – we laughed so hard and loud, we woke my parents and gave ourselves away. My mom was a little freaked out, but my dad insisted she let us keep it on the grounds that it was true and used no words we hadn’t all heard before.
    I think I ended up memorizing most of the album.

  • Winona

    I know him from his hilarious stand-up routines (and cameos in Kevin Smith films); my toddler only knows him as Fillmore. He will definitely be missed. I’m off to YouTube for some more memories (and to find a place to put all my stuff)!

  • Dixie

    RIP George. The world is a cooler place for having had you in it.

  • BrandonK

    The world is a little less cynical now that he’s gone, and I’ll miss him. As much as we need people who inspire us and encourage us to be better than we are, we need people who remind us how petty and silly we can be. It’s the same job, really, just a different approach. Also, he was hilarious.

  • Ries

    a true genius. thanks for the laughs george.

  • karen b

    The first thing I did (in 1995) when I got my first apartment and total control of the answering machine recording, was utilize the recording of George Carlin’s seven words. My mother was not amused. But I was!

  • Jason

    Wow!! I’m shocked and deeply saddened by the loss of one of America’s best comic minds. Growing up in a small, ultra conservative town in south Louisiana was hard since I was not in line with most of the community’s views, but then George came along and opened my eyes. What a legend…he will be deeply missed. Thank you for breaking through the barriers and helping others to see that it is alright to not agree or believe everything we are told.

  • KateDFW

    When I heard on the radio this morning I literally stopped dead in my tracks and started crying. George Carlin was truly one of a kind and the likes of him will never been seen again. He was relevant, cynical, harsh, controversial and above all he was honest! He will be missed now and forever.

  • Anonymous

    I hope that HBO will pay tribute to him by running all of his comedy specials back to back this weekend!

  • Ken Ciccone

    Deeply saddened by the loss of one of the worlds greatest comedians, I have no words to describe what a shock it was to find out he passed. My heart and laughs go out to you George, you will be missed greatly.

  • Ei

    So sad. Just thought that George would always be around. we enjoyed him immensely. He will be missed very much.

  • jen

    He was a true prophet for those who value reason.


    dang i hate this man died…
    he is part of my life today..
    he learned me that cussing was cool
    if used in the right way lol

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