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George Carlin mourned as counterculture hero

Associated Press Modified: June 23, 2008 at 12:44 pm •  Published: June 23, 2008
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LOS ANGELES (AP) -- Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television. Some People Are Stupid. Stuff. People I Can Do Without. George Carlin, who died of heart failure Sunday at 71, leaves behind not only a series of memorable routines, but a legal legacy: His most celebrated monologue, a frantic, informed riff on those infamous seven words, led to a Supreme Court decision on broadcasting offensive language.

The counterculture hero's jokes also targeted things such as misplaced shame, religious hypocrisy and linguistic quirks - why, he once asked, do we drive on a parkway and park on a driveway?

Carlin, who had a history of heart trouble, went into St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica on Sunday afternoon complaining of chest pain and died later that evening, said his publicist, Jeff Abraham. He had performed as recently as last weekend at the Orleans Casino and Hotel in Las Vegas.

"He was a genius and I will miss him dearly," Jack Burns, who was the other half of a comedy duo with Carlin in the early 1960s, told The Associated Press.

The actor Ben Stiller called Carlin "a hugely influential force in stand-up comedy. He had an amazing mind, and his humor was brave, and always challenging us to look at ourselves and question our belief systems, while being incredibly entertaining. He was one of the greats."

Carlin constantly breached the accepted boundaries of comedy and language, particularly with his routine on the "Seven Words" - all of which are taboo on broadcast TV to this day.

When he uttered all seven at a show in Milwaukee in 1972, he was arrested on charges of disturbing the peace, freed on $150 bail and exonerated when a Wisconsin judge dismissed the case, saying it was indecent but citing free speech and the lack of any disturbance.

When the words were later played on a New York radio station, they resulted in a 1978 Supreme Court ruling upholding the government's authority to sanction stations for broadcasting offensive language during hours when children might be listening.

"So my name is a footnote in American legal history, which I'm perversely kind of proud of," he told The Associated Press earlier this year.

Despite his reputation as unapologetically irreverent, Carlin was a television staple through the decades, serving as host of the "Saturday Night Live" debut in 1975 - noting on his Web site that he was "loaded on cocaine all week long" - and appearing some 130 times on "The Tonight Show."

He produced 23 comedy albums, 14 HBO specials, three books, a few TV shows and appeared in several movies, from his own comedy specials to "Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure" in 1989 - a testament to his range from cerebral satire and cultural commentary to downright silliness (sometimes hitting all points in one stroke).

"Why do they lock gas station bathrooms?" he once mused. "Are they afraid someone will clean them?"

In one of his most famous routines, Carlin railed against euphemisms he said have become so widespread that no one can simply "die."

"'Older' sounds a little better than 'old,' doesn't it?," he said. "Sounds like it might even last a little longer. ... I'm getting old. And it's OK. Because thanks to our fear of death in this country I won't have to die - I'll 'pass away.' Or I'll 'expire,' like a magazine subscription. If it happens in the hospital they'll call it a 'terminal episode.' The insurance company will refer to it as 'negative patient care outcome.' And if it's the result of malpractice they'll say it was a 'therapeutic misadventure.'"

Carlin won four Grammy Awards for best spoken comedy album and was nominated for five Emmys. On Tuesday, it was announced that Carlin was being awarded the 11th annual Mark Twain Prize for American Humor, which will be presented Nov. 10 in Washington and broadcast on PBS.

"Nobody was funnier than George Carlin," said Judd Apatow, director of recent hit comedies such as "Knocked Up" and "The 40-Year-Old Virgin." "I spent half my childhood in my room listening to his records experiencing pure joy. And he was as kind as he was funny."

Carlin started his career on the traditional nightclub circuit in a coat and tie, pairing with Burns to spoof TV game shows, news and movies. Perhaps in spite of the outlaw soul, "George was fairly conservative when I met him," said Burns, describing himself as the more left-leaning of the two. It was a degree of separation that would reverse when they came upon Lenny Bruce, the original shock comic, in the early '60s.

Guest book: George Carlin AP photo gallery: George Carlin AP video: George Carlin dies

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Oklahoma ties: George Carlin

  • The comedian stopped in Oklahoma several times to perform his stand-up routine, his last visit being Jan. 25 at the Chapman Music Hall in the Tulsa Performing Arts Center.

  • Carlin’s other known Oklahoma appearances were in 2007 (Shawnee’s Firelake Grand Casino), 2005 (Oklahoma City Civic Center), 1997 (Civic Center), 1977 (Norman’s Lloyd Noble Center), 1976 (Lloyd Noble) and 1975 (Civic Center).

  • The Oklahoman columnist Ann DeFrange interviewed Carlin prior to his 1977 show, which was one of only eight stops on that tour. “I just go out for what I need,” Carlin said. “I don’t need all the money in the world.”

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