Long before he went on stage and began to say “The Seven Words You Can Never Say On TV,” got arrested for it in Milwaukee and saw the battle over freedom of expression that it ignited rage all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, George Carlin had a different dream.
He was going to be a wholesome stand-up comic, the kind who could make little children laugh and delight their parents. No jokes about race or sex and every bodily function imaginable (some of them so outrageous they seemingly could only be imagined by Carlin).
No, he would emulate his childhood hero, Danny Kaye, the kindly, rubber-faced comedian who ruled over the decade that Carlin grew up in – the 1950s – with a clever but gentle humor reflective of its times.
Only problem was, it didn’t work for him.
“I was doing superficial comedy entertaining people who didn’t really care: businessmen, people in nightclubs, conservative people. And I had been doing that for the better part of 10 years when it finally dawned on me that I was in the wrong place doing the wrong things for the wrong people,” Carlin reflected as he prepared for his 14th HBO special, “It’s Bad For Ya.”
The program will be presented live – as were the first 13 – on Saturday night from the Wells Fargo Arts Center in Santa Rosa, Calif., north of San Francisco.
Although reluctant to reveal any of his new material before he delivers it to his audience, Carlin does acknowledge that the show will deal with the human race in general (his rather negative view of it), American culture in particular (his very negative view of that) and his lifelong fascination with words, including many of the four-letter variety.
“The overall theme is the B.S. in America,” says Carlin. (Actually, he used the full phrase, not the abbreviation, but if you’re a Carlin fan, you already knew that.)
A meticulous performer, the 70-year-old actor-comedian carefully hones every word in a routine until he has its expression, its meter, its meaning just right. Then he wields each one (even the dirty ones) like a musician would play his notes or a painter would manipulate his brush.
In a sense it all harks back to his first comic influence.
“Danny Kaye was my childhood dream when I was 10, 11,” Carlin says by phone from Las Vegas, where he has been fine-tuning the show.
“I kind of looked at that and thought, ‘Gee, I can do that.’ … He makes funny faces, he talks in funny accents and he can do very, very intricate vocal pieces.”
So Carlin, who marked his 50th year in show business in 2007, initially went the traditional comedy route. He put on a coat and tie and hit the nightclub circuit, doing parodies of TV game shows, news broadcasts, movie trailers and the like.
He worked in radio for a time, teamed for a couple years with fellow comic and longtime friend Jack Burns and eventually began to appear on every TV talk show of the day.
But somehow it never felt quite right.
“I was always out of step,” Carlin says. “I left school in ninth grade, I got kicked out of the Air Force, I got kicked out of the choir and the altar boys and summer camp and three schools and I was a pot smoker when I was 13 in the early ‘50s. I was always a lawbreaker and a kind of outlaw rebel.”
Still, the dean of counterculture comedians might have soldiered on in the suit and tie had it not been for one thing: the 1960s.
“I went through some changes, as the whole country did, in the ‘60s, and I took on a much more personal point of view and started doing a lot of autobiographical things about my childhood, my neighborhood, being Irish-Catholic, being a kid from Harlem,” he says.
“And then I graduated to more social themes. Over the years, language and social themes have kind of been my focus.”
The trim performer (to look at him you’d never know he’s suffered three heart attacks since 1978) also ditched the coat and tie for black shirt and pants, grew his hair long (when he still had hair) and added a beard.
The ‘60s weren’t entirely easy on him. Carlin has acknowledged battles with cocaine over the years and as recently as 2004 entered rehab to break a dependence on Vicodin and wine. He says his health is fine now.
Beginning in 1972, he began winning Grammys for best comedy album (he’s collected four so far, the last one in 2001).
It was also in 1972 that Carlin released the album “Class Clown,” containing arguably his most famous routine, “Seven Words.”
All seven can be said on cable television these days, but none of them can be reprinted here. Last month, ABC found itself in hot water when Diane Keaton said one of them during a broadcast of “Good Morning America.” Earlier this month NBC issued a public apology after Jane Fonda let loose with another one on the “Today” show.
When Carlin uttered all seven at a show in Milwaukee in 1972, he was arrested for disturbing the peace. And when they were played on a New York radio station, they resulted in a Supreme Court ruling in 1978 upholding the government’s authority to sanction stations for broadcasting offensive language.
“So my name is a footnote in American legal history, which I’m perversely kind of proud of,” he says.
Meanwhile, 23 comedy albums, 14 HBO specials, three books, a couple of TV shows and several movies later, if comedy has changed at all over the last half-century – if it’s gotten more liberal or more conservative – Carlin insists he couldn’t tell you.
All he knows, he says, is that people keep coming to his shows and the audience seems to range from about 15 to 50.
“HBO keeps me out in front of people. and it cuts through all the demographics,” he says of the specials he does every two or three years.
“All I know is I go out there, the place is dark, I can’t see them, and I do my bit.”
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